Style and Substance

I had originally intended this article to be a follow-up to one I wrote last year on Generation X and Generation Y learning preferences. I haven't completed the research, however, and I also wanted to interview an industry leader in the hiring and training of Generation Y before diving into that article. Instead, I thought an appropriate precursor would be to look at overall learning styles, and try to make sense of why certain individuals tend to learn things in different ways.

There are many schools of thought on learning styles, but I will focus on two: The VARK model and an Index of Learning Styles model developed by Richard M. Felder and Barbara A. Soloman at North Carolina State University.


VARK is an acronym for the four typical learning styles: Visual, Auditory, Read/write and Kinesthetic. While most people have some ability to learn in each of these ways, many tend to favor one over the other three. A basic breakdown is as follows:

Visual—Visual learners can best remember or use what they see (e.g., pictures, flow charts, animations, video clips).

Auditory—Auditory learners typically learn best by listening to things such as lectures, directions read aloud or even music/songs.

Read/write—Read/write learners prefer to learn by reading textbooks or written instructions, or by writing down what they see or hear.

Kinesthetic—Kinesthetic learners best learn by doing, through hands-on manipulation/practice, simulations or role-playing.
For more on VARK principles and applications, go to

Index of Learning Styles

The Index of Learning Styles by Felder and Soloman looks at learner preferences in relation to where the person scores on four "opposing" scales:

  1. Active versus Reflective
  2. Sensing versus Intuitive
  3. Visual versus Verbal
  4. Sequential versus Global

An "Active" learner is someone who learns information better by using or doing something with it. A "reflective" learner is someone who learns better by thinking internally about the information and/or studying it alone.

The active learner is more apt to say something like, "let's plug in the scan tool and see what we can find out about how this system works," whereas the reflective learner will be inclined to say, "let's study how the system works first, then use the scan tool to verify our ideas."

"Sensing" learners tend to favor learning facts. They are good at memorizing, patient with details, more trusting of an instructor's expertise, and dislike surprises. "Intuitive" learners work best through discovering possibilities and relationships, are often better at grasping new or abstract concepts, are more apt to question what an instructor says, and dislike repetition.

Think of the older employee who tries at all costs to avoid making a mistake (sometimes at the cost of time), versus the Generation Y employee raised on role-playing video games who wants to try out different diagnostic techniques right away and learn from his mistakes.

"Visual" and "Verbal" are self-explanatory. While most schools agree that everyone learns better when provided both visual and verbal information, visual learners tend to remember best what they see (photos, diagrams, video clips, etc.), while verbal learners get more out of written and spoken words.

Finally, "Sequential" learners tend to see things better as a series of connected, logical steps. "Global" learners tend to try and grasp the big picture first, then analyze the seemingly unconnected details that make up the overall result.

Neither method is necessarily incorrect. While global learners may come upon a conclusion more quickly, they may not be able to explain to others how they arrived at that conclusion. Sequential learners may know a lot about specific aspects of a subject, but may have difficulty seeing the overall concept or applying what they've learned to other situations.

It is often difficult for trainees attending a seminar when an instructor overuses his or her own learning style. Felder and Soloman propose alternate study methods for students if this is the case. These methods, along with a tool for determining your own learning preferences, are available on the Web at

Stephen Howe is employed by Tweddle Litho Company, a global provider of information development, management and delivery that has served the automotive and heavy vehicle industries for over 50 years.

Stephen is also a past president of the Automotive Training Managers Council (ATMC), a global, non-profit organization of over 60 member companies dedicated to recognizing training excellence and raising training standards in the automotive, heavy vehicle and related industries.