Workplace Training and Education: Adult Learning Styles

In the previous post in this series, Workplace Training and Education: How Adults Learn, we referenced Kolb’s Learning Cycle. In his exploration of the learning cycle experienced by adult learners, Kolb also identified four learning styles that are commonly exhibited by adult learners. They are described below[1]:

Kolb’s Learning Styles

  1. Converging (doing and thinking) People with a converging learning style use their learning to find solutions to practical issues. They prefer technical tasks, and are less concerned with people and interpersonal aspects. People with a converging learning style are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. They make decisions by finding solutions to questions and problems. This learning style supports the development of specialist and technical abilities. People with a converging style like to experiment with new ideas, to simulate, and to work with practical applications.
  2. Diverging (feeling and watching) Divergers are able to look at things from different perspectives. They are sensitive. They prefer to watch rather than do, tending to gather information and use imagination to solve problems. They are best at viewing concrete situations from several different viewpoints.  Kolb called this style 'diverging' because these people perform better in situations that require ideas-generation, for example, brainstorming. People with a diverging learning style have broad cultural interests and like to gather information. They are interested in people, tend to be imaginative and emotional, and tend to be strong in the arts. People with the diverging style prefer to work in groups, to listen with an open mind and to receive personal feedback.
  3. Assimilating (watching and thinking) The Assimilating learner’s preference is for a concise, logical approach. Ideas and concepts are more important than people. Assimilators require good clear explanations rather than practical opportunity. They excel at understanding wide-ranging information and organizing it a clear logical format. People with this style are more attracted to logically sound theories than approaches based on practical value. This learning style preference supports effectiveness in information and science careers. In formal learning situations, people with this style prefer readings, lectures, exploring analytical models, and having time to think things through.
  4. Accommodating (doing and feeling) The Accommodating learning style is 'hands-on' and relies on intuition rather than logic. Accommodators use other people's analysis and apply it in a practical, experiential approach. They are attracted to new challenges and experiences, and to carrying out plans. They commonly act on 'gut' instinct rather than logical analysis. People with an accommodating learning style will tend to rely on others for information rather than carry out their own analysis.

As described above, these four learning styles[2] refer to the preferred processes that adult learners follow for examining, analyzing and integrating new knowledge.

Fleming’s VARK Model

In addition to these preferred ways of thinking and processing, adult learners typically fall into one of four learning styles with respect to the way they take in new information. Neil D. Fleming describes these ways of acquiring new information in his VARK model. The four learning types that make up this model are briefly described below. They are covered in greater detail on the VARK Guide to Learning Styles website:

  1. Visual: This preference includes the depiction of information in maps, spider diagrams, charts, graphs, flow charts, labeled diagrams, and all the symbolic arrows, circles, hierarchies and other devices that people use to represent what could have been presented in words.
  2. Auditory (or Aural): This perceptual mode describes a preference for information that is “heard or spoken.” Learners who have this as their main preference report that they learn best from lectures, group discussion, radio, using mobile phones, speaking, web-chat and talking things through.
  3. Read/Write:  This preference is for information displayed as words and emphasizes text-based input and output – reading and writing in all its forms but especially manuals, reports, essays and assignments.
  4. Kinesthetic: This style refers to the learner’s preference for acquiring information through experience and practice (simulated or real). It includes demonstrations, simulations, videos and movies of “real” things, as well as case studies, practice and applications. The key is the reality or concrete nature of the example. If it can be grasped, held, tasted, or felt, these learners will relate to it. People with this as a strong preference learn from the experience of doing something and they value their own background of experiences and less so, the experiences of others.

Using Learning Styles in Workplace Training

If your objective is to provide effective training that employees don’t hate, understanding how adults acquire and process information is important. In practical terms, this means that the person developing and/or delivering your training programs needs to build multiple modes of information sharing into the content of the program and allow for different ways of processing that information as the training is delivered.

The payoff for taking the time to make training worth taking is substantial. Your employees will benefit from the excellent educational opportunities they crave and your company will be rewarded with a more highly skilled, more engaged workforce.

This article is the fourth in our series on Workplace Training and Education. Read the other articles in the series here:


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[2] Smith, M. K. (2001). 'David A. Kolb on experiential learning', the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved  August 30, 2010 from

Photo: VARK model Braun_Cognitive_Channel_Preference_Graphic, Wkimedia Commons

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