The concept of learning styles is one of those ubiquitous “truths” that are passed around in education and training circles without a second thought. It seems right; therefore, it must be right.
Learning styles are a little like going to a psychic: The information is general enough that you can think of how you fit into a style based on already accepted assumptions you have about yourself. You like music? You must be an auditory learner! Like film? You are clearly a visual learner!
The fact is that humans don’t diverge that much in how we learn, even as we diverge in our preferences. There is no evidence to support learning styles, even as educators and trainers flock to the idea.
A 2014 study delivered content to test the theory and found no significant correlations between learning retention and methods of delivery. Studies from 2009, 2017 and 2018 all debunk learning styles. Content from Training Industry, Inc. and ATD also dismantle this educational myth. This is good news: We may have variations in our preferences and our capacity, but we are all capable of learning. Instead of developing training based on learning styles, here are four evidence-based best practices to follow.
1. Let the Content Shape the Instruction.
The content itself should shape how it is taught. How many times have you heard someone say, “You can know it intellectually, but until you have done it, you didn’t learn it”? If you’re learning about music, listening to an orchestra, playing an instrument or watching a performance may be the best way to learn. Reading about music does not have the same impact, because there is a disconnect between the content and the delivery. This example includes listening (auditory) and playing an instrument (kinesthetic). That blended approach helps improve learning.
For another example, in sales training, you can use different methods to train learners on knowledge, skills and behaviors. It may be best to teach straightforward product knowledge in the form of an interactive learning guide, where learners move through modules and activities to attain the knowledge they need. Developing skills, on the other hand, often requires more of a hands-on approach, such as role-play. For behaviors, simulations can show learners what “good” looks like, and then they can practice and reflect on how to move from good sales techniques to great ones. A comprehensive program that blends all three of these methods is a trifecta for success.
2. Build Engagement into Training.
A key feature of learning is engagement. It’s not that we have auditory, kinesthetic, visual or verbal learning styles but that we engage the world through our senses and make meaning using our bodies and our brains. In order to learn, we take in information, think about the world around us, consider our experiences and then fit new information into that previous system.
This process requires learner engagement, which trainers can foster through interactivity. Build activities into the system, ask questions, prompt decisions and require learners to click links. This way, you’re guiding learners to an end goal, providing a meaningful learning experience and pushing them toward learning objectives. Engagement also requires personalizing delivery and ensuring that the training is relevant to the learner. Align business goals with learning goals, and explain why behaviors are important and how training will impact the learner.
3. Create Motivational Opportunities.
Motivation is tricky. It requires seeing the value in what we’re learning, feeling confident that we can learn and being in the mood to learn. Some learners come to training expecting to be bored for hours on end. They have a “grin and bear it” mentality that can inhibit learning. Most modern learning management systems have gamification built into the system to create an environment where learners want to learn. Visually appealing design, sound and opportunities for engagement can go a long way to help with motivation.
For example, while testing the learner experience for a training product, one tester said, “I don’t expect much out of this.” After seeing the design, the layout and the interactivity, she began changing her mind. By the end of the experience, she said, “That is something I could really learn from.”
At the beginning of the experience, the learner couldn’t see the value of what she was learning. She certainly wasn’t in the mood for anything she believed to be a waste of her time. The interactive training tool took complex content and simplified it using clean, crisp design and a user experience she found compelling.
4. Use Reflection to Build Good Learning Habits.
People who know how to reflect are people who know how to learn. They have higher-order thinking processes with which they regularly engage. These learners evaluate and analyze their thinking and synthesize information from various sources to make sense of the world and what they are learning.
You can help learners reflect by providing social learning. Build reflection into your LMS’ discussion thread, and encourage learners to give each other feedback, discuss techniques and learn together. Being social is a great way to expose learners to new information and new ways of thinking.
You can also use reflection during the practice and application stages of training. Role-playing with a group critique and five-minute written reflection exercise is a great way to help learners think about what they do, how they do it and why they do it. Then, another round of practice incorporating new skills allows for greater proficiency before the learner ever leaves the training.
This is the holy grail of learning: having learners take input; think about it; incorporate it into their unique experiences; and then use that new knowledge to make themselves better, smarter and more skilled. Build the skill of reflection into your training, and your workforce will become better thinkers.
Believing in learning styles isn’t going to lead to overt damage to your training. However, using training techniques that are not proven can lead to inefficiencies and ineffective learning, which can lead to poorer performance, slower skill attainment and decreased motivation among your learners – all of which will have a far-reaching impact on your business.