A lot has been written on the subject of Learning Styles. You only have to type in Learning Styles into a Google search and you will see what I mean. What is not so clear is why you need to take Learning Styles into consideration when planning to teach an adult something new. Depending on where you look, there are 3, or 4, or 8 or any number of variations of these learning styles. In this blog we look at the learning styles developed by Honey & Mumford and David Kolb and the VAK breakdown.
Children versus Adults
Let’s start at the beginning and assume you have never heard of Learning Styles. A child learns new things very rapidly, but how? A child watches, copies, imitates. A parent will try to show them what to do and explain how to do certain things. This works well in the early stages of development. But then as some of you may know from experience, the child starts to question – why do I need to do this, what is the purpose? Why? What for? Then sometimes defiance and the ‘won’t do’ is thrown as a challenge to the most patient parent.
Adults need to know why they are learning something new and have to see the benefit of learning that topic. Not so different from the growing child. As a person faced with teaching an adult, you have to understand that we adults learn in different ways, it may even be based on how we learned to do things as children and how we were told, shown, allowed to investigate etc.
The teaching of adults, as a specific group, is referred to as andragogy as opposed to pedagogy which is the teaching of children.
Before teaching a new subject to adults, such as a new piece of software that is being rolled out as part of a project, a study of the audience should be undertaken. This may include an analysis of the following:
- Geographical location – to determine how best to deliver the training and therefore see what the constraints may be in relation to learning styles
- Previous experience – what do they know already that will help them absorb this new topic?
- Goals – those of the project as well as those of the audience in terms of why they are going to attend. Is it for self-development, or out of an interest in the topic or because ‘they have been told to’.
- Background – are there any factors that will help or hinder their learning such as age, nationality, language skills or interests. The role in the organisation or role within the software may also have a significant impact.
How do you learn something new?
When you receive a new piece of equipment, for example a new mobile phone or TV, what would be the first thing you do, each statement referring to a different learning style. Which one would you choose?
- Switch it on and see what happens
- Read the Set Up Instructions in the manual/online
- I’ll work it out when I get a phone call or need to check something
- Switch on the phone/TV and follow the set up instructions step by step
Technically, an individual’s learning style refers to the preferred way in which the learner absorbs, processes, comprehends, retains and applies information.
The original VAK (Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic) concepts were first developed by psychologists and teaching (of children) specialists (such as Fernald, Keller, Orton, Gillingham, Stillman and Montessori), starting in the 1920’s. The VAK learning styles model is attributed to Walter Burke Barbe and colleagues and suggests that most people can be divided into one of three preferred styles of learning:
- Visual – has a preference for seen or observed things, including pictures, diagrams, demonstrations, displays, handouts, films, flip-chart, etc. They will be best able to perform a new task after reading the instructions or watching someone else do it first. These are the people who will work from lists and written directions and instructions.
- Auditory – the transfer of information through listening: to the spoken word, of themselves or others, of sounds and noises. They will be best able to perform a new task after listening to instructions from an expert. These are the people who are happy being given spoken instructions over the telephone, and can remember all the words to songs that they hear!
- Kinaesthetic – has a preference for physical experience – touching, feeling, holding, doing, practical hands-on experiences. They will be best able to perform a new task by going ahead and trying it out, learning as they go. These are the people who like to experiment, hands-on, and never look at the instructions first!
Further expanded by Neil Fleming to VARK where the R is Reading/Writing.
Peter Honey and Alan Mumford
A survey in 1999 found that this was the most widely used system for assessing preferred learning styles in the local government sector in the UK.
- – When do I get to do it for real
Prefers to apply new learning to actual practice to see if it works in the real world. Likes laboratories or testing, field work, realistic case studies and observations. Likes feedback, coaching, and obvious links between the current task and solving a problem. Abstract concepts and games are of limited use unless they see a way to put the ideas into action in their lives. They are the experimenters, trying out new ideas, theories and techniques to see if they work and often want to find a better way of doing things.
