Learning Styles

I finally seized the opportunity to see Edward Tufte deliver his one-day workshop Presenting Data and Information. Due to his rockstar reputation, I had some overblown expectations—something more theatrical, with flashy graphics, head stands, perhaps a light show? I spent the first two hours feeling a bit let down until I realized how antipodal his message is to the marketing flash of someone like Seth Godin. Tufte’s presentation is all about delivering substantive content that is cognitively engaging—an approach that he modeled expertly, sans bells and whistles. While I had overestimated Tufte’s histrionics, he did not underestimate my (his audience’s) intelligence.

The workshop is directed more toward those in the business world who need to present data and information to address engineering problems, inform budget decisions, and the like. However, I found a couple of take-aways for trainer-facilitators.

1. The Super Graphic (or Return of the Handout)

There is a tendency (especially in online learning) to reduce data and information to a minimal amount per screen, or to stretch data sets out over a series of screens. This is driven necessarily by the compact pixel real estate of the computer monitor, but the outcome is to shrink information toward meaninglessness or to confound the viewer’s cognitive ability to make comparisons and draw conclusions by scattering the inputs and forcing super-human acts of memorizing.

Enter the SUPER GRAPHIC! This is a printed, efficiently annotated graphic, dense with data, legal size or larger, that allows the learner to scan the entirety of an information set, make comparisons from proximal visual, numerical and textual information, and derive informed, self-propelled conclusions. This kind of information presentation could/should accompany most online training. Many courses include downloadable handouts of resources as more of an addendum than an integral part of the learning. Why not design a course around a super graphic, using the online portion to direct the learner’s attention, inject probing questions, and allow interactions to demonstrate the successful intake of knowledge?

2. Give the learner time to think

Several times during the workshop, Tufte asked the audience to study a data set or super graphic in one of his books, which we all had stacked in front of us. And then he stopped talking. Attention was not focused on the stage but on the pages of our books. There were some low murmurs of people sharing observations but the room of 400+ was otherwise quiet. This went on for five minutes—an eternity of “dead air” in broadcast parlance.

This was an aha! moment for me. Not only is it okay to give learners some studying-thinking time during instruction, it empowers them to absorb, reflect, and contribute to the formation of knowledge. It allows real learning to take place. Isn’t that more important than filling up every second of audio space?

Do I recommend going to see Tufte’s presentation next time he’s in your neighborhood? Sure! Yes, you can buy all the books for approximately half the price of the workshop, but you would miss the directed tour through the material and you would miss Tufte’s modeling of effective delivery.

A big thanks to Janie Hermann for bringing this great article to our attention: How to Present When People Are Twittering.

twitter2Olivia Mitchell goes against the conventional wisdom and points out eight benefits to having an active twitter back-channel among your participants and then she takes one step further and suggests that there are even benefits to having your own Twitter back-channel while presenting!

Mitchell has some great advice for managing that back channel and concludes:

Presenting while people are twittering is challenging. But isn’t it better to get that feedback in real-time when you can do something to retrieve the situation – than wait till you read the evaluation sheets a few days after the conference – and find that you bombed?


My learning style is about as visual as they come. Which means I like to load up my PowerPoint presentations and online instruction modules with images. Just yesterday, I spent a lot of time in Google Images and Flickr searching for the just right photo or graphic to illustrate an upcoming presentation. I’m sure you know how tedious it is to scroll down each page of results, click to the next page, scroll down, click, …until eye and mouse fatigue set in.

Now there’s PicLens! It wasn’t until this morning that I found Jenny Levine’s recommendation for this very cool tool. Tedium transforms to levitation. There is a sense of flying past the 3D image wall, hovering over sections, zooming in and out for near and far perspectives—a dragonfly view of the online image world. Using the same Google Image search that I had performed yesterday sans PicLens, pictures that I hadn’t noticed before jumped out at me. I could scroll the length of the few hundred results with fluid ease instead of giving up after 3 or 4 pages. You’ve just got to try it to appreciate the experience.

Downloads are available for Firefox, IE, and Safari. It only works on certain sites like Google Images, Flickr, Facebook. I found it pretty intuitive to use, but tutorials are available just in case.

… the widespread use of Post-it™ notes and cheat sheets reveals a lot about the way people learn and how they apply that knowledge to their jobs.

This is from an intriguing post by Tom Kuhlman on the Rapid E-Learning Blog: What We Can Learn About Instructional Design from Post-it™ Notes. I have to admit that I recognized myself in the description of a typical e-learning designer, who has a tendency to include “more information than is necessary to learn the task.”

After reading it, I did a quick tour of my office to see how many people had post-it notes scattered around their desks. Fourteen out of sixteen desks had visible post-its or equivalent note scraps. Why is the Post-it note such a winner?

  • Its small size forces you to record the bare essence of a thought or instruction. In Kuhlman’s words, a note does not contain all you need to know, but what you need to do.
  • It can be stuck on things to easily catch your attention.
  • It can be grouped with other Post-its and rearranged as needed.
  • Only the most immediately relevant bits of information stay within view, limited by the area of your desk.

I’m not going to convert all my training materials to Post-it notes, but I could do more to apply the “what you need to do” filter to instructional design. Along the same lines, Presentation Zen tells us we need to choose between deep or wide scope. “How much can I cover today vs. how much can my students absorb today?” Why not think of a PowerPoint presentation as a series of Post-it notes? Pare each slide down to the shorthand essence of what you want to convey.

Think Post-it! This is my new mantra. I have a Post-it on my laptop to remind me.

Helene Blowers (LibraryBytes), points us to a wonderful post over at the Twopointouch blog. In his post, Sit and Listen, Author Ian Delaney makes a number of great points including:Dunce

  • Employers also tend to confuse training and learning. Training gets done to you. Learning is something an individual does themselves. Companies tend to think of training as their responsibility, rather than learning.
  • Educationalists have identified at least 37 different types of ways in which we learn stuff, from reading a book to playing simulations. Each individual will have their own preferred and most effective learning styles. In-house training tends to focus on one - sit in a room with a bunch of other people and get talked at.

Delaney suggests that part of the problem is tied in with many organizations’ dreadful appraisal/evaluation processes (and I heartily agree.)

The entire post is well worth a read, as is Helene’s post, where she writes:

The best learning happens by self-discovery, when two very important elements are present. In order for anyone to truly learn, they must be

a) engaged in their own discovery process and
b) be motivated to learn.

and neither of these really require a “trainer.” :)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.