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How do you prefer to learn?


Dr Peter Honey on why everyone should be aware of their learning style preferences

I am often asked questions about learning style preferences.

For example, people often wonder where learning styles come from; are they born or made? And, if made, at what age they can be reliably detected?

There are other questions too such as, if learning style preferences exist (cynics doubt that they do!), how could knowing someone’s preferences be helpful, either for the individual or for people helping them to learn?

Before offering my answers to questions like these, I should warn you that not everyone agrees with me but, over a long career steeped in learning styles, not unnaturally I have reached some conclusions.


Where do learning style preferences come from?

This is basically a ‘nature - nurture’ question. The assumption is that learning styles are, like any other styles, acquired and not inherited or innate like your blood group or hair colour. In other words, learning styles have been learnt as a result of being exposed to hundreds of experiences, some liked and some disliked.

This is important because it means that learning styles are malleable, not fixed. Even preferences that have become internalised as habits, can be modified, either by a change of circumstances or because someone sets out deliberately to strengthen an underutilised style.


By what age are learning styles detectable?

Acquiring a style takes time. Children need to have experienced a variety of learning activities and teaching methods, some of which will have been relatively passive (for example reading) and some relatively active (for example taking part in a school play).

For a whole host of reasons, an individual child will find certain activities more enjoyable than others and preferences will start to develop. Enjoyable activities get reinforced and become even more enjoyable while less enjoyable ones will, where possible, be avoided or, at best, tolerated. No one knows how long this process takes, but I estimate that by the age of 9/10 a child will have been exposed to enough different methods for detectable preferences to emerge.


So what?

The discovery that people develop different learning style preferences is good news for individual learners.

Things suddenly fall into place and people understand (often for the first time!) why they learn more easily from some activities and find others less appealing.

For example, some people love having a go and learning from trial and error. Others find trial and error a bit scary and prefer to research and prepare carefully before having a tentative go.

Still others like to watch a demonstration and have the chance to quiz an expert before trying for themselves.  And so on...

These preferences are all examples of diversity. The diversity of learners tends, by the way, to be inconvenient for teachers because it means that one size will never fit all – hence the emphasis on personalised learning. 


Getting people interested in how they learn 

Completing the Learning Styles Questionnaire is an attractive way to get someone interested (often for the first time!) in how they learn - in particular their comfort level with the stages in Kolb's learning cycle (do – review – conclude – plan).

This helps them become more aware of the short cuts they tend to take (for example skipping the review stage) and to see how their learning could be made more thorough.

Most people take their learning for granted and rarely think about how they do it and whether they could become more effective at learning.  Being aware of learning styles preferences is a good starting point.


Helping people play to their strengths

Once someone knows their learning style preferences, they are better equipped to choose learning experiences that suit their predominant style(s).  This helps them learn more easily and more effectively. There are useful lists showing the sorts of experiences that people with different styles learn ‘best from’ and ‘less well from’.


Developing a tolerance for activities that don’t match predominant learning style preferences  

When it isn’t possible for people to avoid a learning experience that doesn’t suit their preferences, having some insight into their learning style preferences helps them to understand why they are finding certain learning opportunities more troublesome.

This helps them to be more tolerant and, perhaps, to persevere on the basis that there is ‘no gain without pain’ and that learning is not always convenient or enjoyable.


Helping people to expand their repertoire 

Once people understand that their learning style preferences are flexible, not fixed, they can be helped to see how to develop under-utilised styles. There are considerable advantages in becoming an all-round learner.

For example, someone who is comfortable with all the stages in the learning cycle (do – review – conclude – plan) is equipped to take advantage of a greater range of learning opportunities than would otherwise be the case. They are able to fire on all four learning cylinders as opposed to chugging along misfiring on only one or two.


Other useful ideas for facilitators

There are other ways that managers can use information about learning style preferences beneficially. For example, the information can be used to: 

  • design better balanced (‘blended’) learning programmes
  • predict (and identify early) learning difficulties
  • put people with different learning styles together in pairs or groups 
  • allocate roles in role-plays or other participative training exercises
  • encourage people to produce realistic action plans/personal development plans taking their preferences into account

Everyone develops learning style preferences and knowing what they are makes learning – the gateway to everything else - more enjoyable and more efficient. 


Dr Peter Honey




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