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How DO They Learn Best? Using Learning Preferences in the Classroom and Beyond

How do you prefer to learn?
When attending professional development, taking a class or gaining a new skill, do you prefer to read? Listen? Watch someone do it? Learn by doing?

Based on just our own personal experiences, we can pretty easily figure out that different people use different styles of learning (or learning modalities) for different purposes.  The concept of “learning styles” has gotten a lot of attention in the adult education community over the past few years, especially among teachers who are trying to meet the differing needs of individual students while providing instruction in a group setting. It various forms, is also a commonly addressed in workplace professional development.

How have others’ learning preferences’ affected you in the workplace? Have you participated in ‘learning styles’ type training activities as an employee?

Learning Style theories propose that different people learn in different ways and that it is good to know what your own preferred learning style is. Often we hear learning styles defined as “visual, auditory, and kinesthetic” –  referring to how we use the senses to learn or demonstrate knowledge. Another popular model was developed by  John Gardner in the 1980s –  Multiple Intelligences Theory. 1  While he didn’t provide any direct empirical support for his theory, Gardner presented evidence from many areas of study including biology, anthropology, and the creative arts. 2  In the early 90’s he looked at how his theory might apply to the learning that goes on among children in school.His basic points were these:

  1. Individuals should be encouraged to use their preferred intelligences in learning.
  2. Instructional activities should appeal to different forms of intelligence.
  3. Assessment of learning should measure multiple forms of intelligence.

While Gardner did not include adult learners in his research, teachers working with our highly diverse groups of adult learners have found success in using this approach, as well as other learning style theories.  These days it is possible to find numerous tests, inventories and checklists that can be used by adults to help them identify their own preferred intelligences, or learning styles.

Have you used any of these ‘learning style/intelligences’ inventories/tools to determine your own preferences? Do you feel they were accurate? Helpful?

As an Instructor, how have you used (or might you use) information on your students’ preferred learning modalities? Do you feel it was (or is likely to be) important to your instruction?

Below is a story about one teacher’s ‘ah ha’ moment with her students – does her story sound at all familiar to you? Have you tried anything similar to the strategies she mentions?

Elizabeth Gardner is a Workforce Preparation Instructor at Suits for Success in Jersey City, NJ. For thepast 2 years she has been using EFF’s Preparing for Work curriculum to help prepare groups of clients for workplace success. In the Orientation Module at the beginning of the curriculum, an activity called “How Do I Learn Best?” guides students through the process of reflecting on and learning about their own preferred learning styles and strategies (including the use of an inventory). Elizabeth has facilitated this activity with several different groups of students, but note that one time it seemed to “work” above and beyond her expectations.

In this group, like others, some of the students had never done a learning style inventory, and several who had done one before noted that their preferred learning style had changed since the last time they did it. Because of the interest and enthusiasm they showed for the topic, I decided to take the activity beyond individuals just looking at their own preferences, and see if I could move them towards concepts in the Cooperating With Others Standard.

I asked my students to describe what they had learned about themselves to the whole class, and then to talk about how the class could play to their learning styles. As a result, in addition to talking about their own learning styles, they listened to each other, and some students started spontaneously brainstorming ideas for each other. Without being asked, they started thinking about how each of their peers might learn best!  Then the class ended up talking not only about how knowing your own learning style(s) can be used in the workplace, but also about how identifying other people’s learning styles can allow you to help out coworkers, i.e: How might you show consideration for someone else’s learning style at work? This conversation seemed to have a longer-lasting impact than I expected. I observed learning from students based on that discussion weeks later – such as a student ‘recorder’ for one activity drawing a picture next to the text “for visual learners” or one student asking another what was said because “I know you’re a listener.”

I think my experience of this one activity really affected how I plan other learning activities. It really helped me to understand that each group I work with will be made up of individuals with various learning styles, so each group dynamic will be different. This will cause students to respond differently to activities in the curriculum I follow; something that doesn’t work with one group could be a favorite with the next group of students. One group, for instance, might enjoy and learn from a role-playing type activity, but are much less likely to respond or stay engaged in more static “think and talk” activities –  while the next class  might be just the opposite! I think it is really important to figure out up front how students learn best, and then choose or change learning activities [from ANY curriculum] to match up with the learning styles/preferences/goals of each group of students.

