Individuals take in and process information in a variety of ways, according to Terrence Maltbia, associate professor of organization and leadership at Columbia University. When it comes to employee development, it would serve employers to understand those differences and personalize learning accordingly, he told HR Dive.
“Wouldn't it be great if I'm a manager to know the learning styles of my people to know where they're energized, and use that as a basis for distributed work, and responsibility, and assignments and so on, so that I know how to best communicate with them and how to best motivate them?” he asked.
Maltbia, who specializes in adult learning, said recognizing learning styles and scripts — and acknowledging their strengths — is working smarter, not harder. He emphasized the importance of organizational support and broader application of a learning styles framework in the following interview, edited for clarity.
HR DIVE: For learning and development pros, and perhaps most importantly, managers and supervisors not well versed in learning styles, what are those styles, and how are they defined one from another?
TERRENCE MALTBIA: Each of the four general learning styles have indicators, or scripts — ways to know them when we see them.
- Diverging learners rely on concrete experience, what they feel, and reflective observation, what they see. The diverger is a “big picture” thinker who likes to take in a lot of information. This category of learners might include many visual and auditory learners who prefer to study reading material, videos, charts and graphs before starting a job or project, and could be avid note-takers.
- Assimilating learners rely on abstract conceptualization, what they think, and reflective observation, what they see. The assimilator likes to pull things together, integrate and connect a lot of unique and different ideas. They like to build and create models. They like to tinker.
- Converging learners rely on abstract conceptualization, what they think, and active experimentation, what they do. The converger is the opposite of the diverger. This person likes to focus on the bottom line and “get to the point.” This group might consider testing a theory as an equally viable path to learning, whether or not the test was successful.
- Accommodating learners rely on concrete experience, what they feel, and active experimentation, what they do. Like Nike, they “just do it.” These action-oriented kinesthetic, or tactile, learners process new information hands-on, might ask for examples of finer detail of concepts and tend to struggle with abstract and passive learning.
Each style has advantages and disadvantages. Most people possess a mix or balanced measure of the four learning styles. In fact, most life experiences require that we navigate, sometimes unnaturally, across all four styles.
What are the distinguishing characteristics of balanced learning styles, versus styles that lean more heavily in one direction?
MALTBIA: Learners balanced across different styles are able to flex quite easily in the ways they take in and process information, without any one area of dominance, which can be good for them individually, on teams and in business. They're like chameleons, able to adapt to learning styles of others to meet them where they are.
Conversely, dominance in one learning style shows where learning energy, or attention, is most concentrated. I’m dominant in the assimilating style, with about 80% of my learning facilitated through this style. The good news: people know where I stand and how I approach things. On the other hand, this means my capacity to accommodate or tap into those other styles of learning is only about 20%. It doesn't mean I can't do it, but it does mean that doing it takes more energy, time and effort.
Why do learning designers and other leaders need to know about learning styles? Why does this matter?
MALTBIA: First, they need to know learning styles exist. This demonstrates support for me as a human being in the world, for example, and efforts to understand my default way of learning. Second, when leaders recognize different learning styles in others, they’re better able to identify their own, and this produces greater organizational empathy. This awareness invites learners to flourish.
And experiential learning theory, this ability to know and recognize learning styles, has enduring relevance because with every new hire, every new client and every new project, learning styles are activated. So, learning styles, or scripts, have an overarching relevance to our ways of operating and showing up in the world.
Learners at work often are transparent about their learning needs. Visual learners may ask for a demonstration, according to one expert. Others may ask for auditory information, a manual or to try something themselves. In what other ways can L&D pros and C-suite leaders identify learning styles in themselves and others?
MALTBIA: We know that one's learning style is determined by two major factors: how we take in information — abstractly or concretely — and how we process information — either actively, or reflectively, or passively is another way of thinking about it. When these factors are combined, prevalent learning styles emerge.
The Learning Styles Inventory, [a model developed decades ago by an educational theorist,] can help people understand their learning mix or dominance. Learning styles have profiles that are easy to identify once they’re known and there are assessments that measure for individuals and groups.
How can business leaders honor and accommodate learning styles at work?
MALTBIA: To honor learning styles at work, the first step is to acknowledge they exist. Next, affirm colleagues in their learning styles; then, importantly, be willing to adjust, or flex, to accommodate those styles.
At the start of a project, the divergent learner can be really helpful in scanning the environment, collecting a lot of information and gathering data. Once information is compiled, the assimilator learner can discover themes and patterns, similarities and differences to make meaning and prioritize data the divergent collected. The accommodator then knows how to execute.
On receipt of a new product, the diverger will go right to opening the package. They won't read instructions, or any of that. The assimilator will look at the connections and read instructions. The converger will look at every piece in the box. The accommodator can't wait to get it done.
So, working in a team, it’s much more efficient and actually more effective to understand everyone's learning style, or energy, and how to leverage that against the work to be performed.
Some schools of thought discount theories on learning styles as fluid or baseless. In your experience, how do you quantify the value of knowing learning styles exist?
MALTBIA: I'm familiar with some of the critiques of learning styles; like any theory or related assessment, none are perfect. While I don't think learning style theory is "baseless," I understand the nature of most of its core critique. Unlike personality (which is a more stable construct in that it does not change much over time once it's set early in one's developmental life), learning can and often does change, based on one's cumulative experiences. In short, measures of learning style should be considered a snapshot assessment of one's approach to learning.
Most experiential learning style assessments have what is called a "range of application" which helps to narrowly define and measure an approach to learning something new. This also makes learning styles distinct from styles of thinking or personality types — two areas where learning style measures are often mistakenly taken out of context.
And finally, related to "how to quantify" value of knowing learning styles, most adults recognize that not everyone learns the same way and in fact, learning style is a form of human diversity, like many other factors. When framed well and linked to a specific learning outcome, organizational use of learning styles would likely find little resistance.
What is your advice to L&D and other leaders who want to optimize learning styles in the workplace?
MALTBIA: They should know that this is all about framing and application. It’s also about understanding the value of learning styles to employees, managers and organizations, as well as how learning is used, and to what outcome.
Learning styles can be used to heighten awareness of the different styles on a team. Learning style is one of many preferences team members bring to the work. Others include approaches to problem solving, decision-making, communication, dealing with conflict and so on, and learning style can have impact in all of these areas.
In coaching, for example, I share learning style results with my clients. This provides greater awareness of how they approach new experiences that require new learning; intentionally leverages the strengths of their typical approach to learning; accelerates progress toward realizing a given learning and/or performance goal; and devises strategies for addressing potential gaps associated with preferred ways of learning.
The more a supervisor understands their learning style, and that of others, the greater their ability to flex to the needs of their employees and changing situations.