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What do different learner types mean for training design?

Our different personalities naturally extend to the different ways we learn best, so how can a learning designer create a course that works for different learner types?

We all have our preferred ways of learning. Some of us work better if we can research and prepare for a task beforehand, and some of us prefer to plunge right in and learn on the job. So it should come as no surprise that incorporating different learner types into your course content is essential for ongoing engagement, completion and information retention.

In addition to this, according to a widely accepted theory developed by Neil Fleming in the 1980s, people’s learning styles can be separated into visual, auditory, reading and kinaesthetic (physical) methods. This theory is known as ‘VARK.’ The validity of separating people by the concept of preferred sensory learning styles has been heavily questioned in recent studies, but people still feel that they fit into one of these categories. These differences in preference probably stem more from personality; whether someone relates best to activity, conversation or taking a step back to take in information for themselves.

Creating digital learning content that works for everyone can be a challenge. The most effective approach is to provide the material for users to optimise the course to their own styles of learning. A learning program with flexible user functionality and a variety of content will allow learners to take advantage of the elements that they most respond to.

Designing with the learners in mind

To show what a learning designer is up against, let’s look at three hypothetical learners, with different learner types: Ali, Nathan and Rose.

Learning and personality

Ali sees himself as a kinaesthetic learner. He has always preferred to learn skills by trying them for himself first, and finds it hard to concentrate on explanations that he can’t attach to action.

Nathan, on the other hand, hates feeling unprepared for a task and likes to know all the information he can before he starts on it. He also thinks of himself as a visual learner, and takes in written information easily. He likes to be able to read things through a few times, and starting on the practical side of a skill when he feels confident in his knowledge already.

Finally, like Nathan, Rose feels uncomfortable beginning a task when she knows nothing about it, but she doesn’t enjoy reading manuals. She is an conversationalist by nature and prefers to listen to another person explaining the subject to her.

Hypothetical leaners represent different learner types

A course that works for everyone

Nathan, Rose and Ali work at a restaurant and they are all enrolled on a course on Food Safety.

The designer of the course doesn’t know them personally, but can anticipate that they’ll need to cater for people with differing learning preferences. If they have the time and the budget, they might address this by delivering their content as a range of different media types. This will hopefully offer something for each of the learner types.

There is a danger, however, of making your learning incomprehensible by trying to address all the possible preferences of all of your users. The designer shouldn’t just try to cram in every different kind of media they can think of if it will mean compromising on clarity. To make an effective learning course, the best core approach is to start at the content itself – what you want the learner to gain – and model your course around the best way to explain that particular subject. If you are trying to teach colour theory for example, it would make no sense to have an audio clip of someone describing colours without a visual aid.

Flexibility in learning

People have different approaches to everything, and learning is no exception. A course that allows learners to utilise its content in their own way will produce the best results.

A simple distinction to cater for is whether users prefer to study material before putting it into action, or to learn through action. There are ways to approach both preferences at the same time.

A combination of initial subject summaries with multiple quiz follow ups is a useful solution, especially when the quizzes are built with detailed feedback content and allow several attempts at passing. Users who prefer to study first can make use of the subject summaries before attempting the quiz. These could contain links to more comprehensive sources of information. Users who prefer learning through action can spend less time on the initial summary, but make use of the feedback while they go through the quizzes as many times as they need.

A course that allows learners to utilise its content in their own way will produce the best results

If possible, simulating real-life situations can be very effective. This doesn’t have to mean launching a full virtual reality experience; getting a user to imagine a hypothetical scenario works too. While it is difficult for a user to try their knowledge out in practice within the confines of a digital learning course, this comes as close as possible to bringing practical activity into the training. You could also ask learners to go away and try out what they have learned in real life, coming back to assess or write about it in open answer quiz questions.

Simulating real-life situations comes as close as possible to bringing practical activity into the training

The designer of the restaurant’s Food Safety course decides to use a flexible content and quiz model. The content itself is a mix of media in order to appeal to visual and auditory information retention. Text and graphic content is interspersed with videos of people explaining the main content in a conversational way. Looking at these before taking the quiz will keep Nathan feeling informed and happy, and Rose will respond well to the simulation of a human interaction. Ali might skim over the summary information, though the video content will grip him more than plain text. Once he starts the quiz however, he will learn from the feedback on answers he gets wrong.

The designer might also choose to follow a scenario model and ask the learners to imagine themselves in a work situation. In this case, the videos might feature an actor who gives the user a brief on their food safety responsibilities as if they have just started working at his restaurant.

Video clips appeal to visual and auditory learner types

User freedom

We all know from experience that information sticks best when we’ve chosen to learn it ourselves. This is not a situation that you can easily produce in a course, but you can make learners feel in control of their own learning process. A flexible LMS platform will allow learners to navigate and repeat course material at their own convenience.

It’s important to put yourself in the position of the student at all stages of content writing and design. Would you enjoy the course if you were taking it? If not, they probably won’t either.

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