Please share with us your experiences in using information about students’ preferred learning styles in your instruction – how that information helps you meet your students’ needs, how you address the differences you find, any ‘ah-has’ you’ve had, etc.  Any of the questions posed in this post can help you get started.

We look forward to an exciting conversation!

Click to learn more about EFF Preparing for Work curriculum or contact us via

For more information on Learning Styles, you can start by visiting this page.
Note that the links ‘For Further Study’ listed on the right hand side lead to some sample inventories.

Post Contributors:
Peggy McGuire, EFF Trainer & Content Expert, Center for Literacy, Education and Employment
Duren Thompson, Program Coordinator and EFFTIPS Technical Editor, Center for Literacy, Education and Employment
Elizabeth Gardner, Workforce Preparation Instructor at Suits for Success in Jersey City, NJ


1 Gardner, H. (1982). Art, Mind and Brain. New York : Basic Books.

Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of Mind. New York: Basic Books.

3 Gardner, H. (1993a). Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice. New York: Basic Books.

EFF Preparing for Work Curriculum Training Successes – Knoxville TN & St. Louis MO


This summer, Equipped for the Future (EFF) hosted two highly successful trainings on the Preparing for Work (PfW) curriculum for instructors in adult education and workforce development settings.  This skills-based curriculum is designed to model authentic, work-related experiences and activities that provide opportunities for learners to understand and apply key EFF skills. About the Curriculum

In May, an open registration PfW training was held in Knoxville, TN with Aaron Kohring facilitating. Twelve individuals representing programs/organizations in seven different states participated in the event.  During the training, participants created implementation plans using the curriculum not only for development of work readiness skills prior to employment, but also for skill improvement with incumbent workers. Several participants stated that they particularly appreciated the opportunity to try out curriculum materials ‘hands-on’ during training activities.

In August, Peggy McGuire was invited to facilitate a PfW training in St. Louis, MO for the staff of two programs of the St. Louis Public Schools: the Career Technical Education program for high school students, and the Fresh Start program for high-school dropouts seeking diplomas and employment. Training participants were charged with going back to their programs and sharing their learning with colleagues who did not attend, and to begin a planning process for curriculum implementation this fall.

Katie Lamb, a Professional Development Consultant with the Parsons Blewett Fund who organized and attended the event in St. Louis, says “All went so well with the training! We hope to support further needs for help with implementation…

Additional Participant comments:

This was well worth the time, effort and money we invested to participate. I appreciate how well organized and efficient the training is.  Knoxville

The facilitator did a fantastic job of engaging the audience…excellent organization and well planned, extremely relevant…this was one of the best training sessions!  St. Louis

Interested in the Preparing for Work Curriculum? Let us know!

EFF is now in the planning stages for another open-registration training on the Preparing for Work curriculum in Knoxville, TN on October 2 & 3rd, 2012. 

Please contact Aaron Kohring – – if you are interested in attending and/or sending instructors from your program/agency to this upcoming October 2012 training.

Benchmark Numbers: Everyone Can ‘DO’ Fractions, Decimals and Percents!

How do your students generally feel about fractions? decimals? percentages? Do they moan and groan and say “I hate these” or “I can’t DO… (fractions, decimals, percents)”

How about yourself? How much do you enjoy computations and problem solving involving fractions, decimals and percentages?

A common challenge for many of our learners is their ability to work with a particular set of number concepts: fractions, decimals, and percents. Our learners have often developed ‘mental blocks’ to these mathematical concepts and even develop anxiety upon hearing the terms. Yet anyone entering an adult education classroom has already had years of experience in solving problems and mental math involving fractions, decimals, and percentages. Honest!

Think back over the past 24 hours. How often did you use fractions? Think about a percentage? Interact with a decimal?(other than as part of instruction)

Ok now, how often did you use or encounter the concept of  ½? 10%? .25? How about quarters, dimes or dollars?

