The truth about learning styles

Let me say straight up that I’m not a big fan of learning styles. You know, that’s where we do a little test to see if we are kinaesthetic, visual or auditory learners. I think that unless you have a disability and are limited in the use of one of your senses, then you are highly likely to learn using all of your senses. I have never met anyone who didn’t gain value from putting a set of ideas into practice (kinaesthetic learning) even if this is just by way of a scenario or a case study. It’s obviously not a good idea to practice your brain surgery skills on a real live person!

I think it’s more realistic to say that we all have preferences in the way we absorb information and this relates more to quantity and timing, rather than to learning styles. Some people really like lots of detail early on in the piece and other people (like me) much prefer to get an understanding of the big picture before they get into the nitty gritty details. I like to see the long term prospects of an idea and find details boring if they are provided to early in the piece. Other people like to know the ‘how, why and where’ right up front and can find it frustrating when people like me talk in broad generalities about why something is a good idea.

Not only can these two types of people drive one another crazy, it can lead to differences in opinion about the level of detail required in a document or a presentation. Have you ever written something lovely and detailed, only to have it come back with a request to cut half of the content? One of the main reasons that people put too much information on their slides is that they are ‘detail people’ and they think that everyone else wants to know every little detail about the project/plan/product. This doesn’t mean that big picture people are shallow or that detail people are pernickety fuss pots. It just means that we have to strike a balance without cluttering up the slides or ending up with a 40 page document when a 10 page document will do the job.

How can you work around this?

As a whole picture person, I am inclined to develop minimalist slides covering broad concepts. I have to constantly remind myself that some people like details but I really hate cluttering up my slides with text. On the flip side I know that everyone benefits from examples, so what I try to do is support my claim with evidence. This is known in presentation world as the ‘assertion- evidence’ method.

It works like this:

1. Make your claim in a clear simple statement. This can be in a complete sentence, for example “people are more likely to live longer if they get adequate amounts of sleep”.

2. You can support this claim in a number of ways. You don’t have to use statistics, although this is definitely one way of doing it. Other types of support can be images, anecdotes, charts and info-graphics. Remember that supporting the emotion behind an idea can help people absorb the message, so this counts as a type of support even though it’s not really evidence in the traditional sense.

Here’s an example of using an image to support an idea.

Assertion evidence method

Another suggestion is to let your audience know where they can find additional information. This includes providing links to websites, research reports and other supporting documents. Some people like to know the details and you have to satisfy their needs. What you shouldn’t do is clutter up your document or presentation with extraneous information. Remember simple is smart, you can do it!

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