Tip #2 for Making Learning Stick: Appeal to a variety of styles

Did you notice I didn’t say “learning style” in the title of this post? That’s because I am not convinced that any of us is locked in to any single one of the three styles characterized in pop culture: visual, auditory and kinesthetic/tactile. Three styles, three boxes to put people in — seems pretty limited to me. My experience shows that those three categories are but one way to understand the multifaceted interaction between an individual + learning experience, and individual + group + teacher.

I think of a “learning style” as an individual’s habitual pattern of acquiring and processing information. I stress habitual, rather than natural or inherent, because I believe that the learning environments that we are exposed to strongly influence us, and that we adapt over time or in the moment to adopt a style that works for the situation. For example, how many of us would be drawn to kinesthetic or hands-on learning as adults if we had learned that way when we were younger, rather than predominantly watching/listening and taking notes? Over the course of five workshops I have taught on being a trainer, most participants when asked to self-identify their style say they are visual, with the rest split between auditory and kinesthetic.

Well then, what is an adult educator to do? What is true about style and how it influences whether learning sticks? Here’s the essence of what I think is true:

  • Individuals differ in how they learn. Aristotle reflected in 334 BC, that “each child possessed specific talents and skills” and he noticed individual differences.
  • Learning experiences for adults that offer a variety of types or styles or modes of learning will meet more people’s needs than those that are limited to a single style, and may even tap into a yearning for variety that has been lost over time due a monotonous diet of “sit and listen”.
  • As in all efforts to be inclusive, doing something is better than doing nothing.

So mix it up: build in that engaging individual or small group hands-on project work, launch a debate by having people get up and find their place along a continuum representing opposing perspectives, play a brief audio clip to set up a discussion, use color to signal new ideas in your slides and handouts…  And above all, mix it up intentionally. Mix it up because you are an adult educator who designs and delivers learning that “sticks”, i.e. learning that causes a change in perspective and behavior.

That’s what I think is true about learning styles for adult education. What do you think?

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