How do you learn more quickly and thoroughly? Some say they learn best through hearing and speaking about new concepts. Others prefer visual presentations. Kinesthetic learning is a preferred style for some. That is, they like to touch and get their whole body involved. Is your best learning sequentially (step-by-step) or holistically (examining the big picture and then delving into specific details)?
I’ve listed only five of the more than 70 hypotheses of learning styles that psychologists have developed since David Kolb’s revolutionary work, "Experiential Learning," introduced the idea in 1984. The concept has a natural appeal that learners are individuals. Ten years later, Alison King reinforced the notion when she advised teachers to stop being the "sage on the stage" and become the "guide on the side."
The assumption is that tailoring education and training to a learner's style will result in improved learning. Does it? A survey shows that 94 percent of teachers believe so. Much research also claims that it does, but controversy abounds. In 2004, University of London education professor Frank Coffield examined 13 models and found that only three measured what they intended and produced consistent results. No overarching model emerged. In 2008, Pashler et al conducted a meta-analysis (analyzing all available studies) and drew three conclusions.
Their first conclusion was that learners do indeed differ from one another. For example, some learners may have more ability, more interest, or more background than their classmates. Second, students do express preferences for how they like information to be presented to them… Third, after a careful analysis of the literature, the researchers found no evidence showing that people do in fact learn better when an instructor tailors their teaching style to mesh with their preferred learning style.
The idea of matching lessons to learning styles may be a fashionable trend that will go out of style itself. In the meantime, what are teachers and trainers to do? My advice is to leave the arguments to the academics. Here are some common-sense guidelines in planning a session of learning.
Follow your instincts. If you're teaching music or speech, for example, wouldn't auditory-based lessons make the most sense? You wouldn’t teach geography with lengthy descriptions of a coastline's contours when simply showing a map would capture the essence in a heartbeat, right?
Since people clearly express learning style preferences, why not train them in their preferred style? If you give them what they want, they'll be much more likely to stay engaged and expand their learning.
When training your team, present material in a variety of formats. Supplement the talk with a slide show. Distribute handouts that team members can touch, notate and take home for reflection. When appropriate, use a tangible supplement, something they can hold, or conduct a group exercise. At worst, a team member might ignore a format or two, but one will click. At best, each format will reinforce the learning of the others in this layered approach.
What materials do you have for your session? If you have a fabulous image, a sticky expression, web-clip, demonstration, or exercise – use it! All learning styles will appreciate and learn when the training tool is of impeccable quality.
Know your audience. Regardless of the learning style that you are trying to appeal to, if your sessions are not matching their existing skill and ability levels, your training won't be effective.
The esoteric questions about learning styles remind me of those about personality types. With both, we know they exist. We just struggle to find the right boxes to package them in. Pay attention to what works. Get feedback. And always be looking to improve.