Is knowing different learning styles worth the effort?

Learning styles are like fashion trends – in one year, out the next. Some learning and development thought leaders think they matter, but one thinks they’re mostly hype.

When planning a training session, do you take time to consider different learning styles? Trainers shy away from this area because so many theories exist about how people prefer to learn, making it confusing. Different models are drawn from a range of fields such as psychology and neuroscience. Some theorists believe that learning styles are rooted in our genes, while others believe our experiences shape the way we learn.

However, there are some points to consider from these theories that could help trainers understand how to encourage learners to take in information more effectively. One popular theory is the Vak (visual, auditory, kinaesthetic) approach, which categorises learners into these three learning styles. It means devising learning activities that involve seeing, listening and doing.

This approach can be attractive to trainers because of its simplicity. But instead of using this theory to identify which learners fall into which category, Lisa Vernon, head of policy and research at Campaign for Learning, says trainers should include a range of activities that enable learning through all the senses.

“This may mean ensuring that in an hour of training, participants listen to 20 minutes of talking, have 20 minutes of visual materials and 20 minutes of doing an activity linked to this information using as many senses as possible.”

Learning cycles

Another key model is David Kolb’s learning theory, which sets out four learning styles based on a four-stage learning cycle. The theory is that concrete experiences provide the basis for reflective learning, which is distilled into abstract concepts that are actively tested – again creating new experiences. With this in mind, trainers should give learners the opportunity to touch each of these bases in a session. “This approach recognises that there are different phases in learning cycles and each phase requires a particular learning approach,” says Vernon.

Kolb’s experiential learning theories also highlight the need for reflective time, where learners can take stock of what they have learned. “This might take the form of a learning diary, or a group discussion or longer tea break,” suggests Vernon.

One popular adaptation of Kolb’s work is the Honey and Mumford learning styles questionnaire. The main learning styles identified in this self-assessment questionnaire are activists, who are described as have-a-go learners; reflectors, who are tell-me learners; theorists, who are convince-me learners; and pragmatists, who are show-me learners.

Chartered psychologist Dr Peter Honey, who designed the questionnaire, believes that trainers can’t help people to learn effectively unless they know about learning styles. “Once they know people’s preferences, they can make informed choices about which methods to employ. They can adapt the training to either dovetail with a particular style, such as loads of hands-on stuff for activists or plenty of frameworks, models and theories for theorists. Or they can stretch people by getting them to use an under-used style and expand their repertoire.”

But it’s not just in the classroom that learning preferences can be useful. LearnDirect learning and technology manager Sara Bingham says it can be useful to refer to Honey and Mumford’s learning styles when deciding which people could get the most out of e-learning programmes. “Reflectors in particular like the low-risk model of learning through working at their own pace,” she says.

Maximising appeal

According to Bingham, learning styles are increasingly being taken into account when designing e-learning to help maximise appeal. “Theorists like to see diagrams and illustrations; ensuring e-learning has this visual content is important. Pragmatists, on the other hand, are more interested in real-life scenarios, so include lots of case studies, examples and action plans.

“An interesting development we are seeing in e-learning is a move to more games-based activities, which allow learners to get stuck in – this type of feature appeals more to activists. If an e-learning package is designed well, it can meet the needs of all these different learning styles,” she says.

Back in the classroom, Honey says that many trainers are only paying lip service to learning styles. “An example of this is getting everyone to do the questionnaire and then ignoring the results and carrying on regardless of learning style preferences. This is widespread. Most trainers use methods they are familiar with and enjoy regardless of their relevance to learners’ needs,” he says.

But, according to Vernon, taking the time to consider learning styles is worth the effort. “The more people are aware of their own learning preference and those of others, the more engaged they become and the more effective the group dynamics become,” she says.

The other side

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s learning, training and development adviser Martyn Sloman warns against taking learning styles too seriously.

“There is a lot of hype about learning styles that bears no relation to what happens in practice. Honey and Mumford have done some outstanding work and their theory is the dominant tool used in the classroom to discuss learning styles. But there is no evidence to support any one learning style,” he says. “Learners perform better if a range of methods are used. However, whether this is down to cognitive style or boredom is debatable. The idea of flexing material around different learning styles is nonsense. Training is a craft skill where information should be presented in multiple formats.”

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