- – Let’s get on with it
Likes anything new and problem solving, (such as a new TV or mobile phone) and prefers to learn by doing. Prefer the challenges of new experiences and interaction with others. They are quite open-minded and involve themselves fully in new experiences. Puzzles, competitions, quizzes all appeal
- – I’m going to think about this a bit more
Prefer to learn from activities that allow them to watch, think and review what has happened. Lectures are helpful if they provide expert explanations and analysis, but they need time to think things over as they avoid leaping in and prefer to watch from the sidelines. They may keep a low profile and not be very participative in meetings.
They view experiences from a number of different perspectives, collecting data and taking the time to work towards an appropriate conclusion – sometimes eventually!
Enjoy self-analysis questionnaires and personality questionnaires.
- – Who thought of all this, what are the origins of these theories
Prefers to think problems through in a step-by-step manner. Likes lectures, analogies, systems, case studies and models, but talking with experts is normally not helpful.
They like objectives and structure, an opportunity to question, statistics and applying theories. These learners like to understand the theory behind the action and need models, concepts and facts so that they can analyse, then create a rational, systematic and logical ‘theory‘ in their own words.
The 4 parts of learning styles according to David Kolb are:
- Concrete Experience – An experience that involves emotions, perceptions, intellect and action – similar to the Activist.
- Reflective Observation – When you reflect on an experience to identify the principles – ties in with the Reflector.
- Abstract Conceptualisation – When you are able to identify the rules or principles in an experience – appeals to a Theorist.
- Active Experimentation – Seeking further opportunities to repeat the experience in order to perfect learning – useful to all, especially Activists and Pragmatists.
Can you see which one fits you? In many cases you have a preferred learning style, one that dominates, but does not exclude the others. We are a wonderful mix. Also it depends on the topic that you are learning – you may have a preferred learning style for one type of activity such as designing a new garden layout or planning a kitchen refit, but another learning style may be your preference when dealing with technology.
Next time you are out for a meal with friends, watch for learning styles in the way they approach choosing something from the menu.
Activist – may decide quickly and want to get on with it, make many rapid decisions but then change their mind
Theorist – wonder what combinations go best with what – might even ask how it is cooked, is it organic or what the ingredients are etc
Pragmatist – keen and eager to try out something new that appeals to them, varied but balanced combinations
Reflector – maybe last to decide and wants to know what everyone else is having before their final decision or trying to remember if they have had that meal before and what they thought of it, may take a while to make the decision and have their head in the menu for some time.
Words of Wisdom
No matter how much you read about and read into Learning Styles, any training intervention should have elements that appeal to all learners in the audience. An hour long lecture with one person talking and no visuals, no activity for the learners, is daunting, both for the learner and the presenter.
Try to remember these words of wisdom:
- Tell me what we are going to learn, tell me how to do it and why I need to do it
Tell with movement and pictures to engage the Visual learners and capture the attention of the Pragmatists, Activists, Theorists and Reflectors
- Show me how to do it so I can visualise what needs to be done
Include explanations to appeal to Auditory/Reader, but this appeals to the Visual learner and the Pragmatists and Activists. Explanations or where to find references also has some interest for the Reflector who can look back at this demonstration (or notes) and the Theorist who will have some research to look forward to.
- Help me get to grips with it, walk and talk me through some examples
This is the part that appeals to the Kinaesthetic learners, Pragmatists and Activists – the bit where they can try out for themselves with assistance available if needs be. Reflectors will think back to the ‘tell’ and ‘show’, and the Theorists will be keen to test out the theory.
- Let me try it now on my own to consolidate and put my new skill into practice.
Essential that the learning is applied to a realistic scenario or case study to demonstrate to the trainer that the new information has been retained and can be applied in a new situation.
The Tell Me, Show Me, Help Me, Let Me is also similar to another training mantra which is:
See It, Try It, Do It, Test It.
So we all learn in different ways and when any training event is scheduled, a blend and variety of teaching methods should be used to ensure that you capture and retain the attention of all participants.
So explain to the ones who like to listen and hear the story first, show slides, pictures, diagrams, models etc to appeal to those who like to see things visually. Give the reasons why they will benefit from learning this new skill and introduce the hands on activities as soon as possible. Allow plenty of time for your participants to practise their new skills with exercises and case studies.
We offer the following courses that cover Learning Styles:
- Training Skills For Better Performance
- How to Deliver Training Online
- How to Design E-Learning
Enjoy people watching!