Clearly, adults encounter and use these types of benchmark numbers every day in various facets of their lives – in their work, with their families, and out in the community. See if these examples sound familiar:

  • “Split that with your sister – each of you can have HALF.”
  • “I want to see a 100% team effort!”
  • “Thank you for shopping with us, you saved $3.75.”

Helping students to realize that they ALREADY SUCCESSSFULLY USE  fractions , decimals and  percentages is one way to combat anxiety and “I can’t” attitudes. Another recommendation is to incorporate activities using these friendly ‘fractional numbers’ into instruction with ALL learners – even those still learning their basic math facts.1 Note that these recommendations are not limited to adult education – the Common Core State Standards for Mathematics call for fractional concepts to be explicitly taught at the 3rd grade level, and introduced less directly even earlier (via telling time, comparing measurements, dividing shapes into parts, etc.). These standards also state: 

Mathematically proficient students can apply the mathematics they know to solve problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace.”  (CCSS-M Introduction)

Thus of course, as always, it is important to keep it REAL. Instruction should be based in everyday contexts that are meaningful to your specific group of learners. Here are some example contextual activities from the EFF Preparing for Work Curriculum that address fractional concepts:   A Typical Day/Time on Task

It is also important to note that many adult learners working at more advanced levels of math instruction may have an incomplete understanding of fractional concepts. They may have memorized a process, or algorithm, but cannot easily or readily apply it to real-world situations, or easily convert from fractions to decimals to percentages. Again, some work with basic benchmarks can help – even those who think they ‘know’ fractions, etc..

 Could your students easily move from ‘80 out of 100’ to ‘80 percent’ to ‘8 tenths’?Do they seem to confuse fractions, decimals and percentages or give up when asked?

In Algebraic Thinking in Adult Education (2010), Lynda Ginsburg emphasizes the importance of making connections among multiple representations of the same information – symbols, tables, graphs, etc.2   This idea applies to number concepts for fractions, decimals and percents as well.  Learners need instruction and practice in understanding the equivalencies between fractions, decimals, and percentages to deepen their conceptual understanding of these numbers. Activities that mix together fractions, decimals and percentages, and/or ask students to move from one representation to its equivalent (10% to 1/10 to .1) are effective tools for both assessing and strengthening understanding. Comparing Numbers is one example of such an activity (also from the EFF Preparing for Work Curriculum).

Please share with us your tips and tricks for helping adult students to understand number concepts relating to ‘fractional parts’ (fractions, decimals or percentages).
Try out one of the ideas in this post, and let us know how it worked for your learners
(and you).  Below is one last resource to help get you started!

Using Benchmarks: Fractions, Decimals, and Percents – STUDENT BOOK – Lesson 5: One-tenth3

We look forward to hearing from you and your class!

To learn more about teaching Benchmarks in the EFF online mini-courseHow Close is Close Enough?: Improving Estimation Skills  or in the EFF Preparing for Work curriculum, contact us via

Post Contributor:
Duren Thompson, EFFTIPS Content and Technical Editor, Center for Literacy Studies

 References and Resources

1 National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, Principles and Standards for School Mathematics,  (2000) Reston, VA.   Pages 33-35

2 Lynda Ginsburg (2010); Algebraic Thinking in Adult Education  National Institute for Literacy, Washington, DC.  (reference error corrected 7-27-12)

3 Using Benchmarks: Fractions, Decimals, and Percents Schmitt, Steinback, Donovan, Merson, & Kliman (2006) Key Curriculum Press, Emeryville, CA.  (Part of the EMPower mathematics Curriculum developed at TERC)

PD Opportunity: Preparing for Work Curriculum Training May 8-9, 2012 – Knoxville, TN


Equipped for the Future is hosting an open-registration training for the Preparing for Work curriculum May 8-9, 2012 at the University of Tennessee Conference Center in Knoxville, TN.  This 2-day training is designed for instructors interested in implementing the curriculum in adult education or workforce development settings.  Training Agenda

This skills-based curriculum is designed to model authentic, work related experiences and activities. Activities are designed to provide opportunities for learners to apply the skills that are being presented.    About the Curriculum

Register online today at:

Training Topic: Preparing for Work: The EFF Work Readiness Course

Audience:  Instructors in Adult Education and Workforce Development

Date: May 8-9, 2012

Location:  University of Tennessee Conference Center, Knoxville, TN    Directions & Maps

Training fee: $750 per person
with lunch and a light breakfast included both days
Accommodations, travel and all other meals are the responsibility of the participant.  Hotel & Travel info

Materials:  Each participant will receive a copy of the newly REVISED teacher’s guide and student manual
and a master copy of student materials on CD.  Preview PfW manual contents

Space is limited and registrations will be accepted on a first-come, first-served basis.

