Most learning and development pros are familiar with learning styles—the idea that people respond to various teaching methods differently. Visual learners need pictures and diagrams, social learners prefer group training, solitary learners just want to be left alone with a textbook. The concept is based on the belief that different parts of our brains handle different functions. If one area of a person’s brain functions more strongly, that person will prefer learning in a way that uses that portion of the brain.
Well, I’ve got some bad news: the idea of different learning styles is something of a myth.
Study after study has found that everyone’s brain learns in pretty much the same way. Research conducted by Paul Howard-Jones, professor of neuroscience and education at Bristol University, found that the human brain is extremely connected—we don’t use just one part of the brain when we learn. People may have learning preferences, but there’s no scientific basis for different learning styles. Howard-Jones calls it a “neuromyth,” similar to the misconception that we only use 10% of our brains.
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Now the good news: Just because learning styles don’t have a strong scientific basis doesn’t mean that efforts to tailor training to how people learn best are for naught. Daniel Willingham, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, has done research in the area of elementary and high school education and says that many teachers he talks to share this view. Learning styles may not explain everything about how students learn, but they’re a useful way to “prime the creativity pump” when coming up with lesson plans. Ideally, lesson plans should blend a variety of learning styles to make training more effective.
4 Learning Styles You Should Take Advantage of
Neurology aside, here are four learning styles outlined by Neil Fleming’s VARK model along with some training exercises associated with them that could benefit all learners by making sessions more engaging and memorable.
1. Visual learning. This doesn’t refer to YouTube videos or PowerPoint presentations. Instead, visual learning focuses on charts, graphs, maps and other diagrams that convey information—think infographics. If you want to increase visual learning models in your training, look for ways to explain complicated ideas or the flow of a specific process with a graphic.
2. Aural/auditory learning. This style isn’t about just hearing the material; it’s really about using language to communicate ideas. Lectures and group discussions are effective examples of aural/auditory learning, but so are conversational emails. To boost your aural/auditory quotient, ask trainees to repeat concepts in their own words and have them work in small groups focused on brainstorming and talking through training material.
3. Read/write learning. This is where the infamous PowerPoint presentation fits into the training equation. Read/write learning is all about the written word, with a heavy focus on manuals, procedures and other comprehensive texts. This style works as a great baseline for many training sessions—give trainees the textbook or the full PowerPoint presentation, then use other learning styles to mix up the delivery and keep things interesting.
4. Kinesthetic learning. This learning style is focused on creating real-life examples. Case studies and other real-world scenarios are a great way to give your training some immediacy and consequences; trainees will see that they’ll actually have to use this stuff on the job. Simulations and mock exercises are a great way to get people engaged and thinking about the material in a more real way.
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Regardless of which camp trainees fall into, the key is to mix up the styles so that trainees engage in the material in different ways. For example, start with a PowerPoint presentation or assign a chapter from a textbook as homework, then discuss the content by encouraging employees to summarize it in their own words. Finally, break trainees into groups to come up with real-world examples or create a chart summarizing the material.