Learning

by Melanie Greene

Identify your learning style preferences

One way to identify your learning style preferences is to read the descriptions below and see which ones you identify with most. Note that people can have one, two or three preferences, rather than just one.

Alternatively, there is a learning styles questionnaire that is designed to assist people in understanding how they learn in order to help them to learn more effectively. Your HR or training department will probably have a copy for you to use. If not, see the Want to know more? page for information about obtaining the questionnaire and a booklet about it.

General descriptions

Here are some general descriptions of each learning style. While you are reading them, you might find it useful to note the pieces that appear to be particularly relevant to you.

Note

These descriptions apply to the extreme versions of being an Activist, Reflector and so on. If you score only moderately on a style, you may find that only some parts of the description apply to you.

Activists

Activists involve themselves fully and without bias in new experiences. They enjoy the here and now and are happy to be dominated by immediate experiences. They are open-minded, not sceptical, and this tends to make them enthusiastic about anything new. Their philosophy is ‘I’ll try anything once’.

They tend to act first and consider the consequences afterwards. Their days are filled with activity. They tackle problems by brainstorming. As soon as the excitement from one activity has died down, they are busy looking for the next.

They tend to thrive on the challenge of new experiences, but become bored with implementation and longer-term consolidation. They are often gregarious people and constantly involve themselves with others, but in doing so they seek to centre all activities on themselves.

Reflectors

Reflectors like to stand back to ponder over their experiences, observing them from many different perspectives. They collect data, both first hand and from others, and prefer to think about it thoroughly before coming to any conclusions. The thorough collection and analysis of data about experiences and events is what counts, so they tend to postpone reaching definitive conclusions for as long as possible. Their philosophy is to be cautious.

They are thoughtful people, who like to consider all possible angles and implications before making a move. They prefer to take a back seat in meetings and discussions. They enjoy observing other people in action. They listen to others and get the drift of the discussion before making their own points.

They tend to adopt a low profile and have a slightly distant, tolerant, unruffled air about them. When they act, it is as part of a wide picture which includes both the past and the present, plus others’ observations as well as their own.

Theorists

Theorists adapt and integrate observations into complex, but logically sound, theories. They think problems through in a vertical, step-by-step way. They assimilate disparate facts into coherent theories. They tend to be perfectionists, who will not rest easy until things are tidy and fit into a rational scheme. They like to analyse and synthesise.

They are keen on basic assumptions, principles, theories, models and systems. Their philosophy prizes rationality and logic: ‘If it’s logical, it’s good.’ Questions they frequently ask are ‘Does it make sense?’, ‘How does this fit with that?’ and ‘What are the basic assumptions?’

Tending to be detached and analytical, they are dedicated to rational objectivity rather than anything subjective or ambiguous. Their approach to problems is consistently logical. This is their ‘mental set’ and they rigidly reject anything that does not fit with it. They prefer to maximise certainty and feel uncomfortable with subjective judgement, lateral thinking and anything flippant.

Pragmatists

Pragmatists are keen on trying out ideas, theories and techniques to see if they work in practice. They positively search out new ideas and take the first opportunity to experiment with applications.

They are the sort of people who return from management courses brimming with new ideas that they want to try out in practice. They like to get on with things and act quickly and confidently on ideas that attract them.

They are impatient with ruminating and open-ended discussions. They are essentially down-to-earth people, who like making practical decisions and solving problems. They respond to problems and opportunities as a challenge. Their philosophy is: ‘There is always a better way’ and ‘If it works, it’s good’.

Exercise

Which learning styles do you feel best describe how you prefer to learn? (Remember you can have more than one preference.)

  • Are there any learning styles that you actively avoid using?
  • How do your learning styles impact on how you learn?
  • What strengths does your preferred style provide you with?
  • What problems does your preferred style create for you?

Preferences

There is a considerable variation in the ways in which different people prefer to learn:

  • Strong preference for one style and likely to use just that style – 35 per cent
  • Strong preference for two styles – 24 per cent
  • Strong preference for three styles – 20 per cent
  • Strong preference for using all styles and therefore likely to complete the learning cycle on a regular basis – 2 per cent
  • No strong preferences, so they either don’t consciously use any of the four styles or are not aware of what they do – 19 per cent

What do your personal preferences indicate?

  • A moderate preference for two styles means that you can probably accept either of these styles as preferred learning styles.
  • A low preference for a style means that you probably actively dislike and avoid using that style.
  • If you feel that you have a low preference for all styles, perhaps you should go through the exercise again and reconsider your answers. Also, you might find that simply reading this section could encourage you to become a more proactive learner and thereby increase your scores.
  • High scores on all four styles means that you use all four styles, according to the situation which you are in, and that you are an all-round learner.
Key point

A strong preference does not equal a skilled learner.

A strong preference for one or more of the learning styles is just that – a preference. A high preference does not necessarily mean that you are skilled in that area and a low preference does not mean that you are incapable of developing that style of learning. In fact, the purpose of identifying your preferences is to enable you to develop your weaker styles and increase your scores in those styles.

I’m different outside work.

You may feel that you are different, and learn in other ways, outside work. For many reasons, people often behave differently at work to the way they behave at home, either because of the culture of the organisation they work in, or the roles, responsibilities and nature of the work they do. Some people can be themselves, but most of us wear ‘different hats’ according to what we are doing. What is important is how you learn at work and whether you complete the learning cycle and maximise your learning.

I’ve investigated my style preferences before and it’s very different this time.

Your learning style preferences, unlike personality traits, are more susceptible to change. In fact, the whole purpose of discovering what your preferences are is to identify how you might improve the way you learn by developing certain styles. Some people find that the job or situation they were in when they completed the questionnaire mentioned above had an influence on the styles they were using at the time. For example, a manager found that she came out as a strong activist in the past, but is currently only a moderate activist. Looking back, she recognised that she was in a role that required lots of fast decisions and thinking on her feet, while her current role allows her time to reflect more, which she realises is how she prefers to work and learn.

I’m only like this because of the job I do.

As already mentioned, the environment you are currently in may affect your learning preferences. If there is a big discrepancy between your preferred learning style and the way in which you are required to work, you might experience some pressures associated with that. For example, a member of staff who was very reflective found that his job required him to be more spontaneous than he usually prefers to be, which resulted in him feeling stressed at times. However, he enjoyed the job and decided that if he was going to pursue a career in this field he had to develop his activist style. Over a period of time, he was able to develop some of the activist behaviours while still maintaining his reflective style.