When we talk about leadership and human performance, something we stress is that people are equal but never the same. That’s true for how we behave, what motivates us, how we interact with others and what we will do in specific situations. A tenet of leadership is that your leadership style should be based on the people and circumstances you are dealing with – not on what you personally prefer and are comfortable with.
This is also true for how we learn, or what’s referred to as our “learning style.” One person may love to read a book while another might prefer to see the movie. Some people need a group setting with discussions and debates to learn while others want to study individually. I might be interested in a topic that is of no interest to you. Certain people like to take detailed notes while others might be satisfied with slide images or no notes at all. You may have heard terms like “visual learner,” “auditory learner” and “tactile learner.” You should also know that every person has different levels of literacy and information retention skills.
What you have read above has a major implication for anyone who is a trainer (and by the way, everyone is a trainer): Training must be delivered in such a way that it is most effectively understood by trainees.
The trainer must be able to recognize their trainees’ learning styles and adapt accordingly to effectively train them. There is no right or wrong, good or bad, or preferred learning style. There is simply what will work best at achieving a learning objective for a specific group during a specific event. Let’s briefly examine the learning process so you can identify your own learning style, which is the beginning of adapting to the needs of others.
The Learning Process
There are quite a few principles of adult learning and numerous definitions of learning styles. For our purposes, let’s utilize a learning process that involves attending, translating, relating and understanding. Within that framework, we will discuss different learning styles.
Attending examines an individual’s motivation to learn and focuses on concentration when information is being presented. Attending is rated as either telescopic or wide-angled. The difference between the two is focus on the message (telescopic) or the entire learning environment (wide-angled). This category should have a major impact on items like training facilities, classroom setup, learning objectives and the training environment.
Translating includes the categories of dependent, collaborative and autonomous, which describe an individual’s preferred roles and interactions with others during the learning process. Dependent learners prefer a leader or trainer in a classroom environment. Collaborative learners favor group work and discussions in seminar-type settings. Autonomous learners like to have influence over training programs and will flourish with targeted assignments in independent environments, such as watching a video or participating in a directed reading in an online program. Among other things, translating should have an impact on the training platform and content structure.
Relating can be thought of as how an individual prefers to draw in information and compare it to their existing mental models and experiences. Learning tends to be visual (seeing), auditory (hearing) or kinesthetic (doing). As with the other categories, it is important to stress that no one is exclusively one of these types of learners, but most people prefer one type of learning over the others. Relating will impact things such as choosing to read a book versus listening to an audiotape or podcast, or offering a variety of teaching styles and exercises during training events.
Understanding focuses on whether an individual gravitates toward the big picture (global) or details (analytical). This category will decidedly impact the sequencing of training, staying on topic, focusing on multiple ideas and interacting with other learners. An analytical learner, for instance, is likely to value facts over feelings and prefers to work on one thing at a time. A global learner will lean toward people and systems and can go with the flow if the training sequence changes.
It is worth noting that this process is focused on training events and does not include evaluation and adaptation, which are critical components of effective training. We are using this process so you can understand your preferences and set up training events that will appeal to different types of learners.
Identification and Application of Learning Styles
After reading the descriptors above, you have probably determined some of the categories into which you fall. Perhaps you are a wide-angled, autonomous, auditory and global learner. You can take a much deeper dive into your learning style by taking a learning styles assessment (visit https://assessmyteam.com for more). The better you understand your style, the more you can decrease the natural tendency to impose your learning style on others.
Because no single approach will work for a training event, the structure of materials and delivery methods during training should be based on the learning objectives and account for each type of learning. That means training should be varied, and at least parts of each training event should appeal to everyone involved. It’s likely the trainer will need to adjust delivery methods during training sessions.
I like to think of training as communication and to define effective communication as mutual understanding. It is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve mutual understanding with multiple learners during a training event without understanding and applying all of the learning styles. I also believe that knowledge is power, and training is a great way to gain knowledge – if it is effective. Understanding how you learn and how others learn makes you a more valuable and effective trainer.
About the Author: David McPeak, CUSP, CET, CHST, CSP, CSSM, is the director of professional development for Utility Business Media’s Incident Prevention Institute (https://ip-institute.com). He has extensive experience and expertise in leadership, human performance, safety and operations. McPeak is passionate about personal and professional development and believes that intrapersonal and interpersonal skills are key to success. He also is an advanced certified practitioner in DISC, emotional intelligence, the Hartman Value Profile, learning styles and motivators.
About Frontline Fundamentals: Frontline Fundamentals topics are derived from the Incident Prevention Institute’s popular Frontline training program (https://frontlineutilityleader.com). Frontline covers critical knowledge, skills and abilities for utility leaders and aligns with the Certified Utility Safety Professional exam blueprint.
Webinar on Learning Styles
March 11, 2020, at 3:30 p.m. Eastern
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