Learning Styles in Learning Design

This article on Learning Styles in Learning Design was first published on the Learning Buzz web-site - now no longer in existence. Hence I have published it here, and I have added a brief introduction to Learning Styles for those not familiar with the concept, and a personal story to illustrate the idea.

Learning Styles preferences have important implications for individual learners, but the learning cycle and predominant learning style preferences are also factors that trainers and developers must take into account when designing effective learning processes and programmes. This article explores two real examples from my consultancy practice.

A Brief Introduction to Learning Styles
Learning Styles were developed by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford, based upon the work of Kolb. Kolb described the learning process as a cycle:

  • Have an experience
  • Review that experience
  • Conclude from that experience
  • Plan next steps
A learner might start at any point in the cycle, for each stage leads to the next and thus learning is a continuous and iterative process.
Learning Styles is based upon the premise that individuals may have a preference for one or more stages of the cycle and consequently neglect others. The 'Learning Styles Questionnaire' measures these preferences. Honey and Mumford labelled these stages (and preferred styles) as: Activist, Theorist, Reflector, Pragmatist - all necessary to the learning process, but over-emphasis on any preferred style may reduce the effectiveness of learning.

Activist:Prefer to learn by doingRisk engaging in one activity after another, without necessarily reflecting or drawing any conclusions.
Reflector:Prefer to sit back, observe and reflectMay not reach any conclusions, or put their learning into action
Theorist:Prefer to have everything organised into a neat schema as soon as possibleBut whose comforting conclusions may not be soundly based because of inadequate review.
Pragmatist:Prefer to leap into any expedient course of actionWithout necessarily taking the time to analyse the best course of action.

For more information on Learning Styles or to obtain materials refer to

Learning Style Preferences - A Personal Example
Here is an example from my own family to illustrate how learning style preferences can manifest themselves, even from a young age.
When my children were small we lived in a house where the television was placed in an alcove quite low down on a wall. Our first son crawled and walked early. As soon as he could, he got his hands on the TV and spent time 'playing with it' - pushing buttons, until one day he hit the right button and on came the TV. We fooled him for a while by removing the plug from the socket, but eventually he figured that out too.

Our younger son didn't walk until he was 14 months. He showed no apparent interest in the TV, but the day he did walk up to it, he switched it on first time. The trick with the plug didn't work at all with him - he worked out what we were doing straight away!

While our older son had been engaged in active experimentation, our younger son had observed what others did and built a theory in his head about how the TV worked.

Both mastered 'turning on the TV' at about the same age, but they had used very different processes to get there. This is the observation behind Learning Styles. People show marked differences in how they prefer to learn.

Incidentally, can you guess which son went on to become a chef where learning involves hands on practice, experimentation and creativity? and which son has a degree in Philosophy?

Learning Styles in Learning Design

"You aren't going to make us do role plays are you?" This concern was voiced over and over by the people I interviewed. I was designing a workshop on Performance Management for a disk drive manufacturer. Hmm - could there be a predominant learning style here? Sure enough, when we later used the Learning Styles Questionnaire on the workshop, there was a strong preference for a Pragmatist learning style and a very low preference for an Activist style.
In the meantime we reflected long and hard about how to develop feedback and performance appraisal skills in an organisation where the Personnel Department was referred to as 'the pink and fluffy people." We introduced the 'Managers' Performance Toolkit', got them trying out 'data based feedback' and provided lots of checklists, tips and opportunities to discuss application in the workplace. By the time we got round to the role-plays, we had built enough comfort and credibility for participants to make full use of this essential practice and feedback opportunity.
Fast-forward a few years and I was again conducting diagnostic interviews as input to a learning design: a Leadership Development Programme for SmithKline Beecham. This time I very consciously built in questions about how people liked to learn, as well as questions about the specific aspects of the leadership role they found most challenging.
Despite the size of the participant population and their spread across functions and geographies, there was remarkable consistency in the responses. This time the preferences were Pragmatist/Activist with very little liking for theory. The data led us to create 3 simulations as a key part of the workshop. All were based in the same fictitious company, which mirrored SB in many important respects. The high face validity of the simulations and their relevance to the specific challenges identified by participants made them a readily acceptable source of learning.
In both cases, by shaping the design to take account of dominant learning preferences we were able to engage participants quickly in the learning process. This doesn't mean neglecting or omitting necessary stages of the learning cycle. After all the manufacturing participants did spend half a day engaged in role pays - but it was the last half-day, not the first. In SB, theory input was provided where needed, but it was kept short and linked immediately to a real work application. For example, participants were introduced to personality types, then immediately applied the concept to a change management situation from their work environment.
By introducing Learning Styles during the workshops we were then able to encourage a wider exploration of learning opportunities. For example, in the SB programme, participants were encouraged to use a Learning Log to reflect both on what they were learning and HOW they were learning.
So while neither of these programme designs concentrated exclusively on the predominant style, it certainly influenced the general weighting and sequence of activities.
Had I not explored participants' preferences, I might easily have concluded that what worked for me, or what had worked in my previous employer, would work for all. Both of the programme designs have been highly successful. Had I relied on my Activist/Theorist style for inspiration, it might well have been a different story!

Published on HBC Web-site May 2002

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