A Publication of WTVP

Leveraging learning styles to the company’s advantage

Learning programs for the workplace should look like a smorgasbord, not a single entrée. Events using multimedia and multiple learning strategies will have a better chance of reaching the diverse workforce that we training professionals serve. When developing or selecting learning programs, a key consideration should be participants’ learning styles.

A learning style is an individual’s preference for certain conditions in the learning environment, or the preferred approach used when developing knowledge, values and skills. It refers to the ways that people absorb and process information. There is no one definition, model or theory of learning styles. The research is unclear as to whether an educator should adapt to the learning styles of students, construct activities designed to develop non-preferred styles, or simply use a variety of strategies so that each learner gets a chance to use his or her preferred style on some occasions. The preference in the learning community appears to be using a variety of strategies, which allows all learners to approach learning events within their individual comfort zones.

Let’s explore the six approaches to learning styles cited in the International Encyclopedia of Adult Education (2008). Note that none of these approaches consider the cultural aspects of learning.

  1. Multiple intelligences and emotional intelligence
  2. Experiential learning
  3. Social interaction
  4. Personality
  5. Perception
  6. Conditions or needs.

Multiple Intelligences and Emotional Intelligence
The theory of multiple intelligences was developed by Dr. Howard Gardner, professor of education at Harvard. Gardner sees individuals as having one or more capabilities that can function independently or in concert with each other. He believes that there are “all kinds of smart.” Originally, Gardner identified seven relatively autonomous capacities that he named the multiple intelligences. In more recent writings, he has added an eighth intelligence (naturalist) and continues to speculate about a possible ninth intelligence (existential). When we include strategies consistent with participants’ intelligences, they can better absorb the learning.

The seven original multiple intelligences:

Gardner’s recently added eighth intelligence:

Still under consideration for possible addition to Gardner’s list of intelligences:

The approach called blended learning appeals to more than one type of intelligence. Blended learning means combining methods, techniques or resources and applying them in an interactively meaningful learning environment. For example, a learner with kinesthetic intelligence would be comfortable with computer-based training (CBT), because it requires hands-on use of the keyboard and mouse. For a person with intrapersonal intelligence, working alone and in one’s mind makes CBT work a positive learning situation. A person with linguistic intelligence would learn through the words provided in the CBT scripts. Blending the computer usage with group work (in the classroom or workplace) adds an approach comfortable for learners with interpersonal intelligence. So, combining different learning strategies and multimedia ensures that a training event would include an optimum learning environment for a variety of participants.

Dr. Daniel Goleman focuses on emotional intelligence, which parallels Gardner’s conceptualization of interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligences. Emotional intelligence refers to how people handle relationships, manage their own emotions, motivate introspectively, and recognize emotional states in others.

Experiential Learning
This concept refers to the approaches workers use to make meaning from their experiences. The educational theorist David Kolb developed a Learning Style Inventory, which can be a useful tool when helping workers understand how they and others learn. Kolb proposes that learners go through four stages: (1) the concrete experience of being involved in a new situation; (2) the reflective observation of that experience, thinking about what has happened; (3) abstract conceptualization, developing and connecting concepts and theories to explain the observations; (4) active experimentation in which the learner uses the theories to solve problems and make decisions.

As depicted in Kolb’s model, although learners ideally go through the entire cycle, each has a preference for one or more segments within the cycle. The abilities associated with each stage combine to form clusters, from which learning styles are defined. For example, convergers prefer abstract conceptualization and active experimentation (they like to think and do), which leads to quick, specific concrete solutions. Assimilators prefer abstract conceptualization and reflective observation, which leads them to integrate ideas into models and theories. Accommodators prefer concrete experience, because they learn by doing and prefer the trial-and-error approach. Divergers prefer concrete experiences and reflective observation. They generate ideas, brainstorm, and work well with others, but do not arrive at solutions quickly.

Social Interaction
Several adult educators have based their work in a social interaction framework. They propose that students have different preferences in learning situations. The Fuhrmann and Jacobs model categorizes learners as preferring:

Other experts apply social interaction preferences in terms of their relational and autonomous aspects. They believe these preferences may be related to gender differences. The Grasha-Riechmann Student Learning Style Scale addresses six dimensions of social interaction.

Some learning styles work is based on psychological type theory. Three instruments based on this broader picture of the individual include: 

Personality theory is based on two attitudes toward the world and four ways of functioning in the world. A learner may be introverted (focused on the inner self) or extraverted (focused on the world outside of the self). In addition, a person will have a preferred way of functioning. The Thinker makes judgments based on logic and analysis. The Feeler makes judgments based on values. Sensers perceive the world through their five senses. The Intuitive relies on hunches, imagination and possibilities.

Learning styles may be derived from psychological type preferences and matched to learning strategies. One person may use extraverted thinking and learn best by planning, organizing and structuring his or her own learning experiences (self-directing). Another learner, using introverted thinking, chooses to reflect alone about what is being learned and uses journal writing. A person with a sensing perspective might prefer structured, hands-on exercises. The individual using the intuitive function would prefer to explore what needs to be learned in an unstructured way.

Perception theory says that information should be presented through both visual and auditory channels. Patrick Suessmuth presents a learning style inventory that distinguishes among language learners, who prefer to hear or see words and sentences; numerical learners, who prefer to hear or see numbers; and kinesthetic learners, who prefer to learn through experiencing and manipulating materials.

Conditions or Needs
This approach to learning styles focuses on the social and physical conditions under which different individuals learn best. Dunn and Dunn’s model contains four categories: environmental conditions like light, sound, temperature and design of the learning space; sociological needs, which include working alone, in pairs or in groups and with or without an instructor present; physical needs, such as time of day and the need for food and mobility; and emotional conditions, such as motivation, persistence and the desire for structure.

The learning styles landscape is complex, but important. Open to question is whether learning styles are relatively stable or if they change over time with learner maturity and/or situational context. Also at issue is whether people are born with certain learning styles or can consciously develop multiple styles. No matter where you stand on these issues, as a professional responsible for worker learning and development, you need to be aware of how learners’ styles can aid or impede an offering’s success. One size training does NOT fit all. Training professionals need to adopt a “different stokes for different folks” mentality. Offering learning options that accommodate multiple styles helps learners absorb and master knowledge, skills and attitudes that are critical in the workplace. And after all, isn’t that what will help our companies grow and prosper? iBi

Susan Warren, MBA, is retired from the United States Postal Service and owns SKW Consulting. She is the immediate past president of the Heart of Illinois chapter of ASTD.