Learning Styles: improving your training effectiveness

By Anne Sexton - Last update

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Brian Moore and Guy Flouch outline how to improve training effectiveness by developing a greater understanding of the different learning styles of trainees.

Learning is the goal of training. As trainers, you have probably noticed that some trainees appear to learn ‘quicker’ or ‘more easily’ than others. While we are all natural learners, research has discovered that we all have preferred ways of learning, as well as preferred ways of absorbing information. Therefore, if information is presented to us in line with our preferred learning style we are more likely to learn quickly. This has a huge impact on trainers and on how trainers might, most usefully, present information to trainees.

Learning Styles & David Kolb

Many of the discoveries on learning styles derive from the work of Carl Jung. His 1923 book Psychological Types typecast people in order to predict their personalities.

Isabel Briggs Myer continued Jung’s work, using it to create the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. This is the most widely used psychological profiling system in business today. Kolb, Honey & Mumford also made important contributions to adult learning theory. In the 1970s, Berenice McCarthy contributed the 4MAT System for Learning.

David Kolb identified two separate learning activities: perception and processing. Kolb asserts that some people best perceive information using concrete experiences, like feeling, touching, seeing, and hearing. However, others best perceive information abstractly, such as by using mental or visual conceptualization.

Once you perceive information, you must process it. Some people process information best by active experimentation. That means doing something with the information. Others perceive best by reflective observation – that is, by thinking about it.

There are four learning dimensions in Kolb’s model:

  • Concrete experience: learning from specific experiences, relating to people, and sensitivity to feelings and people
  • Reflective observation: careful observation before making a judgement, viewing things from different perspectives, and looking for the meaning of things
  • Abstract conceptualisation: logical analysis of ideas, systematic planning, acting on intellectual understanding of a situation
  • Active experimentation: ability to get things done, risk taking, influence people and events through action


Top-down and bottom-up processing

Kolb’s model is only one of many. Anthony Gregorc modified Kolb’s dimensions by focusing on random and sequential processing of information. This is similar to top-down and bottom-up processing.

Top-down learners look at the whole task (random) while bottom-up learners proceed one-step-at-a-time (sequentially).

McCarthy’s 4MAT System

In the 1970s, Berenice McCarthy devised her 4MAT System for learning. She broke down learning styles into four categories:

  • Those that want reasons: they habitually ask why
  • People that want facts: they ask what
  • Pragmatists: they want to do things, to find out how things work
  • The remainder want to explore consequences: the what if

In general, McCarthy broke down a typical learning population, between these styles, as follows:

4MAT Learning Style Percentage
Why Discussion 35
What Teaching 22
How Coaching 18
What if Self-discovery 25

The percentage of people fitting into each category as shown in Table 1 is roughly evenly divided. If your training accommodates these styles it will have the desired impact with all of the delegates.Table 1: The percentage of learners attributed to the different styles under the 4MAT System

Accommodating different learning styles

In a corporate setting any group from salespeople and managers, to engineers and accountants, will often have a role-centred bias towards a particular learning style. In addition, different national cultures have their own unique learning styles. Therefore, this is worth considering too, when structuring the training.

As a general rule, to achieve optimum results, ensure that each module of the training includes discussion, teaching, coaching and self-discovery. As a result, you will satisfy all four of McCarthy’s categories.

How to sequence the training

If participants are to carry out a practical exercise, a demonstration can given by the trainer. When participants do the exercise, the trainer is on hand to provide additional coaching. This ensures that they complete the exercise correctly. Following each exercise, participants can give feedback on the learning and or clarify anything they were unsure of.

Therefore, when designing your training, you need to ensure that you order and sequence the information for the learners to accommodate their learning styles. You should do this in the following order:

Firstly, start with the whys. Until you get the learners motivated to listen to you, they’ll potentially switch off. To engage these people it’s important to give them reasons why they should listen.

The next step in the process is the what information. These are the facts relating to your topic or subject or the details of the exercise you are about to send them on.

Thirdly, the how. In training, this is often an exercise where they do something to reinforce the subject being taught.

Lastly, the what if or the consequences.  This is often satisfied in training by asking: “What did you learn; what did you discover? and what questions do you have?”


Anne Sexton

Don't underestimate the importance of Continuing Professional Development (CPD)
Trainee Resistance: an alternative approach by Professor Raanan Lipshitz


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