Is this the end of learning styles?


Latest research to optimise your training – food for thought?

Big news in the world of Learning and Development. A report in the New Scientist last month pointed out that some of the most common techniques we rely on to learn and train others are pretty useless. These included keyword mnemonics and personalised learning styles – staples of train-the-trainer programmes everywhere. So what are the latest insights, and how can we incorporate these into our training programmes? See what you think…

1. Train in a similar environment

We know that smell has a powerful impact on memory – a whiff of our mother’s perfume can instantly send us back to childhood.

Research at Brown University, Rhode Island, has shown that being distracted is more powerful than other environmental learning aids, even smell. Students did better when they both learned and performed in similarly distracting environments than those who were distracted in just one context.

So if your delegates are going to have to perform their skills in a busy call centre, for example, it is better to create a noisy training room environment. “It didn’t matter whether or not the distractions were the same on both occasions, but the degree of distractions had to be similar.” Know it all:10 secrets of successful learning by Emma Young, New Scientist issue 3014

2. Test, train, test and test again

A landmark study on the importance of self-testing at Purdue University asked students to learn a set of 40 Swahili words. Those who tested themselves repeatedly during the training session scored 80% on average when tested one week later. Those who didn’t test themselves scored just 36% on average.

Several studies have since backed up these findings. One, carried out by UCLA psychologist Elizabeth Ligon Bjork, found that pretesting raised performance on final-exam questions by an average of 10% compared to the control group. “The basic insight is as powerful as it is surprising: testing might be the key to studying, rather than the other way around. As it turns out, a test is not only a measurement tool. It is a way of enriching and altering memory.” Why Flunking Exams Is Actually A Good Thing by Benedict Carey, The New York Times Magazine, Sept 4 2014

So the old-school technique of test-teach-test seems to work, with the pretest acting as a primer for what is to come, and the later tests strengthening recall.

3. Teach to learn

If you want to learn something, read about it. If you want to understand something, write about it. If you want to master something, teach it.”

– Yogi Bhajan

Wise words that nearly all trainers can relate to!

And these too have been borne out in a recent study. “Our research shows that pretending that you’ll have to teach will help you learn…It leads to active retrieval from memory, and helps with organising one’s thoughts as well as identifying knowledge gaps that one needs to fill” says Nate Kornell at Williams College.

Actually teaching seems to work even better, so having delegates train each other on specific tasks or knowledge is another technique to improve the quality of their learning.

4. Encourage video games

If you’re training tasks that involves sensorimotor skills – such as processing a telephone order or logging a customer complaint on a computer – then action video games may help.

“If one is in a new job that requires a high level of sensorimotor skills, say, then playing several hours of action video games each week could be a worthwhile investment” says Jay Pratt at the University of Toronto.

So encourage students to play video games during break times and after the training day has finished.

5. Use learning styles to fit the task, not the learner

In his fascinating TED talk 10 myths about psychology, debunked, Ben Ambridge claims that learning styles are “…a complete myth. Learning styles are made up and not supported by any scientific evidence.” In fact, when a group of learners were taught and tested in a learning style that was opposite to their preference, they performed exactly the same as those taught in their preferred style.

He refers to visual, auditory and kinaesthetic (VAK) learning styles, and suggests that you match your approach to the material rather than the student. So if you’re training someone to perform a manual task like driving a car, a kinaesthetic approach is going to work better for all students regardless of their individual preferred learning style.

In the same lecture, Ambridge debunks other theories such as the differences between male and female brains, and left-handed people being more creative than right-handed people.

Some of these findings may be surprising, others more intuitive. Is it time to give up on some of our favourite learning theories? What do you you think?

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