About learning styles – Our preferences around effective learning

Photo by Carl Folscher

Take a set of instructions, say the instructions for a self-assembly Ikea wardrobe. You might dive straight in and start the job without reading the instructions – plenty of us do. If you get stuck you might refer to them, but otherwise you find your own way. Your friend might delve straight into the written instructions and be perfectly happy working to those. Another person might avoid the written bullets like the plague and head directly to the drawn guidelines. Someone else might throw all of that way and rely on the online video instructions.

Each person has a different preference, a way to learn that they find the most effective, fastest, and easiest to get to grips with. While learning styles are context specific, and there’s some controversy about the idea in general, most of us seem to have our own preferences.

As a mentor, the same goes. As you can imagine, it’s helpful to know which learning style your mentee responds to best. Do they prefer to see the big picture or the fine detail before acting? Do they insist on exploring and reflecting on every aspect of the theory before taking action? Or do they just want to get going without delay? Naturally analytical people feel more at home with plenty of data to examine, while visual types often think best in images, and can have a talent for making unusual creative links.

This is what you need to know about learning styles, the upsides and down-sides of each, and what, exactly, is it about a learning style that helps people in their contexts.

Introducing Honey and Mumford’s learning styles

Peter Honey and Alan Mumford base their learning styles on David Kolb’s work about experiential learning. They identify four learning styles.

  1. The Activist – Learns by doing and is happy to jump in, enjoying challenges and often acting quickly
  2. The Theorist – Likes to know the theory behind what they’re learning, getting a kick out of concepts, hypotheses and facts. They like to gain understanding
  3. The Pragmatist – Needs to apply their knowledge to the real world and abstract ideas can seem less relevant. They enjoy testing new techniques and techniques
  4. The Reflector – Learns via observation, awareness and reflecting on the results. They like to watch or to reflect upon direct experience. They often work through to conclusions using a multitude of perspectives

The upsides and downsides of Honey and Mumford’s learning styles

Photo by Anne Nygard

Activists do and go. They love to take action, and fully immerse themselves in learning. They’re open minded about learning, and don’t pre-judge new things. They tackle new tasks with enthusiasm and don’t tend to be phased by high pressure. These people prefer teamwork, role-play and competitions. They thrive working with other people and relish dramas and challenges.

Theorists think hard before acting. They like to work to a system or model and make less emotionally driven learning conclusions. These people question things and to like to consider their assumptions. They usually do considerable analysis and research. Understanding the data comes before their logical and practical actions. Their learning is grounded in established concepts, theories and methods. Which is why they respond so well to learning via statistics and evidence.

Reflectors like to take a step back and observe. They don’t usually jump in or make instant decisions but listen, look, take different perspectives, and take time to think everything through. They learn well using questionnaires, interviews, feedback, and all sorts of activities involving observation, watching as the action unfolds. They may well enjoy experiential learning but will need time to process their new awareness and learning.

Photo by Ben White

Pragmatists use knowledge in a practical way. Often in a literal sense, learning by testing and experimenting, examining different ideas and solving problems. They don’t enjoy theoretical discussions but prefer to put things into action. Pragmatists enjoy learning that directly and easily applies to the real world. They like to experiment, then apply their knowledge in a tangible way.

Most of us fall into more than one category, of course, and the lines between the learning styles are often blurred. When you get it right you can achieve increased motivation, less conflict, improved concentration, better time management, and usually a better quality of work. On the other hand, it comes with the inherent danger of labelling people as either one thing or another, when in reality most of us have more than one preference around learning. In this sense it’s very interesting to note that team diversity studies reveal high performing teams as having diverse learning styles.

NLP on visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles

Neuro-Linguistic programming has its own set of three learning styles.

  1. A visual person thinks visually, memorises images, and uses visual words in their speech, things like see, look, appear, view, show reveal, and imagine
  2. An auditory person learns via verbal instructions and can sometimes repeat them word for word. They learn by listening and are good at picking up the subtleties of language. They use words like hear, sounds, listen, tune in, and resonate
  3. A Kinaesthetic memorises things by physical expression and by practising. They often use a strong intuitive sense and often make decisions according to gut feelings. They use words like feel, touch, grasp, get hold of, and catch on

Some believe the visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learning styles provided by NLP are over-simplified and can polarise our beliefs about the way people process information and learn. Whether this is the case or not, the Family Therapist, Virginia Satir (who greatly influenced NLP) says all of us grow more when we understand and respect our sameness and differences. We need to value both sameness and difference. We do all have our preferred ways of doing things and yet, we can also all experiment and find other ways to enrich our learning.
The mentoring art here is to notice your mentee’s preferences and to apply them aptly when the situation lends itself to working with them along these lines.

Helping someone make the most of their mentee experience

Knowing your mentee’s preferences can help both of you. By understanding their basic style or styles of learning your mentee can help you guide them and communicate information more effectively. It enables you to get on your mentee’s learning wavelength quickly. And all this means the time you spend together is potentially more meaningful. Your mentee achieves more easily and both of you find the experience satisfying.

If you’re a mentor who would like support in getting familiar with and recognising different learning styles, we’ll be pleased to help. Contact us.