Learning Styles

My brain woke me up at 3:30 this morning, very excited to see me. “Oh goodie,” it said. “you’re up! I’ve been thinking about things and I have a lot to tell you about.” I tried to go back to sleep, but my brain simply would not shut up. So I got up, let the older dogs out, made coffee, and started working. Why not? I’m up.

Fuzzy ducklings

One of the things I do is teach baby engineers at UC Riverside. About 2 years ago, the Department Head of Comp Sci called me. We knew each other slightly because he’s brought students to IESTC meetings occasionally in the past when I was president of the chapter.

“We have a problem,” he said. “We’re graduating engineers that can’t communicate.”

“Really?” I said. “Well, that’s unusual. I think you’re the only program in the world that’s doing that because all the engineers I know communicate perfectly.”

They realized that this failure to communicate was impacting their graduates in the workplace. They needed to have a class that teaches them to communicate technical information to others. Would I be willing to teach that? So I grabbed my best friend and we set up a class that we co-teach 2 nights a week, because we have other jobs. She teaches Tuesday nights and I teach Thursday nights.

We teach Comp Sci, IT, and EE engineers in a class that’s required for their graduation. It’s very fun and I love my students. They follow me from lecture to lab, chirping and quacking, just like little fuzzy baby ducklings.

Most of them find themselves interested in learning what we have to teach them about communicating in the workplace. We explain that not only do they have to do presentations, functional specs, and the like, but their products communicate as well. It’s all about creating products, whether those products are test cases or hardware, that people can use.

Last night, we worked on Audience and Learning Styles. And that made me think that perhaps a post about learning styles and their impact on user assistance might be an interesting blog entry. Since I’m up.

Please, my mother said, don’t draw me a picture

 There are 4 learning styles in Adult Learning Theory:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Read/write (or word oriented)
  • Kinesthetic

You have a preference for taking in information one or more of these ways. More people prefer 2 or more but I’ve had students who scored zero in everything but 1 preference. If you prefer 2 or more, you are multi-modal. I’m strongly kinesthetic and word oriented, for example. I score lowest on visual.

What this means is that I prefer to learn by getting my hands on something or perhaps reading about it. Or both, if I can do that. I learn least well if you tell me about it and show me pictures. I can still learn that way – most people can learn in any of the 4 styles – but I struggle much more if you tell me about a topic and showed me pictures.

There are no “better” learning styles. And these can change over the course of your life; it’s not necessarily fixed.

Sometimes a picture is just a picture

Most Tech Comm people are strong word oriented learners. They like words. More words are better, they think, so they add words. Lots of words. Words make them feel better because words are how they best learn information. And if you’re writing for word oriented learners, more words are going to help your users learn. It’s a great match.

But what if your users are not word oriented? More words are not going to help. More words are going to make things harder. Perhaps your users are more visual. Perhaps your users are kinesthetic or auditory. How do you address the learning styles?

  • Visual – provide lots of graphics. Conceptual graphics are really helpful because it shows the user the relationships or the flow of data. If you’re developing content for online delivery, use moving pictures, such as screen videos. Even tables and bulleted lists can be helpful here because these are sort of pictures of information.
  • Auditory – write in a more conversational voice. If you are developing content for online delivery, perhaps a sound track or a button that starts a voice that tells about the topic, even if it’s just reading the text.
  • Read/write – more words are good.
  • Kinesthetic – provide as much Do material as possible. Numbered procedures are great, labs are good. In an online environment, perhaps include screen videos the user interacts with.

Shameless plug here: The MadPak Suite provides all the tools you need to support all the learning styles. And it’s easy to include sound, video and pictures in your online content.

It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt

So what does this all mean to you? You are always going to want to develop information that works with your learning styles. So if your reviewer says something isn’t clear and you’re a word oriented learner, you’re going to want to add more words. Because words make you happy.

Here’s a secret: If your reviewer says something is unclear, consider their learning style. If they jump to the white board to draw you a picture every time you ask them something, they’re a visual learner. Consider perhaps adding a conceptual graphic to clarify for them and other visual learners. If they always physically act out what they’re talking about, they’re more kinesthetic. Consider adding more Do material to support that learning style.

Also consider learning styles when working with your boss. If they are a visual learner and never seems to read your weekly report, consider creating a picture out of the data and sending that. You may discover they grasp what you’re doing much better.

It’s time for me to do other things with my morning

If you want to learn more, and especially if you want to discover your learning styles, go to http://www.vark-learn.com/english/index.asp and take the 15 minute online questionnaire. You may be very surprised at the results!


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