“Engaged”is your learning style

As someone who works in the training and development field, I have to tell you one of the ideas that has plagued our field, confused leaders everywhere, and refuses to die a quiet death: learning styles.

You probably remember a time when, as a student, you took a short quiz or listened to a lecture to find out whether you were a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner.

Similar ideas have been taught in schools and even included in teacher training and curriculum for generations now, to the point a 2019 study showed that 90% of participants believed in the learning style model. As of 2016, 59% of teacher training requires teachers to incorporate learning styles into their lesson plans.

With the widespread popularity of learning styles, combined with the legitimacy the model gained by being taught by educators, it’s no wonder that the idea also gained favor in corporate America. Leaders and staff trainers are often asked to consider employees’ learning preferences and to coach them in a way that fits with their learning style.

Of course, it’s difficult to do that when we don’t know what their learning style is. Or, to put it more accurately, their learning style category doesn’t exist.

“It is true that different types of information are processed in different parts of the brain. It is also true that individuals have differences in abilities and preferences,” writes author William Furey, “Since the 1970s, however, systematic research reviews and meta-analyses examining the validity of learning styles and their application to education have come to the same conclusion: despite the intuitive appeal, there is little to no empirical evidence that learning styles are real.”

Leaders should absolutely train and coach employees in customized ways, however, there is no evidence that categories like auditory, visual, or kinesthetic result in improved learning outcomes for our employees. Why waste training and coaching time customizing content in a way that doesn’t help?

Instead of looking for neat categories that will simplify our approach, we need to focus on the individual. Don’t worry about audio vs. visual, worry about the person in front of you. What do they need to be successful? What is their work environment like, and how will that impact their ability to implement your training? Who is going to support them after this class is over?

Above all, consider how to engage your learners. Ask questions, gauge the energy and interest in the room, and match the content to their goals and needs. If you’re working remotely, don’t be afraid to ask for cameras to be on so you can get additional feedback from facial expressions and body language.  This additional feedback will allow you to engage more!

Take-Aways: There is no evidence to support the learning styles theory. Instead, customize your content based on learner needs, class energy levels, and the environment in which they’ll be applying these learnings.

Questions: What learning customization techniques have been successful for you? How do you keep remote teams engaged? What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned about tailoring training to the individual?

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