10 July 2019

Why Personalized Learning Is Key to Effective Language Learning

Consumerization of Learning / The Modern Learner
personalized training


Thea Jaffe

At school and university, knowledge is valued in itself, and learners’ success is measured purely in terms of test scores. But in corporate language training, the gold standard of mastery is not a final exam, but the learner’s use of the target language in real work and life situations. Here, success means something different for each learner. This makes it extra important for the content and activities in corporate language courses to be personalized learning which is tailored to the individual. For this, we need to understand not only each individual learner’s training goals, but also their unique learning style.

For a training course to really succeed, both learners and trainers need to take learning style into account. For the learner, understanding their own unique learning style can help them:

  • Learn faster and more easily
  • Be self-directed and independent
  • Build confidence
  • Identify and stick to their aims

Trainers for their part need to understand how learning styles apply to their learners in order to select the most useful materials and activities and deliver the lessons as effectively as possible.

Demystifying the Modern Learner
How technology and new learning preferences are shaping modern-day learning
Demystifying the Modern Learner
How technology and new learning preferences are shaping modern-day learning

Are sensory learning styles a myth?

For the last century, discussion around learning styles has mostly focused on the senses. We have been categorized as auditory, visual, reading-based and kinesthetic learners.

The idea is that some people learn best through listening, some through seeing, some through reading, and some through movement and handling objects.

This notion has been popularized by Dr. Neil Fleming, who developed a 16-question test which learners can use to figure out which category best describes them.

On the plus side, this framework has contributed to the diversification of classroom activities in recent decades. Typical classrooms now incorporate audio and video content and task-based learning, in addition to traditional “textbook” material.

However, the theory of sensory learning styles has also been repeatedly “debunked.

Current research suggests that tailoring activities and materials to sensory preferences is less important that choosing the sensory mode best suited to the content. And indeed, adapting content into different media does not always seem logical.

Further reading

As Olga Khazan in The Atlantic Monthly points out, “most of the tasks we encounter are only really suited to one type of learning. You can’t visualize a perfect French accent, for example.”

Some experts have also challenged the idea that a learner can be characterized by one sensory learning style.

Howard Garner, in his theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI), argues that the mode of sensing information is less important to learning than the ability or “intelligence” needed to actually process that information once it has been sensed.

Another writer compares the four sensory learning styles to “tools” that all learners should have in their learning “toolbox” to use as appropriate, depending on which one is best suited to the content.

Both Khazan and Garner advise that we should drop the notion of sensory learning styles, and instead personalize learning as much as possible. For Gardner, this means to “learn as much as you can about each student, and teach each person in ways that they find comfortable and learn effectively.”

But if so, what kind of characteristics should we be looking out for when tailoring lessons, materials and activities to the needs of individual learners?

Mind the generational gap

With communication so key to language learning, it stands to reason that a person’s individual learning style could be linked to their preferred modes of communication. And research by the Human Resources Professional Association suggests that communication preferences largely depend on a person’s generation.

Current research shows that millennials are happiest interacting via text/ instant message and email, whereas people born before 1980 are more likely to prefer voicemails, phone calls, letters and face-to-face interaction.

Asha Pandey on the eLearning Industry website also suggests that preferred modes of communication can indeed have implications for learning styles. And given that they are set to account for 75% of the global workforce by 2025, it makes sense to zero in on the communication style of Millennials.

Demystifying the Modern Learner
How technology and new learning preferences are shaping modern-day learning
Demystifying the Modern Learner
How technology and new learning preferences are shaping modern-day learning

Older generations feel most comfortable following a printed textbook unit by unit. Millennials, on the other hand, are more effective when training incorporates micro-learning, video content, and can be accessed on personal devices.

While a traditional approach to language learning will work well for Baby Boomers and Generation X, Pandey argues, Millennials respond better to personalized learning.

Once we accept that millennials prefer personalized learning, we still need to ask: is this an effective way to learn a language?

Millennials may indeed suffer from short attention spans, addictions to screens, and obsessions with social media which inform their learning style. However, research suggests that their preferred methods of learning are actually extremely effective, especially for language learning:

Keep things bite-sized

Whereas traditional homework activities have usually involved sitting at a desk for up to an hour, the bite-sized activities preferred by millennials take 3-7 minutes to complete and can be done on any mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet.

Not only does microlearning allow corporate learners to fit self-study into busy schedules, but it is also reported increase the transfer of information by 17%.

In terms of ROI, time efficiency is also an important feature of microlearning. According to one study, millennials pick up their phones an average of 150 times per day. When adding language learning to an employee’s to-do list, why not let them do it in the form of something they already do 150 times per day anyway, instead of asking them to put extra pressure on work activities by blocking off larger periods of time?

Further reading

Modern Learners love video

It’s no secret that millennials prefer video content to reading. In fact, 59% of senior executives admit they would prefer to click on a video rather than read a text with the same content. For millennials this may be partly due to having been brought up on TV dinners, however there are also strong pedagogical arguments for video learning.

Studies have shown that on average a person remembers 95% of content experienced through video, compared with only 10% of content experienced through text. For language learners, video content has the highest possible impact as it includes not only vocabulary, but also information about pronunciation, intonation, context, and in case of authentic materials, culture.

Flip the classroom on its head

The flipped classroom is a methodology where learners encounter new content through self-study activities completed prior to live sessions with the trainers. This maximizes the impact of the live sessions as learners are already “warmed up” and ready to engage with the content in greater depth. Learners then consolidate their learning through follow up activities after the session.

Traditional teaching methods developed before the age of Google assume that learners will struggle with new content without the support of a trainer.

As a result, valuable class time is spent introducing content that could have been presented in a video or online activity prior to the lesson.

But whether due to their know-it-all attitude or their faith in Google, millennials are comfortable navigating the unknown. For this reason, they especially thrive in the flipped classroom. And in addition to being more appealing to millennials, the flipped classroom yields a higher ROI for companies investing in language training by maximizing the impact of class time.

How do learning styles apply to corporate language training?

The study of sensory learning styles has helped diversify learning materials and activities over the last century. For example, an understanding of kinesthetic learning has informed the development of task-based learning activities and games in the language classroom.

However, as we have seen, the success of these activities is more related to the suitability of the mode for the content than to the sensory preferences of the learner. As Olga Khazan writes, the concept of sensory learning styles “might help you learn about yourself, but it might not help you learn.”

Understanding the generational learning styles, however, actually helps us understand how the modern learner and in particular the millennial processes information. It also shows us how training can fit into our busy professional lives with the maximum impact. Modes of delivery such as microlearning, video content and the flipped classroom help diversify and personalized learning for language courses so that each learner can find the pace, mode and content that works best for them.

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