As an appreciation of diversity has led to an appreciation of the individual—the new diversity—companies now want to use this uniqueness to enhance the effectiveness of training. New learning-style theories are helping them do it.
Many factors impact how well people can learn what we want to teach them. These influences include:
- Age or generation
- Culture and language fluency
- Level and types of intelligence
- Physical, neurological or neurobiological disabilities
- Learning environment
- Reason for learning
- Beliefs and attitudes
- Learned strategies
- Personality and source of motivation
- Learning style.
It's easy to see how allowing for so many influences could create problems for the training developer who trains many employees at once, but the influences trainers see most frequently are the last two: personality and learning style. Fortunately, today's learning and personality theories provide new training methods that address these differences in learners.
Programmed learning was one early attempt to take individual differences into account. The idea was that people come to training having varied backgrounds in the target material or behavior.
"You start with a test, and, based on how well you answer the questions, you're branched to a lesson that addresses your level of learning," says Tom Kramlinger, senior design consultant for Wilson Learning Corp. in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. After the lesson comes another test. "The problem is, if you don't pass, you go back to the same lesson that didn't teach you in the first place. It has little to do with learning style," he says.
The first step: assessments.
Before providing training for employees, it's important to know something about the needs of the employee and what's required for his or her job. Gary Langley, manager of HR and training for Motorola's Semiconductor Sector in Austin, Texas, says, "Each year we require the employee and his or her supervisor to identify what the business needs are for the department and the business, as well as the skill needs and deficiencies of the individual." This helps determine the approach to take.
In addition to training needs, an understanding of learning preferences is helpful. "We use a variety of methods to determine the best approach. Self-assessment surveys indicate how employees prefer to go about learning as well as what they need to learn," Langley says.
Many companies use a learning-style inventory to determine how employees prefer to learn. An inventory can show how trainees learn and communicate best.
Julie O'Mara, president of O'Mara and Associates in Castro Valley, California and coauthor of Managing Workforce 2000—Gaining the Diversity Advantage, says, "In our needs assessment, we gather information about learning preferences and may use a learning-style inventory. We sometimes ask trainees to list five teaching methods they like most and five they like least. This gives an additional clue as to the learning styles in the group and is easy to do."
Donna Stringer, president, Executive Diversity Services Inc. in Seattle, recommends that managers who know their own styles have employees determine their learning styles and talk about them. "As we work with supervisors and managers, there's often an ah-ha light bulb that goes on in their heads. They'll say, 'That's how I give instructions to my employees,'" Stringer says. She points out to them that, although this is the way they learn best, there may be employees they're coaching or mentoring for whom it might not be as effective.
Many organizations, such as Northwest Airlines in Egan, Minnesota, take advantage of the extra boost to training efficiency that results from using learning-style information when they design training. Les Kaschner, director of organizational excellence for Northwest, says, "We work hard to see that our programs take into consideration learning style and environment. We utilize and appreciate the learning styles of individuals."
Taking into account the mode of operation, the behavior and the learning style of participants can help determine the best approaches for groups of trainees as well, according to William Piper, vice president and director of training for Psychological Associates in St. Louis. "A sales training program needs to be action-oriented and quickly paced, keeping concepts brief, clean and focused. One that's slow, academic and paper-and-forms-intensive is destined for failure," he says. Many segments of our population are accustomed to television and to learning through a visual medium. If this is true for your trainees, Piper suggests easing up on the reading and writing exercises, and maximizing videotapes, discussions and team activities.
Although such generalizations often work, it's still best to keep an open mind about trainees' learning styles. Without an inventory, you may make inaccurate assumptions about trainees, according to Marilyn Coll, director of professional development and training for Irvine, California-based Fluor Daniel.
For example, there's an assumption that engineers are left-brain, linear thinkers. "This has led to a reluctance to using a variety of learning methods," says Coll. Trainers observe, however, that when participants have a choice of methods to present their key learning back to the group, they're very creative. "Instead of getting up and reading, they may role-play or give a pictorial presentation. These technical people seem left-brain, but what we're seeing may be just their response to organization norms, not an innate learning style," Coll says.
If an inventory isn't feasible, you still can gain insights into the way people approach their world by the way they respond to questions and how they interact with the trainer.
