Why the hate with Learning Preferences?

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Learning Preferences.  The idea behind such a notion seems to be something that everyone can agree upon, and yet, there are varying views – those who say “it does not exist”, and those who say it “does exist”.   Then there are those who say learning styles do not exist, and again, a different camp. 

At one time, you were fine to be in either camp and while people may not agree with your respected camp, they did not go out of their way to make it so prominent to the extent that anyone who disagrees is flat out wrong. 

Nowadays though, and perhaps it is an extension of the world outside of L&D and Training, that if you disagree you are placed into a hole of ignorance. 

Start – Time Travel back to Learning the old way

I am a believer of learning preferences, and have made no secret of that. I can bring up numerous examples in both educational and corporate levels, but while I may disagree with those who say there is no such thing as learning preferences, I still respect that they have a different view. 

Let’s take a look at the old days of learning (okay in the 90’s and early 2000s).  How many of you, provided your learning/training content in a manual? A large binder of documents with some images – and that was always a maybe.  How many of you required that any technology training must include work instructions, and then for assistance, added little icons – like a light bulb for help/tip?

If those manual books, did you add icons?  A stop sign meaning stop.  A green light or traffic light for this or that, the light bulb and so forth?  Perhaps for technology you added screen shots – sure might be small, but they were there for people to follow what was being presented. 

Why did you do that?  It sure wasn’t because it was easy, more often it was time consuming on the part of the person creating the content.  And those manuals, my lord, some of these things easily exceeded 200 pages of dull text. 

We all know that the employees who received these nuggets of joy would take them, shove them in their desk drawer and never opened them.  And yet, we continued to push them out, because by golly, this is the way people learn, or at least, we thought so. 

Next up was ILT.  Classroom training – whether in an actual classroom at your site, or a boardroom/conference room or at another location.  Person stands up, has their agenda of what is going to be covered and is off to the races. 

Why did we do that?  Oh wait, we thought this was the best way people learn, because after all, from a very young age we were taught (at school) in the same approach.  A one way fits all approach. 

Did we have a choice?  The answer was no.  Did we all learn in the same way? I mean, did you learn looking at a slide on the projector screen?  Did you learn reading that textbook and recall the information for a test, or did you memorize your notes?  

Going back to ILT, how many of you, would attend (either by choice or forced by the your boss/company) and just ignore what was being presented?  As time move forwarded, how many of you, looked at your laptop, answering e-mails, surfing the net or staring at your phone?

The point of it all, is that many of you did just the opposite of what “we” those in L&D and Training, thought was the method of learning that worked for everyone.  

What we know – in the real world – and not some academia theory or study, is that we are individuals. We think differently. We acquire knowledge differently.  If we were all the same, then ILT would have worked.  If we were all the same, then that manual would still be heavily used for learning. 


What is your preference when you buy a car?  Do you prefer an SUV or a four door sedan? A sports car or a minivan?  What is your preference for a place to live?  Do you want a view of the mountains or one of the street? Do you prefer being in an area with an outstanding school district or one that is close to shops and eateries?

What do you prefer to watch?  Content that is focused on dramas or that is focused on thrillers?  Do you use YouTube as a key source of acquiring knowledge or do you read books as that key source?

As you can see, we have preferences for everything that exists in the consumer world. Heck, even the world at large. We prefer one candidate over another in politics, we prefer one area of the country over another area, we prefer to shop at this store over that one, we prefer this type of pet versus another. 

So, why is it that we – as a society of learners – cannot have a preference for the type of learning, that we, ourselves find works the best?

There are those who will point to studies saying no that isn’t possible, just as there are those (including myself) who can find studies that say yes it is possible. 

For this piece, I first say, look I respect that you disagree (as mentioned earlier), but just for the sake of it, what is it that says you have preferences for everything else, but geez for learning, sorry you don’t? 

I want you to think about how you learn.  Not how a book tells you to, or how some expert or someone in the field says you should learn.  How do you learn? What works best for you?  Ignore the subject matter for a moment, what is your preference?

Do you like to read a lot of books to acquire knowledge of whatever subject, perhaps more of eBooks than say paperback?  Do you like watching documentaries to learn more so, than say, not?  Are you a fan of going to museums to learn about this or that, or do you find museums of any kind boring?  

If you answer yes to any of the above, then surprise, you have a preference on the way you acquire knowledge.  

There are people who still enjoy reading the dictionary to learn a “new word” for the day.  That is learning. That is a preference of learning new words over say, surfing the net and going to one of those “new word” sites or remembering on Words With Friends, today’s word. 

