Tip #117: Learning Styles

A few weeks ago, W. Gene Coburn, who is a wonderful trainer and a very funny man, got frustrated with a group of training participants. He asked them to turn their left hands palm up, take their right middle finger and place it over the vein on their left wrists. Then, with a deadpan expression, he asked them to check, “Are you still alive?”

All trainers have experienced that very same frustration, where we have no idea if our learners are “getting it” or even breathing! However, as distressing as that is from our perspective, imagine what it must be like from the learners’ perspective! They are frequently subjected to training methods that do not meet their needs.

Many of us are familiar with the idea that, to be effective communicators, we need to package our message differently to meet the communication needs of different personality types. However, some trainers still persist in subjecting their audiences to only one training method, consciously or unconsciously chosen because it is:

  • what is most frequently modeled in colleges and universities (by individuals who have attained tenure because of their research, not their teaching ability!);
  • how the individual trainer personally learns; or
  • what the trainer finds most comfortable to facilitate.

There are numerous models of learning styles, from the very simple to the quite complex. Even if we apply the most basic model, we can see why one training method cannot fit all learners’ needs. Generally based on the senses, this model identifies visual learners who rely on sight, auditory learners who rely on hearing, and kinesthetic learners who require movement.

Strictly speaking, lecture, otherwise known as a talking head!, satisfies only the auditory learner. Reading materials satisfy only the visual learner. Hands on exercises satisfy only the kinesthetic learner. A reliance on just one training method can alienate 2/3rds of the learners, unless the trainer consciously ensures that all of their needs are met.

For example, a small group discussion can be structured so that the participants read some information in their handout materials (making the visual learners happy), discuss their ideas (making the auditory learners happy), and stand up to write their conclusions on a flip chart (making the kinesthetic learners happy).

A lecture (favorable to auditory learners) can be enhanced with visual aids (favorable to visual learners) and supplemented with a question and answer session in which participants pop up with the answers (favorable to kinesthetic learners).

A role play can easily meet the needs of all three learning styles, in that there are roles to read (visual), communication to be exchanged (auditory), and interaction- either by moving to work in the role play groups or by standing up to conduct the role play (kinesthetic).

A trainer does not have to use three different training methods to meet the needs of the three different learning styles. Simply using a method that has enough depth and dimension to engage the three senses will suffice. This is important to keep in mind as we consider models with more than three learning styles!

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