Although it's important to consider all types of learners, some trainers go overboard and try to allow for each variable for each trainee. "If you try to think about all the theories of personality at once, it gets to a point where you can't hold that many balls in the air and still think about the subject matter," Kramlinger says.
How do you account for these learning-style and personality variations without being overwhelmed? Celebrate the diversity of your trainees. Kramlinger says that it isn't so important that you identify the right styles or that you have the right theory. "What's important is that you apply some theory. Any theory of individual learning styles will encourage the use of a variety of activities, which will help everyone learn better," he says.
Northwest Airlines spends considerable time and effort creating an environment for its train-the-trainer program that will prepare trainees for learning. "We use a lot of color in the classrooms. We bought some kites that are 20 to 40 feet in length and put them on the ceiling, for example," says Kaschner.
Then trainers at Northwest make sure they have a good outline, a bibliography and some good recapping concepts, so that people who are analytical have the opportunity to get what they need. "We try to stimulate both sides of the brain," Kaschner explains. "We use skits to help people summarize their learning, or they act out what they've learned in small groups, as opposed to writing a three-page report on the major concepts. This feeds the creative, nontraditional interaction," he adds. "We've found that by integrating these approaches to learning, there's a greater likelihood that people will work toward trying different learning styles when they train a group because they've seen the behavior modeled for them," he explains.
Ned Herrmann, president of the Ned Herrmann Group in Lake Lure, North Carolina, also takes an approach based on the assumption that the group is diverse. "Rather than tailoring training to the individual, I like to provide a variety of techniques. All key learning points are paraphrased in multiple ways. This guarantees that each is understood as intended. This works because the world is a composite whole brain," he says.
"Some people can learn in any style," says Taylor Hartman, a psychologist in Laguna Hills, California and developer of the Color Code theory of personality (see "Learning-style Theories"). "If you offer them a segment of all styles, however, you contribute to buy-in. Give them a total of 15 minutes out of the hour in their own preferred style, and they'll respect the rest of what you do," he says.
Providing a variety of learning activities helps ensure that each learning style is fed what it needs, but there may be a benefit to providing this variety. "I believe that for something to be genuinely learned, we have to learn it in more than one way; maybe not all other ways, but more than just one way," says Stringer.
Kaschner's programs take all the senses into account, but also recognize the value of combining these techniques with the cerebral approach to learning, which may be the preferred style of some employees. "We like to use a concert review with some of our training programs," he says. Rather than giving a quiz or leading a traditional academic review, Kaschner recommends putting on soft music and mentally walking people through the review. The trainer might tell the trainees to picture what they were like when they came into the room. How did they feel? What did they see? What were they thinking? The group then discusses the main points.
Kaschner has found that trainees remember much better after using this imagery technique. "It can be powerful, especially if the program is a couple of days in duration. It helps them get the feel for what they've learned, and it helps them recap emotionally where they've been. This reinforces the OKness of the learning—most people don't come into the program with a real sense that it's OK to learn in front of others," he says.
An understanding of learning-style theory can be useful, not only for managers and trainers, but also for trainees. Learning-style theory provides a nonthreatening way to talk about appreciating diversity. "This is one difference in individuals that's acceptable to talk about," says Kramlinger. "We can say, 'Isn't it wonderful that we have these learning-style differences!' The trainer makes diversity into an open topic in the classroom. That's a way to celebrate it. Other types of diversity may be present in the class, but this one you can comment on openly, use and even joke about," he says.
Partners in learning.
Companies that provide the tools for learning and make their culture of learning evident have employees who are empowered to become their own trainers and to take charge of their own learning processes throughout life.
Even without a background in learning-style theory, people already know that they like some learning activities better than others. For instance, Motorola provides refresher courses that are open-ended so that employees can pick up the skills they want. "Some people know better than anyone else what they need, but may be embarrassed to go through a basic skills course to prepare themselves for higher-level training," Langley says.
Motorola addresses this problem by providing the option of a one-on-one, instructor-assisted, computer-based or class-room program. "People seem to prefer one type of program," Langley observes.
