5 Learning Styles for Engaging Your Clients and Improving Outcomes

I am kicking off this post with a few “long poles in the tent” for R1 (the longest poles go up first, and hold the tent up). The three critical tent poles that I’ve been relearning and speaking about most often during my development of the R1 Discovery Cards are 1) learning environments (the focus of a recent blog post), 2) learning styles, and 3) learning metrics and measurement. A small shift toward adopting some of these strategies in your groups could have tremendous impact for all key stakeholders: individuals and their families, counselors, peer recovery coaches, educators, and your programs overall.  

R1 is passionate about the fundamentals of learning and learning styles is one of them. A primary reason we developed the Discovery Cards was to engage different learning styles in recovery settings. What we know about learning, especially adult learning theory, is that individuals take in and process information differently. The fact that we see many people in treatment settings not participating, or even resisting participation, may not have anything to do with their substance use or recovery circumstances, but everything to do with how we are presenting the information to them. Imagine if only 25% of individuals that you work with prefer a lecture-only format (auditory learning style). If you lecture, you’ve already lost 75% of the individuals in the room just because of how you are approaching it – even if you’re a well-prepared lecturer.  

Designing each group or individual learning opportunity with a learning styles framework will have a tremendous impact on outcomes. One fact about learning is very simple: if people aren’t engaged in the transfer of knowledge – that is, how they are receiving and processing the information (aka their learning style) – during a learning experience, then they will learn very little, or even nothing at all. 

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Designing impactful learning takes focus and some knowledge. It’s hard to do if you don’t have time to prepare and even harder if you don’t know the basics of learning theory and how to execute on it. Let’s start the exploration of learning styles by asking a few questions about your own experience: 

Questions to Explore 

As you think about how you learn best, which one, two, or even three learning styles do you prefer? One way to approach this is to rank them in order of preference.  

  1. Visual.  Do you learn better if the information to be learned includes colorful structured models or graphic organizers to help you better understand the information, concepts, and the interrelationships between them? Do you prefer seeing photos, charts, models, and other images as part of the learning experience? Do you like or learn best when watching videos? 

  2. Auditory.  Do you prefer learning through lectures – either formal or informal presentations? Is it easier for you to remember and apply information you’ve listened to? When information is presented with or through music, is it more memorable for you? 

  3. Verbal.  This learning style can take many forms as the focus is on words, whether written or spoken. Writing, note-taking, typing, and journaling are all preferred forms for this learning style. Having an opportunity to discuss and process what is being presented also improves learning comprehension and retention. Does this one resonate with you? 

  4. Physical (Kinesthetic/Tactile).  Do you like to learn through doing, moving, touching, and experiencing your environment? Interacting with objects or learning tools helps these learners process information. Interacting through touch (sorting cards, putting them in piles) and being physically active in the learning experience are central to this learning style. Do you find yourself in this category? 

  5. Logical (Mathematical).  Do you like it when you’re asked a question or are given a problem to solve that makes you think? Do you like to categorize or prioritize things to help better understand them? Being given a real-life situation to address not only makes the learning practical and real but encodes it into our long-term memory.  

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Now that you have a better understanding of the 5 Learning Styles, which ones best describe your own learning style? Which one or two are at the top of your list? Have you always preferred learning this way or have your preferences changed over time? Does incorporating methods that align with learning styles into your groups make sense given your understanding of how you learn best? 

Individuals are unique. Their situation and history are all different. So are their learning styles. The more you can incorporate different learning approaches in your groups, the more individuals will learn, retain, and be able to process and share with others. This will in turn help them make healthier choices, take action, and make changes today and in the future. 

How can you quickly put these ideas into action? As you run your next group, incorporate a technique that engages each of the learning styles. (The Discovery Cards are one possible method to engage different learning styles.) Observe group members to see when they are engaged and when they are not. See if you can guess the top one or two learning styles for each person. Consider engaging the group in this concept and letting each person self-explore what they think is their top learning style preferences. 

As I’m writing this, I realize that I need to practice what I preach; to reach different learning styles with each blog post. Maybe I should incorporate an audio clip, a video, or a closing quiz. There is always room to learn and grow. 

We’ll go into each of these learning styles, as well as the learning settings, in more detail in future posts. In the meantime, please help us with any of the following actions. Otherwise, stay tuned! 

  1. Share this blog post with others. (Thank you!)  

  2. Start a conversation with your team. Bring this information to your next team meeting or share it with your supervisor. Change starts in conversations. Good luck! Let us know how it goes.  

  3. Visit www.R1LEARNING.com to learn more about R1, the Discovery Cards, and how we’re creating engaging learning experiences through self-discovery.