People love to tap into learning experiences as a form for e-learning, even to the level of the system being an LXP.  But if you do not believe that learning preferences exist, then how can you turn around and say learning experiences exist? A learning experience for one isn’t the same for all, which uh, is a preference is it not?

Digital learning is a preference for a form of learning. Online learning is a preference for some for learning. I learn and retain information more when the content is presented in an engaging and interactive way, and tied to an interest that I have within the subject. 

Many others are similar, but I would be foolish to think, that everyone prefers online learning as their method to learn and retain.   Content is only as good as the way it is designed – which I believe we can all agree on.  Designed poorly in any format, book, ILT, vILT, online linear, online non-linear, will generate poor results.  

Think about this 

The whole “Bringing up Preferences” angle, started with an idea I have with machine learning (which most systems have today, but at different levels and capabilities) and the pushing of recommended/suggested content in a form of a playlist or channel (which LXPs all offer, as well as many other learning systems including LMSs). 

The content is pushed out based on two key areas (depending on the system)

  1. By completion of whatever content is presented/provided to the learner 
  2. By taking the content (regardless of completing it or not) based on the subject matter/topic that the learner is either interested in (ideally) or assigned to them.

With the rapid growth of skills development, upskilling for example, skills play a huge role, and even the learner’s job role can be tapped into the machine learning output for that content which appears on the playlist/channel. 

Regardless of what you think of machine learning (and for the record it is not A.I.), how it works in any system as it relates to content recommended is a relevant given.  

But what if, another option was available to the learner?  What if a system said “okay, this is our default of pushing out recommended content with our machine learning, But you as the administrator can switch it so it does this based on machine learning.”

And here is where those preferences come into play. 

A lot of people are fans of podcasts.  And there are those who do not like podcasts,  to the extent they never use or listen to them.  

Let’s say you have a learner who (based on you reviewing those metrics and data on the back-end) listens to a lot of podcasts (tied to Spotify or Amazon Music or whatever you have an API to) on the subject/topics they are interested in (tied to skills, job role, interest, etc.).  You notice they spend 80% of their time with podcasts, and 15% of their time reading articles.  They spend 0% of their time, looking at any video content that is made available to them (without it being assigned or required). 

Why would you then push out content that is made up of only videos? When you can clearly see, they never watch them, not even for a second.  Is the universal way of learning applicable here?  Remember you yourself have a preference of acquiring knowledge, so why can’t they?

In this scenario, the system via machine learning pushes out content that is only in the form of podcasts for that learner.  It may also push out articles too, but it pushes more podcasts.  Over a period of time, you look at the metrics and see that the person prefers to listen to a specific speaker of said podcast over anyone else, an extensive amount.  So more podcasts are pushed out tied to that specific speaker and so on. 

It is now a new level of learning segmentation.  

This is just one example, so please don’t harp on it, as the be all-end all.  Rather, look at the tighter picture of truly providing learning tailored specifically for that learner – regardless if they are an employee or a customer or a student for that matter. 

Learning segmentation

If you believe that segmentation isn’t happening right now, I hate to tell you this, but it is, and if you are using a learning system, those metrics on the back-end (admin side) are steering more to segmentation of the data. 

In fact, even before the recent data visualization expansion, with BI tools or an LRS, segmentation was already taking place.  The moment you bought your system, whether it was 1998 or last month, segmentation existed.  The segmentation of learners by one department versus another.  The segmentation of learners by subject, assessment results, subject area by groups of learners and so on. 

Thus it would be clearly the next step of this evolution of learning, to tap more into learner segmentation on the front-end of the system for the learner themselves. 

Even if you are not a supporter or believer of learning preferences, you hopefully will believe that a person – the learner here, should receive if possible, content that is tailored specifically for them.  I know, you likely do, because many people seek systems that offer personalization.  Personalization is another way of saying tailored to the learner themselves. 

We tailor the design – via themes (if available).  We tailor language (i.e. system offers different languages to each learner, so they can see it in their own native language). We tailor the text on the tabs/labels to our business, we do not keep it universal.  Heck there are systems where text on the tabs can be different within a multi-tenant.  Hello – segmentation. 

This gets back to preferences – and before you say, “how?”, here is how –  preferences are tailored to the learner, so while it can be done with the system itself, shouldn’t we expand it, so that it is really for the learner?

Bottom Line

In the past week, a person who works at a learning system with machine learning, cited numerous reasons why machine learning was not ideal.  Another person stated that anyone who believes in learning preferences is wrong.  In fact, not just one person, a whole lot of people said the premise (noted above on pushing content out by type) was wrong. 

It’s funny in a way.

Because the method they choose to present their opinion was through a social media platform, called LinkedIn. 

The last time I looked, 

That was their preference. 

And this is mine. 