Many organizations provide these self-training opportunities. "We have an audiovisual library where employees check out videotapes provided by our vendors," says Susan Levering, director of HR for Branch Electric in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. The library has self-tests made up by employees. "We give course credit for watching the tapes and taking the tests. We have audiocassettes on selling skills and communication skills, and self-instruction materials developed by vendor groups, as well as a series of in-house, interactive seminars on computer and communication skills, and on our product line," she explains. The optional seminars are taught by employees trained by the company.
The ability of the trainee to continue self-directed learning after the training program may make it cost-effective to teach and demonstrate learning-style theory. Stringer, for example, addresses learning styles head-on. "We introduce each session with what we know about learning styles. We point out that if they think something we do is the stupidest thing, they should remember that there's a good chance that someone else will be as happy as a clam about it," she says.
Kramlinger agrees that it's useful to present learning theories to the trainees. "It helps them learn to teach themselves. This is the biggest payoff, extending the value of the training. You haven't just given them a fish; you've taught them to fish," he says.
A learning feast.
Just as the cook provides a variety of dishes but would never serve dessert until the end of the meal, the trainer should include some of each of the styles, but in a certain order, according to some training specialists. "Some trainees want to know first why they're here and why the training is relevant," explains Kramlinger. "Another group wants to know lots of information. Then there are trainees who love games and want only the basic information, and then to practice. Finally, there are the learners who just want to get the idea and then run with it. Some of them can learn from that alone," he says.
Trainees also have common needs, however. Everybody needs a little information at the beginning of training to answer the question what; everybody benefits from having a foundation before they move on to the next thing, according to Kramlinger. "Practice is also good for everyone," he says. Finally, all trainees must apply on the job what they've learned in the classroom. He recommends incorporating all of the learning styles, but in a sequence that moves learning for everyone through these elements in the order in which they're relevant to the stage of the lesson.
Lucy Freedman, president of Syntax Communication Corporation in Los Gatos, California, agrees. "Teaching teachers to use neurolinguistic programming (see "Learning-style Theories.") should go beyond defining the learner as visual, auditory or kinesthetic. Pay attention to sequence for certain tasks, such as spelling. There are some ideal representational sequences," she says.
Freedman cautions, however, that although some technical skills seem to require particular sequences, there are ways people can use their dominant learning style to accommodate these sequences. For example, a very kinesthetic engineer who was designing integrated circuits tested them by visualizing himself as an electron traveling through the circuits.
Nuts, bolts and tips.
According to Fluor Daniel's Coll, the most-important steps in designing training that appeals to various learning styles are to:
- Establish a clear-cut target audience
- Conduct a pre-survey of attendees, if time permits, or contact them by phone to establish their learning needs and extent of past experience
- Pilot-test programs and alter delivery techniques, based on pilot-group response.
Games are one of the most-neglected areas in most training programs, although they're useful for most training situations. Mary Ellen Dunn, director of corporate staff development for AAA Mid-Atlantic in Philadelphia, says, "We intersperse games in the training if we have time, to give people a chance to play with it," she says. If trainees can play with a concept, they'll own it. "Games are the hook. They're nonthreatening. I like to compete. I try to build games into everything," she says.
Dunn explains that the placement of the game in the program is important, however. "I find it most effective as a review or transition from one segment to another. We play Jeopardy in teams as a review. They're required to chat up an answer before they can respond. It takes the pressure off the individual. As a summary, we do Wheel of Fortune," she says. These techniques work by involving trainees physically and emotionally, as well as intellectually. Games also appeal to the individuals who are motivated by a need for fun, thereby increasing buy-in.
There are many ways this can be done. "We break them into groups and have them make lists of concepts they feel are important. Then we put the lists up on the walls and have a gallery tour. The participants go from one to the next with their markers and can add things," Dunn says.
Trainers often resort to the traditional lecture-discussion format because they feel more comfortable with it. To break away from a dependence on this approach, Dunn recommends limiting discussion of rational ideas or theory to no more than 20% of the module time. "Group discussion, exercises, role-playing and so on help the group understand and own the information," she says.
Although it's important to provide a variety of activities that appeal to the various learning styles, techniques that work well for some trainees may turn off others, if care isn't taken to make them appealing. "The feeling is that lack of preference is more important than the preference," Herrmann says. "It shuts people down and they drop out. Make potential shut-downs so creative, unique, different and nonthreatening that they want to use it. Don't use a canned approach," he advises.
