Course design 10: Learning styles

Different people learn and process information in different ways. One way to think about these differences is to imagine that you were training a group of people who spoke different languages and so needed some sort of translation to make sense of the information and skills you present.

Of course we’re not really talking about formal language. We do occasionally need to rely upon translators in training (I often work with interpreters skilled in British Sign Language for example). But even when working with people who have no hearing or other sensory impairments and whose native language is English there is a real issue with ‘translation’ of a different sort.

It is possible to become so wrapped up in issues of learning style that inexperienced trainers become effectively paralysed when trying to determine the best ways to put their message across to a group of people, all of whom have their own preferred learning style and cognitive processing methods. The deeper we look into learning styles the more complicated it becomes and the variables become increasingly subtle. Fortunately though we don’t need to be experts in the fine detail of learning theory to design and deliver a good course. We do, however need to understand the broad principles. I like to boil learning theories down to three broad areas. These are:

Convincer strategy;

Sensory modality;

‘Top down’ or ‘bottom up’.

Convincer strategy

Different people are convinced by different types of evidence:

  • Some people need to be told;
  • Some people need to be told several times;
  • Some people need to work things out for themselves;
  • Some people need to experience learning points in action (case studies and exercises are useful here);
  • Some people need to know that others are of the same opinion;
  • Some people need to know that others whom they respect think this way;
  • Some people need to know ‘why’ something works;
  • Some people need to know ‘how’ something works;
  • Some people need to hear stories that illustrate the point so that they can imagine the issue at work in the real world.

For this reason we need to ensure that there is a mix of exercises and case studies as well as trainer presentation, group discussion and lots of Socratic questions designed to help people work out their own answers. It’s also useful to have a selection of stories and anecdotes (including those involving respected figures).

One of the more common mistakes new trainers make is to fill their training days with their own preferred type of exercise or activity without realising that there will be a mix of training styles in the room before them. For example my own preferred learning style is to think things through ‘in my head’. I don’t need direct experience so much as cognitive understanding but if I confined my training only to theory and ‘lecture’ I’d fail most of my trainees.

Similairly a day full of case studies with no room for discussion or more abstract theory would be inappropriate for people like me.

Sensory modality

We have five senses and they matter. It is only through our senses that we make sense of the world around us. The five sense of

  • Touch;
  • Taste;
  • Hearing;
  • Smell;
  • Sight

Are the interface between us and the rest of the world. They are our personal computer keyboard, if you will.

The problems begin when we realise that different people have different ‘preferred’ senses. Some people (most people in my experience) are very adept at processing visual information. That’s one reason why I use a lot of visual imagery in training. Flipcharts allow us to respond to questions with pictures or basic charts that can save huge amounts of time clarifying points of contention.

The visual sense is so important that Piaget, the renowned educational psychologist came up with the training dictum…

“I hear I forget,

I see I remember,

I do, I understand.”

Visual memory is an excellent standby and it’s always useful to bring in visual imagery. Even when relating stories and anecdotes paint pictures with words. It’s important.

But visual learning isn’t the only type of learning that matters.

Some people need words whilst others need more ‘experiential’ ways to process information. Of course it may be difficult (depending upon the topic) to involve taste and smell but role play can be a half decent substitute for the experiential aspects of touch. This mirrors the point we made earlier about case studies and experience.

There is just one rider I’d place on this.

Most trainees enjoy role play once they begin but almost all people expect that they will not. So use role play sparingly. It’s odd.

The experience of role play is generally positive but the memory of it (and certainly the anticipation) is often much more negative.

Very often though we can involve the elements of role play by setting up small group case studies without ever needing to get over the resistance that most trainees have to the technique.

The only time when I would definitely use role play would be when I’m training people on particular therapeutic or inter-personal techniques. Otherwise I use other methods rather than risk alienating the participants.

‘Top down’ or ‘bottom up’

The final aspect of learning theory I want to introduce here is ‘top down’ or ‘bottom up’.

I used the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle in earlier instalments and I want to return to that analogy now.

If the training course is a jigsaw then ‘top down’ learners prefer to see the picture on the box before they start to put the jigsaw pieces into place.

Bottom up learners are rarer in my own field of health and social care but are better represented in some other fields. It’s very well worth taking time to get a feel for the predominant style in your profession.

In my training sessions I always make a point of providing an overview very early on. A common way to do this is with an introductory exercise that serves not only as a warm up but also introduces the main themes of the training (as discussed earlier).

I often use an ‘introductory quiz’ to do this because the subsequent debrief allows me to provide that broad ‘picture on the box’ straight away before spending the rest of the training day ‘filling in the gaps’ with the remaining jigsaw pieces.

However you choose to do this make sure that your initial activities take account of ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ learning styles.



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