Delivering Instructions That Everyone Can Understand

4MAT - Delivering Instruction That Everyone Can Understand

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Use a simple "game plan" to help your team learn.

We're all familiar with times in our life when we really "connected" with instructors, making learning a real pleasure and making acquisition of new skills almost effortless.

And we'll also remember times when we just weren't "on the same wavelength" as someone we had to learn from. Learning became a difficult, unpleasant, slow chore.

And at times when we may have trained others, perhaps in a formal training role or in passing knowledge on to our teams, we've probably found teaching some people easy, while others seem to have difficulty even with really simple things.

What's particularly frustrating is that the mismatches of style that cause many of these learning difficulties have long lasting effects, in terms both of personal outcomes and of team member and team performance.

4MAT is a different approach to instruction that seeks to overcome these differences in style, engage all learners, and present information in a format and using an approach which suits all.

If you are responsible for training and coaching team members or others (and most managers and professionals are, to some degree), then you need to know 4MAT and use it to a greater or lesser extent if you are to get the best from all of the people you are developing.

Important Ideas 1: "Learning Styles"

David Kolb's ideas of experiential learning and learning styles lie at the root of 4MAT. Kolb (a well-respected learning guru) argued that there are four different learning styles, and that different people prefer different approaches for learning information:

  • The "Converger" style: preferring concepts and active experimentation.
  • The "Diverger" style: preferring practical experience and reflection.
  • The "Assimilator" style: preferring abstract modelling and theoretical reasoning.
  • The "Accommodator" style: preferring practical experience and active testing.

Now, these terms are quite difficult to grasp and remember. Peter Honey and Alan Mumford proposed a similar approach with much more intuitive terms:

  • "Reflectors": who like to stand back and gather information before coming to a conclusion.
  • "Theorists": who want to fully understand the theory behind a subject before they feel comfortable with it.
  • "Activists": who want to learn by diving straight into new experiences, and don't particularly like theory.
  • "Pragmatists": who want to see the practical use of what they're learning, and want practical techniques. Theory can follow later...

The argument is that where an instructor caters to a learning style you like, you find learning quick and easy. But where an instructor has a different preferred approach from the one you like, learning can be difficult and unsatisfying.

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And as an instructor, while you might instinctively like one style, you'll have to take the learning needs of people who prefer other styles into account if you're to train them effectively.

Important Ideas 2: "Experiential Learning"

Kolb also argued that adults learn many types of skills most effectively by learning from experience ("experiential learning"). This involves learning through the following steps:

  1. Taking an action and seeing its effects.
  2. Understanding that this effect will reliably follow from this action.
  3. Forming a generalized mental principle or rule about what's happening.
  4. Testing this rule (loops back to 1).

4MAT (developed by Bernice McCarthy at www.aboutlearning.com) is a process you can use to train people in a way that suits all learning styles and which incorporates Kolb's ideas on the stages of experiential learning.

Using the Tool

At the heart of 4MAT is a 12-step learning cycle that learners go through as they learn new skills. Effective instructors work with this cycle, seeking to engage the learner; provide information, knowledge and theory; deliver the skills being taught; and cement the knowledge learned. This process is shown below:

Figure 1: The 4MAT Process

4MAT Process Diagram

Reproduced with thanks to Bernice McCarthy of www.aboutlearning.com.

During the first three steps of the cycle, your focus as an instructor is on winning the attention of your learners, and engaging their interest in the subject. You are seeking to help them understand the real value (to them) of what you're saying, and get the learner to think about how what you're saying fits in with and enhances his or her existing experience.

During steps four to six, you build learners' knowledge, and encourage them to find out facts for themselves. In doing this, you help learners make connections between what they already know and what you are teaching. And by finding out facts for themselves, they learn the broader context into which information fits. This all helps to build a good theoretical foundation of the subject.

During steps seven to nine, you teach the practical skills that come from the theory, and encourage learners to test their understanding of the material. This is where learners confirm and refine their understanding, and apply and generalize the information they've learned.

Finally, during steps ten to twelve, you encourage learners to extend creatively their use of the skills you've taught. This gives practice in the new skills, and helps them reinforce and "cement" their learning.

By structuring a learning session using this approach, you can engage and satisfy people who learn best with all of the different learning styles:

  • Reflectors get the opportunity to gather information and reflect before they come to a conclusion.
  • Theorists get the chance to learn new ideas and fit them into existing theories before they put them into practice.
  • Activists get the opportunity to "dive in" at an appropriate stage of the process, and learn and try out new techniques.
  • Pragmatists see the techniques they're learning firmly grounded in reality, with practical benefit and relevance explained from the outset.

Tip 1:

Here we're looking at the central part of 4MAT: it's a sophisticated system, and there's a lot of surrounding information. To find out more, visit Bernice McCarthy's site at http://www.aboutlearning.com or read her book About Learning, which is available at Amazon.com.

Tip 2:

Different situations often attract people with different preferred learning styles, and people often self-select themselves into groups (or even professions?) with preferred approaches. If you find that your audiences (or members of your audience) have a strongly dominant preferred learning approach, you need to adjust your approach to cater for this. Also, different types of information need different approaches. As ever, use your common sense to decide the approach you use.

Tip 3:

You can find out more at the following URLs:

Also, there's a lot of cross-over here with the Myers Briggs types.


We're not going to give an example here: rather, we're going to ask you to think about this a little.

Which of the Honey and Mumford learning styles most describes your preferred way of learning (even if it is a bit of one, and most of another)? And when you think about the people you have to instruct or coach in your day-to-day life, what learning styles and aptitudes do they show? (Incidentally, try asking them which of the approaches they prefer!) What does this tell you about the teaching approach you should use?

And when you think back to past learning sessions you've experienced, were there approaches that worked well for you, and ones which fell flat? For example, are you a theorist, who was bored by practical work at school? Or a pragmatist who just couldn't get on with pure mathematics? And were there teachers from whom you just couldn't learn, who you now realize just weren't on the same learning "wavelength" as yourself?

Again, what does this tell you about your instructional approach? And, knowing this, what are you going to do?

Key Points

At the heart of 4MAT is a twelve stage process which you can use to structure a learning session to ensure that people with preferences for different learning styles can get the most from them. By using 4MAT, you can adopt an approach that will help all of your people learn effectively from you, not just those who happen to share your preferred approach to learning.

In the first three steps of the cycle, your task is to win the attention of your learners and engage their interest.

During steps four to six, you give them information they need, and help them build their own knowledge of the subject.

During steps seven to nine, you teach the skills the learners need, and encourage them to test and apply these theories.

And during steps ten to twelve, you encourage learners to creatively extend the use of skills and internalize the knowledge they've gained.