Kramlinger suggests breaking the trainees into groups that have relevant differences. "Put all the auditory learners in one group, visual learners in another, and so on," he says. Then have the auditory learners come up with a song; the kinesthetic learners with a skit; the visual learners with pictures. Then reverse it. Have the auditory learners come up with a picture, he suggests.
Learning to deal with perceived failure is an important aspect of training. It isn't necessary for trainees to be successful every time on the first try. People learn from their mistakes, according to Joe Oakey, president of Sausalito, California-based AutoDesk Foundation. "Our current school system views a mistake as a dishonor. I went to Denmark and toured the Lego® plant. One of the managers told me that we should measure employees' ability by how many times they fail. That's learning," he says. Trainees who are less secure emotionally will need support during an activity that involves the likelihood of mistakes, however.
People who have disabilities may have special needs in addition to their own individual learning-style preferences. Sue Gorbunoff, placement coordinator for the International Center for the Disabled in New York City, says that trainers should be willing to discuss openly what reasonable accommodations may be needed and should ask appropriate questions of a person who has a disability.
All this training is of no use if it isn't used once the trainee is back in the workplace. "I don't think there's a company that isn't working to take training out of the classroom and put it into the place of work," says Coll.
It's important to get the learning experience closer to the actual physical workplace to foster the application of skills and increase the transfer of training, according to Coll. "The challenge here is that we won't have a human instructor to notice when the training falls off. Because of this, in the future, there will be increased pressure on the designers of training to take all learning styles into consideration," Coll explains.
To maximize transfer, Dunn says her organization no longer trains more than a few people from the same work group at the same time. "When we've sent a lot of people from one group through the program at the same time, they would forget as a group after a couple of months," she says.
By training a few at a time, Dunn has found that employees who have been through the program more recently remind the others to use their skills. "That person is fresh out of class and has the support of the supervisor in using the skills," she says.
Kaschner promotes transfer by having participants of a 30-day program write out an action plan that indicates behavior changes on the job or some type of accomplishment or achievement. "We have people write down the action plan and then we mail it back to them with a note after 30 days. This helps them focus on practicing the behavior for a 30-day period. We also check on their progress and make sure they work toward that goal," he says.
One way to promote transfer of training is to provide a mentor to reinforce in the workplace what has been learned in the classroom. Motorola uses contracts between trainees and mentors, specifying actions for them to take to continue the training process.
"Once trainees walk out of the classroom, they're required to work with a mentor as part of the program," Langley explains. "The mentor coaches the employee on how to implement the skills. Usually this person is a senior-level person who isn't the supervisor," he says.
AAA Mid-Atlantic builds continued learning into each annual appraisal process. "There's a personal- and career-development piece that each person completes. We'll work on a plan to enable a person to get access to other work groups, expand his or her job duties to take advantage of new job skills, or find ways to learn what's needed," Dunn says.
The success of these programs should be evaluated by objective means, according to Dunn, whose company evaluates results by requiring each participant to fill out an evaluation of training, and another document that goes into the employee's personnel file. "This tells us whether the training has met personal objectives and training objectives," she says.
Sometimes unexpected benefits make the value of training obvious, with or without formal objective feedback. For example, Kaschner tells of a program put on at Northwest Airlines a few years ago. The program, Achieving Competitive Excellence (ACE), resulted, he says, in management's embracing the content of the program as well as the process. "After the program was over, the participants started up a program of their own, called the ACE Network. They met and talked about how they could promote the content," he says.
The ACE Network was helpful in promoting transfer of learning, but it provided Kaschner with an opportunity for an interesting observation. "It struck them that the things they held onto were the skits and the unique ways of presenting content. This suggested that what they walked out with was a heightened sense of how people learn," he says.
Perhaps it's our nature as human beings to assume that other people function and see the world as we do, and are motivated by the same things that motivate us. We know now that it isn't so. If we aren't making use of that knowledge—that is, transferring the learning to the workplace—we're wasting a portion of the talents of our employees.
Personnel Journal, September 1992, Vol. 71, No. 9, pp. 86-94.