Training Supplement

Learning preferences: Style guide

Stephen Flounders says trainers have to be adaptable and use a range of techniques to meet different learners’ needs. 

Image credit: ©iStock/akindo

We all learn differently. Some people can read something, understand it and put it into practice without any difficulty. Others respond immediately to verbal instructions. Some need to go out and put the lessons into practice before they fully understand it.

The way we learn as individuals is often referred to as our learning style, or learning preference. The concept of categorising individual learning styles has become increasingly popular since the mid-20th century. A review of learning styles and theories, conducted by researchers led by Frank Coffield in 2004, described 71 different learning style theories, and it did not claim to be exhaustive.

But there are also those who argue that there is little factual evidence to give credibility to the multitude of theories. Coffield’s review found that none of the most popular theories had been adequately validated through independent research.

We do all learn differently, and no two people’s minds are the same. Although there can be no “one-size-fits-all” style of teaching or training delivery, it is impractical to expect trainers to be able to cater for each delegate and how they learn. The challenge facing trainers is to be able to plan and deliver sessions that enable all learners to participate, feel included and, most importantly, absorb and retain what they are being taught so they leave with the tools to put it into practice.

Information overload

Stephen-Flounders-head-of-health-and-safety-System ConceptsFor a trainer, understanding how people learn and absorb information is vital to the success of the course. One of the worst feelings as a trainer is trying to explain a concept as clearly as you can, but being met with blank expressions. It is even more frustrating if half of the group gets it and the other half does not. Often, it’s a case of the message not being conveyed in the right way for everyone to understand.

If the researchers are right and there are tens of models of learning styles, it’s unrealistic to expect trainers to know the ins and outs of every single one. Countless hours would need to be spent preparing alternative lesson plans, courses would overrun and lose focus.

But trainers do need a basic understanding of some core principles to make courses as inclusive and engaging as they can be. One common model is that described by Paul Smith. A simpler but similar system is the VAK model, conceived by Walter Burke Barbe and his colleagues in 1979. This style uses the three main sensory receivers (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) to determine a person’s dominant, or preferred, learning style.

According to the VAK model, a visual learner prefers seeing or observing things. If you ask them to perform a new task, they’ll be best able to do it after reading instructions or watching someone else do it first. An auditory learner, on the other hand, prefers to listen to what is being presented. They’re best able to perform tasks after being told what they need to do by someone else. A kinesthetic learner, sometimes called a tactile learner, prefers a more hands-on approach. They learn best by doing a task, rather than simply reading or listening to instructions.

Adaptable approach

Although it’s not practical to expect trainers to be able to cater for the different learning needs of every delegate, it is important that they are adaptable. One of the best ways to deliver training that satisfies a range of delegates is to incorporate different techniques that will appeal to visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners. Using a blend of techniques helps promote delegate participation and encourages them to share their own experiences and learn from each other. This in turn makes the training memorable, engaging and worthwhile.

A great trainer will also take the time to talk to their delegates to see how they are getting on. Asking a simple question such as, “Have you understood?” or “Do we need to think about this differently?” can make delegates feel valued and encourage them to suggest different ways to present important information. Successful training depends on the trainer understanding and learning from the delegates as well as the delegates understanding and learning from the trainer.

Putting this into practice need not be complex. It requires planning and thought, but it certainly doesn’t require vast knowledge of multiple theories. It is useful to talk through some examples in the context of different subjects to illustrate how trainers can accommodate visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners as a group, rather than trying to treat each type as an individual and delivering messages in isolation.

If you’re teaching delegates how to undertake a risk assessment, for example, prepare to use different methods to explain the concept and how it is put into practice. Use succinctly written slides, accompanying handouts and notes on flipcharts to cater for the visual learners on your course. Talk through your materials. For example, discuss the “five steps to risk assessment” and ask delegates to contribute their thoughts and experiences. This enhances the training, and helps auditory learners absorb what you are teaching. Finally, finish up with a practical session, where your delegates use materials such as forms and follow verbal instructions to do a risk assessment themselves. The kinesthetic learners in the group will then have their chance to shine.

In manual handling training you might show diagrams and photographs of correct and incorrect lifting techniques. Alternatively, you could demonstrate the techniques to the group while explaining what is good practice and what is not. This will satisfy the visual and auditory learners, while the kinesthetic learners will build on this knowledge if you then follow up with a practical session where they get to try lifting techniques for themselves.

Similarly, visual learners attending an accident investigation course will absorb information in forms and process diagrams and procedures, while auditory learners may benefit from a discussion on the different techniques used during an investigation. Scenario-based role play will enable visual and auditory learners to put their knowledge into practice, while enabling the kinesthetic learners to try it out for themselves and learn as they go.

Don’t sweat the theory

Trainers need to be equipped with the skills to plan and deliver sessions which use a range of learning techniques; there is little value in getting bogged down in theory. A more productive approach is to focus on how different training methods complement each other and enhance the learning of all delegates, rather than thinking about how these techniques might benefit visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners in isolation.


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