People development: how to match learning styles to the learner

learning at work
iStock/rawpixel
Caroline Gourlay
Caroline Gourlay Consulting
Columnist
Share this content

One size doesn't necessarily fit all when it comes to learning. Each one of us has our own learning style and specific things we need to know for our job, but how do you match the learner's preferred style, with the knowledge they need in a way that's digestible and engaging? That's the challenge for L&D professionals. 

How do people learn? It’s a question that L&D professionals often ponder, frequently focusing on the differences between individuals – kinaesthetic, visual or auditory learners, for example. I’d like to turn the lens the other way around and look at what it is people are trying to learn and how they can best be supported to do so, given their individual differences.

That sounds like it should be straightforward but in my experience three different categories of things frequently get mashed together and there is value in teasing them apart:

  • Knowledge and facts
  • Theory and insight
  • Expertise and skill

Knowledge and facts

These are things to be known and, maybe, remembered. Anything that can be looked up quickly comes in this category – health and safety regulations, how to set up a Word template, all the bones in the human skeleton.

If it can be Googled, you might ask why people would need to learn it at all, but:

a) It’s more efficient

b) It’s important to map the territory, to say these are the things you need to know about this. If you don’t know there is such a thing as a Word template, for example, it may never occur to you to look up how to create one.

Theory and insight

This goes beyond facts and involves anything which needs to be understood or grasped.

Anything with a strong theoretical component comes in here, from apprentices learning the fundamentals of engineering to senior executives learning the principles of leadership.

All manual and craft-based jobs – construction, hairdressing, catering – require a very strong element of practice

Also in this category are personal insights into yourself, often identified during coaching – those ‘aha’ moments when you realise ‘so that’s why I’m struggling with this’.

Expertise and skills

This covers anything where knowledge or theoretical understanding are not enough and practice is required. You can gather as much information and understand as many principles as you like about ballroom dancing, for example, but your samba is not going to sizzle unless you get out there and practice.

All manual and craft-based jobs – construction, hairdressing, catering – require a very strong element of practice, as do some generic business skills, such as public speaking.

You may be thinking 'so far, so obvious', but I’ve frequently seen these blurred in really unhelpful ways.

I’ve attended several seminars, for example, where someone has promised to show people how to devise a social media strategy for their businesses and then simply run through their knowledge of how Twitter, LinkedIn and so on work, along with a few clever tips and shortcuts.

No underlying theory, no conceptual framework to help people work out which social media platform to focus on and how to actually develop a strategy. Nothing to understand, just stuff to know.

These things are learnt in different ways...

The other reason it’s worth making these distinctions is that they are learnt in different ways. I’ve written here before about the distinction between ‘quick insight’ and ‘gradual improvement’ learning.

We all use both but most of us have a preference for one or the other – people who can do both equally well are very flexible learners. ‘Quick insight’ is what’s needed to pick up a concept or theory or to have an insight into your own behaviour or motivation.

It’s fundamentally about understanding something. Gradual improvement is about developing a skill or a body of knowledge over time through practice.

People who say they prefer ‘learning by doing’ are generally gradual improvement learners; those who say they don’t have the patience for practice are usually quick insight learners.

Some knowledge can be acquired through quick insight – for example, how to create a formula in Excel – though some people may prefer to practice doing it. Other knowledge fits into the gradual improvement category, such as aspiring London taxi drivers learning ‘The Knowledge’, i.e. the entire street map of London.

People who say they prefer ‘learning by doing’ are generally gradual improvement learners; those who say they don’t have the patience for practice are usually quick insight learners.

Matching learning styles

The problem comes when people have to learn something which requires the style of learning they are less adept at. You cannot learn to play the piano through quick insight and no amount of ‘learning by doing’ will help you to grasp Einstein’s theory of general relativity.

Even in coaching, this distinction is helpful. People often gain an understanding of themselves through quick insight, e.g. ‘that’s why I get anxious in this particular situation’, but then have to utilise gradual improvement to help them build on that insight to control their anxiety in the moment.

The challenge for L&D professionals is to try match their learning activities to both the subject being taught and the style of the learner and to offer additional support where there’s a mismatch.

The example of Dave

Let’s take Dave, for example. Dave is a sales exec, who says he doesn’t enjoy classroom-based training; he prefers learning on the job.

He’s a classic gradual improvement learner and has some uncomfortable memories of not always keeping up at school, which has put him off training - but what if he needs to learn something like SPIN-selling techniques? OK SPIN-selling is not astrophysics, but there is some theory behind it, some ideas to grasp, which Dave won’t be able to pick up on the job.

A course aimed at Dave would need to break the ideas down into bite-sized chunks, ground them in some really tangible examples and give him plenty of opportunity to practice applying the ideas.

The challenge for L&D professionals is to try match their learning activities to both the subject being taught and the style of the learner.

That might sound like common sense and good practice in training design, but some quick insight learners might find that approach tedious.

The example of Dawn

One such example is Dawn, who says she doesn’t enjoy classroom-based learning, but in her case it’s because it’s too boring. She picks things up exceptionally quickly and doesn’t need someone to keep going over it.

This is particularly the case for Dawn as she is an accountant; much of what she has needed to learn over her career is fact-based, rather than ideas-based. In general, all Dawn needs is a quick overview of the knowledge she needs to get to grips with and a means of accessing it for herself.

Again, this could sound like a common sense observation to let people work at their own pace, but this isn’t always the best approach. Dawn’s main development need is to learn how to manage her emotions at work.

There may be elements of quick insight learning involved here – some psychological theory to grasp and some insights into what, in particular, causes her to express emotions inappropriately - but this is unlikely to be enough. Dawn will need to slow right down and work at a pace which is entirely unnatural for her, to observe and monitor her emotions, something that’s likely to take patient work with a coach.

Matching the subject being taught to the type of learning required to learn it and the preferences of the learner is not always as straightforward as it first appears.

Interested in this topic? You may also like to read How to create participant buzz around your learning.

About Caroline Gourlay

Replies

Please login or register to join the discussion.

There are currently no replies, be the first to post a reply.