To most learning professionals, the fact that individuals learn differently is seen as a challenge. However, it is possible for learning organizations not only to engage workers in the various mediums they prefer but also to leverage different learning styles for competitive advantage, all while maintaining cost-effective design and delivery.
Carol is detail-oriented; Anika likes the big picture. James takes to images; Dipan prefers words. Albert learns best by listening; Betsy is a better verbal learner. And Charles likes to learn through activities and role-playing.
These are observations we make all the time in corporate environments as we communicate and collaborate with colleagues and as we plan, design and execute learning events. They point to a truth that all learning professionals know, but that is — for now, at least — usually not addressed by most organizations: People think and learn in different ways. Although we share a great deal in common simply by having the same genetic code, our brains process information differently. We have different thinking styles or cognitive styles — and, therefore, we have different learning styles.
The question is: Does the awareness of different thinking and learning styles have value that can really shape how enterprise learning events are delivered on a day-to-day basis, given the other demands on the time of learning professionals and the other mandates they struggle to meet?
Learning executives today face growing pressure to deliver effective learning experiences cost-effectively. If you’re trying to develop a rapid, factory approach to learning delivery, the intricacies of individual learning styles are likely to be overlooked or tabled for a later day. Yet think for a moment of the hidden business costs when learning departments design courses without sufficient attention to the manner in which their employees as individuals optimally learn. Research suggests that much of what learning departments develop today washes over many employees like rain on a waterproof jacket. In other words, a great deal of corporate learning is either a waste of money or delivering only a small portion of the potential return on investment.
Perhaps the most intuitive and readily understandable model, sometimes abbreviated as VARK, notes that people prefer one or a combination of visual, auditory, reading and kinesthetic (active) learning experiences.
The fact that one person’s brain may process and apply information in a different way from another person’s brain results in various kinds of tragedies both small and large in different domains. In relationships, such differences can lead to misunderstandings, poor communication and delays in resolving differences. In education, teachers may diagnose a student as slow or problematic when in fact that student is merely waiting for someone to bring his or her mind alive in the right way.
In the corporate world, stylistic differences can cause some employees to learn more slowly, even if they are otherwise bright and able. As a result, the time to competency for a portion of the workforce might be unnecessarily high and bear measurable cost impacts.
One of the biggest insights from research into thinking and learning styles is that teachers, trainers and managers tend to confuse ability with learning styles. A style is a preferred set of ways in which someone processes information. It is not an ability but rather a way of applying one’s abilities.
According to Robert J. Sternberg in his book Thinking Styles, abilities account for only about 10 percent of the variation among workers in job performance. That is an astounding number. Even if it’s wrong by a factor of five — meaning abilities accounted for 50 percent of variation in job performance — it would still lead to the same unsettling conclusion: Corporate learning departments may not only be teaching the wrong content, but also may be teaching it in the wrong ways.
Making Sense of the Literature
There are many competing theories and models of learning styles. One set of researchers from the Learning and Skills Research Centre in London found that more than 70 different theories are in existence. And for any naysayers in the crowd, a 2008 paper in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest actually claims that there is no adequate scientific evidence to justify incorporating learning styles assessments into general educational practice at all. The researchers state that while there may be validity to some of the theories, analysis of them on a scientific basis has not yet been performed.
That said, experienced and sensitive teachers will affirm the wide differences in how their students learn. What can a learning professional do to incorporate some insights from learning styles into a corporate learning environment? Here are several recommendations.
Step 1: Create a Richer Learning Environment
New learning technologies, especially consumer-driven trends such as MP3 players and social networks, show promise in allowing learners to access learning content in the delivery vehicles that match their learning styles more closely. This approach can make a big difference in the effectiveness of learning. Marie Brennan and Larry McNutt, two researchers from a technology institute in Ireland, conducted an experiment in which learners took an online course in three modules, each designed to appeal to a different learning style. According to their results, published in ITB Journal in May 2004, the experiment showed learners performed better on post-tests for the modules designed for their dominant learning style.
