The theory of learning styles is frequently discussed in training, as learning and development (L&D) professionals attempt to create programs that will engage each learner and create lasting behavior change or performance improvement. This theory, which grew out of Kolb’s work in the 1970s1, posits that different individuals learn in one of several ways, typically categorized as visual, aural, verbal and kinesthetic. Based on learners’ styles, then, L&D professionals should select training modalities that meet those styles (i.e., infographics for visual learners, podcasts for aural learners, articles for verbal learners and group activities for kinesthetic learners).

Despite the popularity of the learning styles theory, however, there is no research to support the idea that individuals learn in these specific ways or that training geared toward each learner’s specific style is more effective than other training2,3. An evidence-based way of incorporating individual learner differences into training modality selection is to pick training modalities based on learner preferences, with the assumption that if a learner enjoys using a certain modality or modalities to learn, the learning will, by default, be more engaging, which could increase training effectiveness.

Of course, when selecting modalities and developing a training program, course developers should take more factors into account than learner preferences. Still, learner preference is an important factor to consider. Based on recent Training Industry research, the following guidelines can help.

1. Different types of employees require – and prefer – different types of training.

Factors such as job complexity, job function and department can create different learning needs and preferences when it comes to modality.

2. Learners prefer different modalities based on the training topic.

For example, sales training, leadership training and compliance training each exhibits different patterns of learner preferences.

3. Learner preferences are more likely to be met with multi-modal training.

Over multiple studies, Training Industry, Inc. research has found that the majority of training programs use between three and six modalities. When more than one modality is used, it is more likely that learners will experience their preferred modality. Furthermore, the types and number of preferred modalities can differ by gender.

4. Training programs delivered using at least one preferred modality are more effective.

When learners receive training through at least one delivery method that they prefer, they report that the training is much more effective.

1Kolb, D. A., & Fry, R. E. (1974). Toward an applied theory of experiential learning. MIT Alfred P. Sloan School of Management.

2Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2010). Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles. 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior (pp. 92-99). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

3Lilienfeld, S. O., Lynn, S. J., Ruscio, J., & Beyerstein, B. L. (2010). Students learn best when teaching styles are matched to their learning styles. 50 great myths of popular psychology: Shattering widespread misconceptions about human behavior (pp. 92-99). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

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