Memorability is the Key to Learning

 In Change management

Learning styles have been a long-standing topic for debate. People were attracted to the idea that we are auditory, visual or kinetic learners. As a result of that thinking, trainers started to design courses to match the learning styles of their delegates. This is where the controversy arose (see this post for a taste of it), controversial because there was no evidence to suggest that we did actually adhere to single learning styles. And just consider how hard that would be to accommodate as you would need to assess your learners, categorise them, split them and then deliver to each group. Exhausting just thinking about it.  Let’s start by looking back to see where the different learning styles view came from.


The theories causing the debate

David A Kolb is the grandfather of learning styles. He broke down the learning process into steps that people work through to embed the learning. Some argue his four stages oversimplification but I like simple. His steps were: Feeling, watching, thinking, doing.   And those steps input to four learning styles that used a combination of those factors.


What is a valid takeaway is people have different personalities and different reactions to anything they experience. We’re not all uniform. And we have varying preferences across two scales of thinkers or feelers, watchers or do-ers. However, this will vary from situation to situation depending on our skills level, mindset, team position and so on – it is not always one preference.


Now where trainers made a mistake is where they narrowed all this down to all enduring learning styles. Which is a step beyond Kolb’s thinking. This is the part that tends to get the most criticism.


Memory is the key not learning style

Here is the key for me, learning isn’t just about the process of learning the task, it’s how well it sticks. How it gets put into the mental computer behind the short-term memory.   I’d argue that the use of auditory, visual and kinaesthetic used in combination makes it more interesting and that all contributes to how memorable it is, that is why the love of learning styles has endured. Mixing up experiences grabs more attention and makes it more memorable than one style alone.


What to take away

How people absorb information changes not only from person to person but also from moment to moment. Designing courses to match single learning styles is impossibly difficult. You can’t sort people to static categories and then apply a course to match their style, it’s just too fluid. BUT this thinking of designing courses to include auditory, visual and Kinaesthetic experiences is great because it’s just more interesting. That’s the key – mix it up. Make learning as interesting as possible in creative ways that grabs the attention and makes people remember.


Tips for learning

Know your objective is to enable the acquisition of new knowledge or skills, which is easier with an mix of styles.  If you think of learning as an ongoing process rather than a one or two day course as then your timeframes get bigger.  Your aim is to get to habit status and that is past the timescale of a single training session.


Tip 1: Think in learning journey timescales 

  • The more you can extend the learning journey and weave it in to aspects before and after the course the more chance you have to make it stick. Pre-course notes, questionnaires, post course activities, 6 month later reflection sessions and online forums are all great for this.


Tip 2: Use a story form:

  • Shape the topic into a story format with a start, middle and end so it’s emotionally engaging and people can naturally and logically follow the flow.
  • Have a framework to navigate you through. A visual simple map.
  • Use metaphors to describe an idea/concept in way that creates a picture in the mind.
  • Build and repeat: Layer on top of each message. Learning builds on existing learning so make sure all your participants start and move through on a level footing.
  • Build your learning story into 20-minute sections. Know that attention focus is about 20 minutes so if you switch things about, use a different medium and build in breaks then you restart that 20-minute clock. Design it to be multi-sensory to capture people’s interest.


Tip 3: Attention is key 

  • Move people around: Resets attention.
  • Interference affects memory. Fix that.
  • People like to fiddle to retain focus. Putting pipe cleaners on the table for heavy talking parts helps keep it multi-sensory.
  • Seek uniqueness and find the aspect of that topic that could evoke a sense of wonder. Notice what is bizarre, weird, extreme or exotic about a topic and exploit it’s attention grabbing properties.
  • Organize information in different visual ways–charts, tables, webs, VENN diagrams, flowcharts, graphs etc.
  • Pop quizzes or tests keep people’s attention because everyone is a little competitive. Kahoot is a kid’s test app that can be used equally successfully in workplace courses to embed a leaderboard into the fun.


Tip 4: Mindset is huge. 

  • Open up their minds to Carol Dweck’s mindset thinking (find the book on my reading list). It is great to get people thinking about how their mindset limits ability to learn.  You can start a learning exercise with a reflection on mindset.


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Photo credit: Sidney Perry, Unsplash



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