Learning Styles and Presenting: Are you using poor science to deliver your Keynotes?

If you take your presentation giving seriously, no doubt you will have conducted some research along the way, otherwise you’d never have arrived at this small part of the blogosphere.

That research could have taken one of a number of turns along the way, including researching:

1. Your audience

2. Your subject material

3. The intersection between your preferred presenting style, the subject material and the audience.

Now if you’re here on this blog, your preferred presenting style is likely to include using slideware such as Keynote or Powerpoint, but it could also include Apple’s Preview or Quicktime, or Adobe’s Acrobat amongst a number of multimedia applications. But there maybe times when you’ll decide that (1) and (2) together suggest leaving aside technologies, and just doing a stand-and-deliver, such as being a best man or bridesmaid, father or mother of the bride or groom, sports coach or trainer, etc.

Now for some time it’s been argued in train-the-trainer and pedagogical domains that audience members have their own learning style, and presenters do well to try and match those style(s).

If you head into the literature to read up on learning styles, one of the terms you’ll most readily come upon is called VARK, which stands for Visual Aural Read/write Kinaesthetic, and refers to modalities of learning and expression.

The suggestion is that information presented in certain ways is more likely to be assimilated when its presentation style matches that of the receiver’s preferred learning style. In the therapy field, the question of preferred style has been popularised by the controversial therapeutic approach known as Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP), which has also made inroad into corporate training.

Relevance to Presentation Skills

If you attend 99% of Powerpoints delivered in the corporate world, it would be fair to say that the presenters (or is it the HR or Marketing departments) have made an implicit assumption that their audiences’ preferred learning style is Read/Write, with a little Aural thrown in when the presenter reads the slide to you!

Which is at odds with what recent neuroscience tells us about the centrality of the visual system to our operating in the world outside our heads, ie., while many of us engage in loads of self-talk (hundreds of words a minute said to ourselves) in terms of perceiving the world out there, we use our visual systems in preference to our other senses.

In contrast, I’ll often talk about my dog, Shrek, when speaking with groups (and patients for that matter) about information processing as it’s generally believed canines’ order of preference for sense-making is: Olfactory (smell), then Aural, then Visual. If you watch your dog closely, you’ll see his or her nostrils flaring frequently, sampling the odours around him (and at quite some distance too), and his ears will cock and move around independently (most easily seen on a German Shepherd Dog, like Shrek). He’ll prefer to initially sniff and cock ears, than move his head to look.

The idea of representational system preferences, as argued by those who advocate systems like VARK, has been around for quite some time, especially when it comes to the teaching of children. And of course, in the professional domain of presenting to adults, it also bears some thought as to how an audience can best learn new material.

But short of giving everyone a questionnaire before the presentation and then doing the math on the group’s average scores (you can look at a VARK questionnaire here), what can a presenter do? And moreover, is it that necessary to think about these styles, apart from the predominance of the visual to humans?

New and controversial research was published late last year in the journal, Psychological Science in the Public Interest. (You can see an abstract here). Entitled, Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence, the paper (Authors: Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork) discusses the history of learning styles and serves to challenge many of the assumptions which have been held dear by many trainers over the last few decades.

Here is a part of the Abstract:

“For more than three decades, the idea that instructional methods should match a student’s particular learning style has been a powerful influence in education. The wide appeal of the notion that, for example, some students best learn visually while others best learn by listening is evident in the vast number of learning-style tests and teaching guides available for purchase and used in schools. But does scientific research really support the learning-styles hypothesis?  In a new assessment of the available evidence, authors Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork conclude that the learning-styles hypothesis has little, if any, empirical grounding.”

Now if you are steeped in your thinking about learning styles, this will come as something of a slap in the face.

It’s much like I present to Presentation Magic attendees steeped in the cognitive style of Powerpoint who are in for a rude shock when I suggest that slides filled with text and abiding by certain rules such as “6 x 6” (“slides should contain no more than six lines each containing six words”) have no empirical support.

Here’s how the authors conclude their abstract:

“What psychological evidence does show is that people are inclined to hold false beliefs about how they learn and that they tend to learn and teach others in nonoptimal ways. Among other things, the report has significant implications for instructional approaches, and underscores the need to ensure that teaching methods are informed by sound scientific research, not fad educational theories or intuition.”

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s David Glenn interviewed the lead author, Harold Pasher, who offered the money quote for presenters:

“What (it) means for instructors.. is that they should not waste any time or energy trying to determine the composition of learning styles in their classrooms. (Are 50 percent of my students visual learners? Are 20 percent of them kinesthetic learners?)

Instead, teachers should worry about matching their instruction to the content they are teaching. Some concepts are best taught through hands-on work, some are best taught through lectures, and some are best taught through group discussions.”

In other words, if we can generalise to adults in presentations (perhaps a dangerous thing to do), do understand in general how humans learn, but keep a close eye on your content and how it can best be presented so that most in the audience have a half-chance of catching on!

And it also means, mixing it up, repeating the message in a variety of formats, switching modalities including your voice cadence, can all serve to increase the chances of audience engagement (and learning)  as well as having them do things, even if it means unsettling them emotionally before you bring your talk back on topic (something I just seem to do without much effort or preparation. I call it my “Huh? Aha!” approach to presenting. It’s my personal style, but one I use sparingly, mixing it up with other styles). Having your audience just sit there and read your slides (or have you read them) is almost universally high on lists of presenting don’ts, but still remains the dominant method of presenting.

In my Presentation Magic workshops, I look to the evidence and try to acquaint attendees with what to me is the research that informs the presenting-by-slideware domain. Several names appear frequently in the literature, and one of them is Richard Mayer from UCSB, who has researched more than most the constructs underlying multimedia learning.

The Chronicle’s Glenn also asked him about the Pasher et al research:

“Even though the learning-style idea might not work,” says Richard E. Mayer, a professor of psychology at the University of California at Santa Barbara, “it might encourage teachers to think about how their students learn and what would be the best instructional methods for a particular lesson.”

Not everyone supports the research findings just published, suggesting that the paper is too thin when it comes to research showing that tracking students learning styles is a good thing.

Here’s how Glenn concludes his article, with part of an interview with David Kolb, a Professor of Organisation Learning at Case Western who has been in the forefront of this research for several decades:

“… Mr. Kolb also says that the paper’s bottom line is probably correct: There is no strong evidence that teachers should tailor their instruction to their students’ particular learning styles. (Mr. Kolb has argued for many years that college students are better off if they choose a major that fits their learning style. But his advice to teachers is that they should lead their classes through a full “learning cycle,” without regard to their students’ particular styles.)

“Matching is not a particularly good idea,” Mr. Kolb says. “The paper correctly mentions the practical and ethical problems of sorting people into groups and labeling them. Tracking in education has a bad history.”

In my next article I’m going to look at how two top thinkers in the presentation field, Garr Reynolds and Nancy Duarte, ask their students and clients to conceive of presenting along two orthogonal dimensions. Then I’m going to show you why that’s only part of the story, and why you need to consider a third dimension.

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