Are the economics of that kind of approach unrealistic, however? Tom Kraack, chairman of enterprise learning provider Velocity MG, takes the view that the economics are more attractive if one takes a macro instead of a micro approach to learning styles.
“If you take the view that you are going to provide different kinds of learning experiences for every course, then that’s a challenging proposition operationally,” Kraack said.
Instead, organizations should strive to create a rich learning environment, one that involves not only accessing content in different ways, but also offers opportunities for social networking, collaboration, generating one’s own content and so forth.
“The result,” Kraack said, “is a kind of smorgasbord of content that’s available in a variety of ways and a variety of delivery modalities. A good interface can then be created, allowing people to seek experiences almost intuitively based on their own preference or using content aligned with their style to reinforce other content that is not. This is a more viable approach than trying to create multiple versions of any particular course.”
This presumes, however, that people are actually aware of their learning and thinking styles — and many may not be. Organizations can become more proactive in this regard, incorporating a Myers-Briggs type of personality analysis into every orientation and on-boarding period. The results can be made known to employees and also stored in their HR profiles. This would give people informed guidance about the kinds of learning experiences most likely to be fruitful to them.
Step 2: Produce Higher-Impact Communications
An awareness that people learn and think in different ways can be used to create more effective corporate communications.
“The concept of learning styles and thinking styles comes up often in our discussions of how we effectively communicate with our professionals,” said Lori McBride, director of HR for global sustainment at Lockheed Martin. “We have multiple generations in our workforce who like to be communicated with in different ways. Some like e-mail or instant messaging, others prefer a phone call or face-to-face contact, and a new generation seems to communicate primarily through text messages. So we try to take that into account — the location of the person, age and experience, access to different kinds of computing and communications resources — and use that information to create more effective communications.”
Step 3: Understand the Dominant Style of Critical Workforces
Learning can be delivered with a better return on investment by understanding the learning styles of especially critical workforces within any company. Research conducted by two Western Michigan University professors, Charlotte Wenham and Raymond Alie, has shown that learning style differences do exist among occupations. They tested individuals in a variety of occupations, including technicians, mechanical engineers and systems analysts, and uncovered significant differences in preferred styles — differences that crossed gender and age categories.
By understanding the dominant learning style of a critical workforce, such as sales, companies could develop courses that better suit those learners. There are several things to bear in mind, however. People’s learning styles are not fixed for all time, and they may evolve as we do. They are also teachable. One can encourage the styles needed to succeed by developing learning programs or assigning people to tasks that require them to develop those styles.
Step 4: Incorporate Variety
The concept of learning styles puts a slightly different twist on the effort of instructional designers to provide variety in course design, especially instructor-led training. Thanks to research in experiential learning, corporate trainers are much more apt today to design courses that provide opportunities for learners to do more than passively absorb information. We know now that a learning course or experience must include active application of information that has been introduced in a passive lecture or presentation — whether through simulations, hands-on activities or some other modality.
But the variety offered in a learning event does more than just reinforce knowledge for a particular learner; it also provides multiple opportunities for employees who learn in different ways to “get it.” Visual or kinesthetic learners, who might not have gotten as much out of a lecture, have an opportunity to catch up during a discussion or an activity. Awareness of learning styles does not necessarily change the variety of experiences in an instructor-led class, but it certainly provides extra justification for the effort of designing with the multiple learning modalities of employees in mind.
In general, all human beings are multimodal to an extent. We need variety to hold our interest and to reinforce things we have learned in different modes. The rise of blended learning design in recent years is a testament to the ability of multimodal learning to have a superior impact on workforce performance.
Realizing Full Potential
When it comes to the subject of learning styles, the key is not to be overwhelmed by the plethora of theories and frameworks, but to pick vehicles that serve the needs of as many employees’ styles as possible. There is untapped potential in so many of the employees who work with us and for us. By helping those employees understand their styles and their strengths, we can help them make a more significant contribution to the performance of the entire organization. With more sensitivity to differences and more variety in learning design, we actually help our people and our organizations live up to what they are capable of becoming.