Have a discussion with almost anyone about training and one of the things you’ll hear almost immediately is about different learning styles. The problem is, this actually isn’t true. Or, as this article from December 2015 states more bluntly, it’s “bunk.”
The fact of the matter is that healthy human brains all learn the same way. The most significant learning differences that can be documented scientifically are those between genders, and even these difference are nuanced with respect to areas like emotional effects on learning, visual indicators based on differing gender retinal structures, and what locations in the brain are involved with information storage. Even between genders, the same basic processes and structures that affect learning are the same.
The process of learning, neurologically, starts with information being received by one of the five senses, sorted as being important or not by the brain’s natural “filter,” then either discarded as “unimportant” or sent to the short-term memory system. Within short-term memory, information is both used and prioritized. The prioritization is based on several issues, the two most pertinent for this discussion being emotional connection to the data and repetition of data use. Depending on the level of prioritization, information in short-term memory is then either overwritten with new data (and lost) or transferred to long-term memory. Long-term memory is an altogether different storage system, located in a different part of the brain. The process of information transfer from short-term to long-term memory takes approximately twenty-four hours and, when it happens successfully, it’s what we commonly call learning.
So, in a nutshell, we all have basically the same learning style, neurologically speaking. Nevertheless, this myth continues to be propagated both within educational circles and within the training industry, to the detriment of students.
Within the firearms and tactical training industries, there are two primary harms that result from this myth.
The first is that trainers waste limited and valuable training time attempting to address a non-existent problem by teaching to different “styles” that don’t actually exist.
The second (and more impactful) harm is that this myth is often used as an excuse to justify poor student performance or lack of learning. I’ve had numerous students over the years attempt to give up on learning a concept of skill almost immediately by claiming that they couldn’t do it because they weren’t taught within the needs of their personal “learning style.” I’ve also seen numerous instructors justify a student’s lack of progress or inability to pick up a concept by blaming it on a differing learning style than was used in the class. (I may have even said this myself from time to time in years past).
Unfortunately, when we do this, we convince both ourselves and our students that some people just can’t learn in our classes, thereby providing justification and excuses for failure. We also impede ourselves from understanding why these particular students are not learning as expected—and, in turn, prevent ourselves from being able to help them.
So if learning styles are, in fact, a myth and everybody learns the same way, why doesn’t everybody learn at the same pace? Why do some students do well and why do some do poorly?
The answer to this question is complicated, but I will address three of the most significant factors that affect student learning, especially in group environments.
The first factor has to do with the brain’s “filter.” Most myths have a kernel of truth buried within them and the learning style myth is no exception. Each person’s personal filter is based around their own set of personal experiences, gender, emotional state, and other factors. In other words, while we all fundamentally learn the same way, we don’t all necessarily see or hear the same things, even when looking at or listening to the same material.
The second factor has to do with each student’s pre-existing neural-networks, as they exist within long-term memory. A student who has a significant amount of the data or skills being taught already stored in their long-term memory system, may process the few new bits of information directly within the long-term memory storage space. When this condition exists, the student’s brain essentially bypasses the short-term memory system, removing the twenty-four requirement for transfer, lessening the possibility of data loss, and resulting in greater free space within that particular student’s short-term memory as compared to a student who does not have the pre-existing networks.
The third factor has to do with the functions of the student’s brain that have been developed and linked together through past activities, experiences, and learning. For example, I’ve had new students who were engine mechanics that immediately were able to field strip and re-assemble a weapon, simply after watching it once. I’ve also had students who were surgeons that struggled to field-strip and reassemble a weapon, even after completing the task during several lessons.
This isn’t because a mechanic is smarter, or learns faster, or differently, than a surgeon. It’s because the mechanic spends all day, every day, assembling and disassembling mechanical tools, using specific parts of the brain and specific brain functions that relate to troubleshooting mechanical tool operations and interface. The surgeon performs a different type of daily work. Surgery is greatly detailed and intricate, and becoming a surgeon requires great intelligence, but it doesn’t necessarily require the same daily activity in the same brain regions that assembling and disassembling machinery does.
Here’s another example: A student who has developed advanced skills requiring hand-eye coordination, to include dynamic visuomotor targeting tasks, for ball related sports (for example) will have much greater neural development in the applicable areas of the brain for dynamic shooting techniques such as weapons presentation than, say, a student who is purely a long-distance runner or swimmer. The ball players aren’t smarter and don’t fundamentally learn differently than the runners. They just have much more neural development in the applicable brain areas at the beginning of training.
So, as trainers, how can we address these issues and produce more consistent results in group training environments?
First, even without fundamentally restructuring training delivery systems, one of the most effective techniques we can use to overcome these obstacles is to prime material before we actually teach it. Priming is a technique where skills and information are presented by an instructor without any expectation of learning or student retention. Most students who are truly new to a given piece of information or skill will not start to grasp it until the third time it is taught to them. Expecting that students will pick something up on the first, or even the second, presentation is setting them up for failure.
Priming “greases the skids” in the brain, and helps the information to pass through the filter effectively on the next pass—when the information is actually taught to the student at a later time. Put another way, the first time you teach something, every single student might hear or see something different—and often not what you intended! The second time, continuity between what you’re saying and what they’re hearing will be much greater.
In a group instruction setting, using priming techniques also greatly enhances consistency in terms of student performance and retention, especially in a group with mixed levels of background and experience. Priming also equates to additional repetition, which increases the chances that the brain will categorize the information as important and transfer it to long-term memory.
A second technique we can use is to attach emotional hooks to important material. These hooks can be either positive or negative in nature. Positive emotional responses tend to produce better learning retention than negative ones; however, both can be effective and sometimes a negative emotional connection to an action is more appropriate.
For example, as an instructor in the military, I set a rule requiring five pushups for any minor safety infraction (specifically the types of infractions that would normally be overlooked on a lane range, such as a finger lingering too close to the trigger at the wrong time). When I saw a student break muzzle or trigger finger discipline, even during dry weapons handling drills, I would stop the line, ensure the area was safe, brief all trainees on what the student had done, and then make them perform their five pushups in front of the class. In group classes with civilians, I’ve had success asking students to voluntarily subject themselves to the same requirements with jumping jacks (or some other activity) instead of pushups.
The point of the exercise isn’t the physical performance of the pushups or jumping jacks. It is the negative emotional content generated from the light humiliation of “screwing up” in front of one’s peers and the association of this emotion with the act of violating a precept of weapons safety. Done properly (this should be explained and the goal is to foster learning, not to embarrass or humiliate students), this can greatly increase the pace of developing weapon safety awareness and performance in a group setting. Even the students who are just watching—the ones who didn’t have a safety violation—receive a strong dose of the emotion (Whew! I’m sure glad that wasn’t me!) and therefore also benefit from the powerful associative learning effects that it generates.
So, in conclusion, no, we don’t all have our own “learning style.” In fact, it’s more correct to say that we all learn the same way. Understanding this, and the actual reasons that students learn (or fail to learn), is the only way that we, as instructors, can hope to effectively train people, and produce consistent results with students who have varied backgrounds and experiences in a group setting.
Addressing this, and other training myths, is critical to improving performance, for ourselves as instructors, for our students, and across the industry as a whole.
Note: A great place to start for any instructor regarding understanding the scientifically documented differences between male and female brains is Why Gender Matters by Leonard Sax, MD., Ph.D. (Thanks to David Lombardo from On Target Media Group for recommending it.)