Learning Style

Learning Style

The Modalities of Learning

Your learning style is your preferred method of learning—your favored medium and method. There is no agreement among experts as to how to classify and categorize styles. We list several of them here.

  • Senses: Many people favor a particular medium when learning. Some learn best by watching, others through listening, and still others through physically doing. These sensory modalities are called visual, auditory, and tactile or kinesthetic.

  • Structure: Within each preferred sense or modality there are further distinctions, in particular with regard to structure. Some students prefer story-driven scenarios, others the challenge of a problem, still others rational pathways. These are known as narrative, problem-solving, and logical learning styles.

  • Social Context: Some students learn better alone; others in small groups; still others in large groups.

  • Blends: Finally, there are the obvious blends of the foregoing learning styles, and often these depend as much upon the subject matter as the personal learning style.

Kolb's Four Learning Styles

An influential study of learning styles was written in 1984 by David Kolb, in which he lays out his own classification of perceptual modalities, information processing styles, and personality patterns. Influenced strongly by the experiential learning theories of John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget, Kolb develops the following four styles:

  • Activist Style: prefers hands-on case studies and simulations

  • Reflector Style: prefers lectures and then brainstorming

  • Theorist Style: prefers conceptual readings

  • Pragmatist Style: prefers field work in the workplace

Practical Applications

The challenge with learning styles lies not in their theory, or even in the fact that experts can't agree on classifications, but in their application. Time and money legislate against constructing courses on a multiple "learning style" basis (each version having different sensory pathways). It would be extremely expensive to produce separate video, audiocassette, and story-driven versions of each course.



David Kolb: Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.

See also Multiple intelligences

Lessons Learned

If caught in a minefield, don't turn around! Instead, back out.

A Lesson Learned, U.S. Army, 1997

Background: Postmortems

"Lessons learned" are project debriefs, which are sometimes referred to as "postmortems." These debriefs, held at the end of a project with the full team, collect a list of what went wrong, what went right, and what one can do to improve procedures the next time around. Typical items showing up on project debriefs include avoiding scope creep (adding features but not allotting time or budget to build them) and better management of expectations for the project.

The only problem with postmortems is that the vast majority of recommendations that come out of them are never implemented, ending up in the corporate morgue, the backroom filing cabinets, or someone's hard drive—one more round of perfunctory rituals in a bureaucratic organization with no teeth because there is no follow-on reinforcement.

Turning Point: "Fighting a One-Year Battle Nine Times in a Row"

In the 1980s, however, an unlikely group paved the way for putting lessons learned into action, namely the U.S. Army, one of the most bureaucratic organizations on earth. The Army had made an important discovery: In Vietnam, rather than fighting a nine-year war, they had in effect fought a one-year battle nine times over. Because of officer-rotation policies, there had been no carryover of lessons learned from one mission to the next.

As a result of these findings and in order to mount a continuous learning architecture, the Army in 1985 founded the Center for Army Lessons Learned. Similar to postmortems and project wrap up meetings, this group began to compile lessons learned from "after-action reviews" in the field. The next step the army took was to devise a system for actually applying these "lessons learned" back in the field. They began by distributing them back to the field through e-mails, for application on the next mission. As a Harvard Business School case study reported, "the Army perfected a remarkably efficient process for correcting mistakes and sustaining successes" (see Fastpaths 1997, Ricks).

Continuous Learning: The Four-Step Process

Sweeping metaphors and grand themes are far less helpful than the knowledge of how individuals and organizations learn on a daily basis. The key to success is mastery of details.

—David Garvin

The lessons-learned process, first modeled by the U.S. Army, is a simple one and consists of four steps:

  1. Collect. Collect the lessons learned using live interviews, group debriefs, and e-mailed questionnaires.

  2. Compile. Select and edit the lessons.

  3. Distribute. Disseminate to project leaders or targeted personnel.

  4. Enforce Application to New Projects. This is the key point in the entire process. Rewards, recognitions, and compensation are in order to help support follow-through.

A Challenge to Organizational Inertia

Although lessons learned is a simple concept, problems can arise with reinforcement of the lessons. Organizations are better at maintaining the status quo than learning and changing. They may pay lip service to learning from experience or continuous process improvement, and yet do nothing about it. But implementation of even the most basic "lessons learned" can bring about enormous rewards in terms of organizational efficiency. Moreover, the infrastructure involved can be as simple as a Word document on an e-mail system. The lessons-learned field (and its potential ROI) is still largely untapped.



Thomas Ricks: "Lessons Learned: Army Devises System to Decide What Does, and Does Not, Work: Corporate America Watches with Interest," Wall Street Journal (May 23, 1997).


David Garvin: Learning in Action: A Guide to Putting the Learning Organization to Work.

See also Action Learning

A hard lesson—that may do thee good.

—Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing, 1600