Please contact Aaron Kohring with any questions at

Attendance Issues in Adult Education: How do You Adjust Instruction “On the Fly”?

Has this ever happened to you? You plan a learning activity for your group of students, and when you arrive at class you find that a large number of students are absent. You think, “What I planned will never work with such a small group! What are we gonna do?

Of course it has!  Quality instruction that meets our students’ needs often requires teachers to be highly flexible in their approach to what and how we teach – to be able to “think on our feet” when the unexpected (like fluctuations in attendance numbers) gets in the way of our careful planning.  Being flexible in this way is particularly challenging if we are using a published curriculum to guide teaching. And this seems especially true in the context of Adult Education, where attendance is voluntary and the lives of the adults we teach can sometimes be quite chaotic. Few of us can assume that all of our students who start a class will be able to attend regularly, or that a stable group of students will persist from the beginning to the end of an instructional program.

This leads us to an important and interesting question:
How do we develop the capacity to be flexible with the instructional plans we make, so that we can adapt when something – like class attendance numbers – suddenly changes?

Since almost ALL adult education teachers face these issues, please share with us:

  1. Your thoughts about how to successfully adapt your instruction when class attendance makes it hard to teach in the way you have planned to teach. What have you put in place to help your students learn what they need to learn even when class attendance fluctuates?
  2. How you help students learn what they need to learn while “tweaking” the instructional approach you THOUGHT you were going to take when you arrived in class, any particular strategies you use, any ‘ah-has’ you’ve had, etc.  What instructional strategies do you use when faced with the need to quickly change the plans you have already made for a class session?

To get you started, below are some strategies that one teacher successfully employed in these situations – do her experiences sound at all familiar to you? Have you tried out anything similar to the strategies she used?

Meet Elizabeth Gardner –  a Workforce Preparation Instructor at Suits for Success in Jersey City, NJ. For the past 2 years she has been teaching her adult clients using the EFF Preparing for Work curriculum.  Below are 3 examples of “adjusting on the fly” she has done as her class attendance has fluctuated.

Example #1:  Elizabeth reports that there are several times when she had only 3 students in the room when the Preparing for Work curriculum indicated a partner discussion activity. To adapt the activity to the realities of her context, she simply combined the partner discussions and class discussions indicated, and had all three students discuss the topic – with some instructor “nudging” of the conversation as needed.

Example #2:  One time, Elizabeth had planned to facilitate a problem-solving activity in the curriculum that included role-playing in groups of 3, and then groups discussing the role play with each other. But at class time, there were just four people in class that day. So she turned the role play into a four person scenario, had students do self-assessments at the end of the scenario, and then asked them to get together to discuss how their self-assessments compared with how others thought they did.

Example #3:  For another planned 3-person role-playing activity with only 5 students in attendance, Elizabeth decided on a different approach. The activity focused on reading text to find information in order to address a situation with a client or supervisor at work. Instead of asking them to role play in groups, Elizabeth asked students to individually read over all the role-play scenarios and look to the texts for the relevant information. Then for each scenario they went around the room, and one by one all the students demonstrated what they would say to their client or supervisor in that situation. This seemed the best way to make sure everyone had a chance to practice what they were learning and for students to hear many different approaches to work-related situations.  It also provided a great opportunity to assess individuals’ skill use.

We look forward to your ideas and strategies for adjusting instruction “on the fly”!

Click to learn more about  the EFF Preparing for Work curriculum or contact us via

Post Contributors:
Peggy McGuire, EFF Trainer & Content Expert, Center for Literacy Studies
Elizabeth Gardner, Instructor,  Suits for Success in Jersey City, NJ