E-Learning 24/7 


  1. I come at this from an academic perspective. Keeping this in mind, how you define the problem and goals. With that framework, “Learning Styles” were defined as a specific measurable approach and the theory was that people would “learn” better based on a style that was more “suited” for them (or prefered if you will). Like many theories there is a lot of anecdotal evidence and then of course that is why the “studies” are done and eventually where you get the metadata studies. I’ll admit I’m not up on the “latest” studies but at the time when I was the analysis was that there was no significant differences in the auditory, visual, textual approaches in terms of effectiveness of learning.

    Or the idea catches and someone writes a popular book based on little or bad science and because it is appealing it gains traction.

    All being said, I totally agree there are preferences as to what people like etc. A car is a great example. I like blue and ya know that is what I buy. Though if we looked at how effectively the blue car got me to a location vs the black car – probably no difference (red one might get me there faster πŸ˜‰ ) Now depending on your goals – like having a cup holder or not – well then that might make a big difference (drinking (water) and driving is a real mess without that cup holder and there would be a measurable difference!

    In short it depends on what your goals are and how you are defining and measuring it. In terms of learning itself, I would say, assuming you have limited resources, spend the time on instructional design and making the content interactive, don’t just “add narration” for the “audio” user, or spend time and make it WCAG compliant so it is better for everyone. In short the “classic” styles aren’t worth their cost benefit when compared to other things to improve the quality of the learning (and there is always room for improvement there!).

    Anyway just my 2 cents for what its worth πŸ™‚

    1. Paul, thank you, very much. I totally agreed on the ID, it makes a huge difference, and even if you are unfamiliar with effective design, there are a lot of places you can locate it on the web. Worse case, contact Paul.. : )

      1. Right on Craig! Since you mention it – I would also say to folks hiring people – look for people with strong ID skills. Saying you want someone with “XYZ authoring tool” experience as anything but a “nice to have” is really missing the boat. You want people with good ID skills (and give them a practical test example without use of any authoring tools!) and experience with multiple tools is best – learning a tool is easy (and can be done in a week or so if you have used “tools”)- learning solid ID is not (and takes a lot more than a couple weeks to be good)

      2. I think it is too easy to rely on the authoring tool, because many that experts – custom shops use are based on the extensive experience in ID and e-learning development, so that while it is doable with some tools, not with others. So they can create a false sense of extensiveness in design, with the assumption, I just jump in and whalla awesomeness. I self-taught myself ID, and I can do it, so can others. Heck, I learned via, what for it.. a book!

  2. Craig, thanks for the insightful blog on learning styles from the CMS lens. Paul, thanks for adding to the discussion with use of studies to back up the current designs of systems. I’m a firm believer in learning styles, Paul. But, I have taught all kinds of grades from first grade to sixth grade, seventh through twelfth, and college. So, this maybe my bias or wisdom.

    I’m not sure which.

    Craig, I have to agree with you. Your mental gears have to be considered as well as how you prefer to learn with them. In my experience, modality has everything to do with mastery. The processing of the knowledge is smoother when presented in the student’s learning style. Who does not learn by doing afterward? So, I see your point there, Paul.

    My question though is in regard to cognitive load theory. How much of the curriculum and its power is effected by the learner’s cognitive load in the online learning course itself? I would think the culmination of engagement in many applications at once (podcasts, videos, text readers, native language converters, etc.) plus the flicker in the screen would affect concept retention? If this is the case, can it be disseminated through the data the system collects?

    1. Great thoughts! The key, and of course this is hard and something that 99% of us just don’t have the resources or time for, is validating the theory with science (or at least damn good statistics πŸ˜‰ ). One of the problems with Styles isn’t so much the “idea” of it, it’s the definition and scope. To take another example “economy” what the heck does the “economy” mean. It means such a huge multitude of things that you can assert something about it and in the next breath assert the exact opposite and depending on what you are focusing on, be 100% correct in both cases.

      Experience leads to the establishment of idea and plausible theories, the teasing out the specifics leads to the validation (or surprising revelations). Though I don’t have the studies/science to back it up (e.g., I’ve not put in the effort to look) I suspect that when you tease out motivation from learning styles you will find that perceived and/or actual effect of a “learning style” (again gotta be careful about what we are defining) will be less important/impactful.

      Adding thoughts to cognitive load – not really related, but provoked a thought. Spaced learning. This is something that has a lot of scientific backing (and has been demonstrated (nothing is ever “proved” over and over again). It’s also a pretty easy thing to experience and have personal validation. In terms of impact – I would say this approach alone is one that we should all seek to promote more. (Of course darn thing means spending more time learning over time, and who has time for that!!!) πŸ™‚

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