From The Vault: Learning With Style

Written by the late Kevin Lohan.
This article originally appeared in the July 1997 edition of the AITD’s Training and Development magazine.

I am entirely self-taught on the computer. I like to press keys and see what happens. I click on icons for the fun of it. Books that came with my software are still in their wrappers. Occasionally I have used some as a reference when my random clicking has led me to disaster. Not that I mind the disasters – they go with the turf and sometimes I learn new stuff because I have created disaster.

What are you like when you learn? Do you lunge into the task? Or do you prefer to watch someone else or have a coach who carefully takes you through the steps? Perhaps you pore over the manuals first and then, having studies the model in the book add new things to test the model? On the other hand perhaps you regard the computer as just a tool and you have learned its applications strictly on a needs basis.

Welcome to learning with style: the world of learning styles. We have each learned some computer skills and mastered them to suit our own needs. It’s just that we have gone about it in different ways. The way I learned it would possibly frustrate you and the way you learned it might irritate me.

As trainers though, we need to acknowledge the existence of these preferences in learners and design learning programs and activities that cater to them. However, in any group training event, we will encounter a combination of styles and so there is little value in knowing the preference of each person individually. In any case everyone has some measure of each of the preferences so it can be difficult to diagnose accurately. We therefore need to find ways of designing our training that addresses all of the preferences – of being all things to all people if you like.

The ‘Activist’

People like me are often referred to as activists. To cater to our preference training should have opportunities for us to try new things and experiences.

The ‘Reflector’

People who prefer the opportunity to assimilate and integrate what they observe are often referred to as reflectors. One way to cater to their preference is to give them opportunities to observe or witness the new experience and give them time to draw conclusions about what they experience; perhaps through group discussion or writing in a journal.

The ‘Theorist’

The third preference is often referred to as theorist style. These people learn well from concepts and models. They can use abstract experience to develop new ways of doing things.

The ‘Pragmatist’

Finally, pragmatists prefer to try the new learning in real situations and analyse the application for relevance and usefulness.

Using the Styles

Clearly, there needs to be a mix of training processes to cater for these preferences. You will no doubt recal many times when all of these processes have been used in programs on which you were a participant. Structured activities, group discussion, time to develop new models of behaviour and opportunities to practice new things in realistic (maybe back-on-the-job) environments.

Another way to use these preferences for learning is to design an individual session using the various preferences.

You could begin with an exercise that allows the activists to immerse themselves in the new experience. Then, you might allow time for group discussion around a number of questions that encourage reflectors to integrate what they have witnessed (or participated in) in their existing framework (usually referred to as part of debriefing activity). Next, you might encourage the group to develop new model is behaviour and rules for doing things back on the job. The theorist preference in all of us is very useful in this part of the process. Finally, allow participants to apply the new rules in a practical application.

An example

Imagine you are planning a session about the pitfalls of relying too much on a computer spellchecker:

Activist – ask learners to type additional text into a prepared passage that includes words and phrases that cause spell-check-heartburn. Encourage them to even make a couple of errors on purpose and to ‘play’ a little. Then ask them to run the spellchecker and print the document.

Reflector – have the group read the printed document and find faults that the spellcheck missed. Ask them to draw some conclusions about why the spellchecker missed these errors (e.g. a word out of context but nevertheless spelled correctly such as in “she kissed him on the moth”).

Theorist – ask the group to decide how the might have avoided the errors and list these new rules.

Pragmatist – give the group a new passage to check using their new rules. Ask them to report back on applications back on the job.

Apply these methods in your training and soon you will be truly helping learners learn with style


Brookfield, Stephen; The Skillful Teacher; Jossey Bass; San Francisco; 1990

Lohan, Kevin; Employee Development; (in Australian and New Zealand Training and Development Handbook); CCH; Sydney; 1992

Rylatt, Alastair and Lohan, Kevin; Creating Training Miracles; Prentice Hall; Sydney; 1995

McCarthy, Bernice; The 4Mat System; Excel Inc; Barrington, III, 1987.

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