Learning styles are a lesson for training


line of relaxed people learning on devicesHow adapting your training can maximise results

Understanding peoples’ learning styles – how they learn and absorb information – is vital to the success of health and safety training, says Stephen Flounders, our Head of Health and Safety.

We all learn differently. Some people can read something, understand it and put it into practice without any difficulty. Others can receive verbal instructions, absorb them with ease and act on them straight away. And others need to go out and try something, for them to fully understand it.

What’s YOUR learning style?

The way we learn as individuals is often referred to as our learning style, or learning preference. A review of learning styles and theories, conducted by Frank Coffield and other authors in 2004, described 71 different learning style theories (and did not claim to be exhaustive). But there are also strong opinions suggesting that there is little factual evidence backing-up the many theories. Coffield’s review itself found that none of the most popular theories had been adequately validated through independent research.

dream office environmentRegardless of the number of valid learning styles theories, what is clear is that people learn very differently. There can therefore be no ‘one-size-fits-all’ style of training delivery – but it’s simply impractical to expect trainers to cater for the preferences of each delegate individually.

Nevertheless, trainers can take practical steps to plan and deliver effective sessions. That means sessions that enable all learners to participate, feel included and, most importantly, absorb and retain what they are being taught so they leave with the tools to put into practice.

Getting the health and safety message across

One of the worst feelings as a health and safety trainer, is trying to explain a concept and being met with blank expressions and scratched heads. And it’s even more frustrating if half of the group get it and the other half don’t! Often it’s a case of the message not being conveyed in the right way for everyone to understand.

If there are anything like the suggested 71 different models of learning styles, we can’t expect trainers to know the ins and outs of every single one. Countless hours would need to be spent preparing alternative lesson plans, while courses would lose focus and overrun. So what can we realistically expect?

Core principles and the VAK model

Health and safety trainers should have a basic understanding of some core principles, to make courses as inclusive and engaging as possible. One of the better-known learning theories is the VAK model. This uses the three main sensory receivers (vision, auditory and kinesthetic) to determine people’s preferred learning styles.

conceptual illustration of head in profile with cogs insideAccording to the VAK model, a visual learner prefers seeing or observing things. If you ask them to perform a new task, they’ll be best able to do it after reading instructions or watching someone else do it first. An auditory learner, on the other hand, prefers to listen to what is being presented. They’re best able to perform tasks after being told what they need to do by someone else. A kinesthetic learner, sometimes called a tactile learner, prefers a more hands-on approach. They learn best by doing a task, rather than simply reading or listening to instructions.

The importance of being adaptable

One of the best ways to deliver training which satisfies a range of delegates is to incorporate different techniques that will appeal to visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners. Blending techniques helps promote delegate participation and encourages them to share their own experiences and learn from each other. As a consequence, the training is more memorable, engaging and productive.

Listen and learn from your delegates

A great trainer will take the time to talk to delegates to see how they are getting on. Asking a simple question such as, “Have you understood, or do we need to think about this differently?” can make delegates feel valued and encourage them to ask for things to be presented in a different way. Successful training depends as much on the trainer understanding and learning from the delegates as it does on the delegates understanding and learning from the trainer.

Putting this into practice needn’t be complex. It requires planning and thought, but it certainly doesn’t require vast knowledge of multiple theories. Let’s look at a few examples.

Example 1: Risk assessment training
Prepare to use different methods to explain the concept and how it is put into practice. Use well written slides, accompanying handouts, and notes on flip-charts to cater for the visual learners on your course. Talk through your materials, for example discussing the ‘five steps to risk assessment’ and asking delegates to contribute their thoughts and experiences. This enhances the overall training, and helps auditory learners absorb what you’re teaching.
Finally, finish up with a practical session, where your delegates use materials such as forms and follow verbal instructions, to do a risk assessment themselves. The kinesthetic learners in the group will then have their chance to shine.


Example 2: Manual handling training
You might show diagrams and photographs of correct and incorrect lifting techniques, or even demonstrate such techniques to the group whilst explaining what is good and what is bad. This will satisfy the visual and auditory learners, whilst the kinesthetic learners in the group will compound this knowledge if you follow up with a practical session where they get to try lifting techniques for themselves.


Example 3: Accident investigation training
Similarly, visual learners attending an accident investigation course will absorb information in forms and process diagrams and procedures, whilst auditory learners may benefit from a discussion on the different techniques used during an investigation. A scenario-based role play will enable visual and auditory learners to put their knowledge into practice, whilst enabling the kinesthetic learners to try it out for themselves and learn as they go.

Conclusion: don’t let the theory bog you down

It’s difficult to dispute the suggestion that we all learn differently, but there are plenty of dissenting voices out there challenging widely referenced learning style theories. Whilst trainers need to be equipped with the skills to plan and deliver sessions that use a range of techniques, there seems to be little value in getting bogged down in the theory of learning styles. A more productive approach is to focus on how different training methods complement each other to enhance the learning of all delegates, rather than over-thinking how these techniques might benefit visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners in isolation.

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