As an engineer working in education, I have to spend a lot of my time learning about learning.  Instructional design, assessment theory and cognitive task analysis are all relatively new concepts to me.  Luckily, I find these topics very interesting so reading white papers and doing research does not seem like work to me.


“Learning styles” is one of the education related concepts that I have been trying to learn more about.  One typical model of learning styles classifies students as visual, auditory or kinesthetic (“hands-on”) learners.  The theory is that if the instruction method matches the learning style of the student, the learning is more effective.  So an auditory learner would learn best by hearing a lecture while a visual learner would learn best by studying a picture or diagram explaining a concept.


While learning styles are not a new concept, they were something I just took for granted.  I started looking into it more based on a recent discussion with a CCIE candidate who asked why we do not produce podcasts of our expert level training.  Frankly, I had a difficult time even considering this as a viable learning option – I cannot imagine trying to learn how to configure something like a BGP route reflector in a large-scale network without being able to see a topology diagram or code snippets.  My preference for visual is so strong that if a transcript is available, I turn off the audio when watching a VoD.  So I have always thought of myself as a visual learner.  Whereas the CCIE candidate I was talking to identified himself as an auditory learner – he felt if he heard the material he was more likely to retain it.


Both of us have very strong preferences for a particular learning style.  The real question is whether we actually learn better via our preferred style.  There are several studies that indicate that students learn equally well no matter how the content is presented – assuming of course, that the different deliveries were equal in quality and depth.  This was somewhat surprising to me.  Both schools and companies are placing lot of effort on generating content in multiple formats to increase learning and Cisco is no exception.  But if accommodating learning styles does not increase learning value, does it make sense for us to continue?  For a learning organization this is a really key question and it has generated a lot of passionate discussion in education circles.  It reminds me of the Ethernet vs Token Ring discussions when I first started out in networking.


While I have read a lot of the studies both for and against using learning styles (see here for an article discussing both sides), I am far from an expert on the subject.  But even if using the preferred learning style does not actually increase the knowledge retention, there are two reasons why I believe there is value in trying to accommodate multiple learning styles as we develop learning products.


The first is related to motivation.  Adult learners make up the majority of our audience and they have an extrinsic motivation to learn – it is required for their job.  So if a white paper is the only content available on a subject critical to a job, then the adult learner will study it, even though they may dislike doing so.  Presenting in the learning style they prefer does not necessarily increase the learner’s motivation to learn but it does decrease the resistance associated with the style of learning.  So while learning style may not enhance the learning outcome, it can enhance the learning experience.


The second reason is that while studies may show that students do not learn more effectively using any single learning style, these studies use learning content that is carefully constructed to insure the learning objectives are equally addressed no matter how the content is delivered.   The issue is that certain learning objectives are easier to meet using a particular delivery mode.  For example, I can explain to someone how to hit a backhand in tennis, but it would take a lot of words to describe the process.  I can demonstrate a backhand very quickly.  In either case, the student would know the mechanics, but the visual learning would be a quicker path to the knowledge.  Of course, the student will have to actually practice the backhand to become proficient.


The goal then, should not be to develop multiple learning products to try to meet the individual preferences of learners, but rather to develop content using the best modality to impart the required knowledge.  Because learning products typically cover more than one objective, if we present each one in the most effective manner, then we end up using multiple learning styles in a product.


Cisco Learning Labs is one example of where we are delivering content in multiple modalities to improve the learning.  By nature, lab activities are kinesthetic – the learning takes place by doing the lab exercises.  Many students work their way through the labs using only the scenario and the help functionality in IOS.  For students that get stuck and need just a little bit of guidance, we have a solution posted they can read through.  And we have added videos that walk through and explain the labs for those who need more background and theory.  This is done not to accommodate the preference of visual learners, but because it is often more efficient to use video to explain complex subjects.