Matching teaching strategies with adult learning styles maximizes education effectiveness

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Staff development

Matching teaching strategies with adult learning styles maximizes education effectiveness

After reading this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the characteristics of various adult learning styles
  • Identify teaching strategies that correspond to various adult learning styles

The ways adults learn have a great effect on their ability to acquire and apply knowledge, seek learning experiences, and enjoy participating in the education process. All adults have learning styles that best suit them. Adults often have a preference for one style over another, but these preferences may vary depending on the situation and how learning objectives are to be achieved.

Right- vs. left-brain learning preferences

The right and left hemispheres of the brain process information differently, and learners tend to absorb and manage information using the dominant hemisphere. Although one hemisphere dominates, both hemispheres are used to some extent in all thinking processes.

The right hemisphere of the brain is devoted to the creative aspects of learning and depends on music, visual stimulation, color, and pictures to process information. The left brain enables learners to deal with language, math, and problems requiring analysis.

Staff development specialists must recognize the right- and left-brain characteristics in their learners and plan programs that stimulate the use of both hemispheres to achieve successful educational outcomes.

Note: Find a tool about the characteristics of left- and right-brain learners and suggestions to facilitate learning in the Tools Library at Subscribers to this newsletter have free access to all the tools and resources on the Web site.

The right-brain learner processes information holistically, seeing the big picture or the answer first, not the details. When analyzing a problem, right-brain learners start with the major concept and work backward to find the details and formulate a conclusion. These learners may become impatient with the details of a problem unless they can “see” the conclusion or solution quickly.

For example, when attending a class on cardiac events, a right-brain learner may leap to the answer (e.g., the patient is having a myocardial infarction) and then work backward to gather details to support the conclusion. When teaching right-brain learners, acknowledge that clinical experience may allow a leap to identify the final outcome or problem. But also emphasize the importance of having detailed evidence to support conclusions because overlooking details can sometimes lead to an incorrect interpretation of a problem. This can be effectively taught through case study strategy or role-playing activities.

Left-brain learners, on the other hand, process information in a linear manner, processing from the parts and then to the whole. These learners gather information and problem solve in a step-by-step manner, using logic and reason to form conclusions. Left-brain learners need learning activities to be organized. They maintain daily schedules and create lists, checking off tasks as they are accomplished.

In a clinical situation, these learners will gather data (e.g., physical assessment findings and diagnostic study results) and come to conclusions about patient problems in a logical, step-by-step manner using plenty of data to support their decisions.

In addition to specific characteristics of right- and left-brain learners, most experts recognize three main learning styles: visual, auditory, and tactile/kinesthetic.

Visual learners

Among adults, visual learning predominates. In regard to education implications, visual learners:

  • Focus on using the sense of sight to learn and to enhance learning
  • Sit in the front of a classroom because they need to see the instructor to effectively process information
  • Take detailed notes and benefit from the use of color, illustrations, and graphics as part of handouts, PowerPoint presentations, or computer programs
  • Prefer quiet or a minimum of auditory or tactile stimulation when concentrating
  • Seek written information using professional journals, books, and the Internet to acquire knowledge when confronted by a new task or procedure

Auditory learners

Auditory learners prefer leisure activities that focus on auditory stimuli. Using the sense of hearing is critical. They prefer activities such as listening to audiobooks or attending concerts. In regard to educational implications, auditory learners:

  • Benefit more from hearing information than seeing it in written form
  • Sometimes appear not to be paying attention, but are actively listening
  • Assimilate new knowledge and skills by describing the behaviors or facts to be learned aloud (auditory learners also absorb new information by reading aloud)
  • Often study or read while music is playing in the background
  • Talk through problems, procedures, or tasks
  • Correlate new behaviors or knowledge with auditory stimuli
  • Get distracted by too many visual stimuli
  • Ask for verbal explanations from colleagues already familiar with a topic when there’s a need to acquire new knowledge

Tactile (kinesthetic) learners

Tactile or kinesthetic learners depend on physical participation in a learning activity to absorb knowledge. In regard to educational implications, tactile learners:

  • Need to take frequent breaks.
  • Prefer hands-on learning activities such as return demonstration and simulation.
  • Can facilitate learning by handling equipment and manipulating objects (e.g., flash cards).
  • Acquire new knowledge best when accompanied by physical movement. Listening to audiotapes while exercising is an example of a technique useful in knowledge acquisition.
  • Will jump right in and attempt to practice a new behavior or psychomotor skill when confronted with the need to perform a new task. The need to take a hands-on approach supercedes the need to read about or hear about the task.

The figure on p. 9 provides greater detail about the behavioral characteristics of visual, auditory, and tactile learners, as well as educational implications for each.

Many learners may not be aware of their preferred learning style, yet it is incredibly helpful to have this understanding. Consider incorporating a learning style self-assessment tool into your education programs. (Note: You can find one in the Tools Library at


Adapted from HCPro’s book Learning Styles In Nursing Education: Integrating Teaching Strategies Into Staff Development. For more information on this book or any other in our library, visit

Overview of visual, auditory, and tactile learning styles



  • Leisure activities rely on sight, such as reading or watching television.
  • Appearance is important. Clothing and accessories are color coordinated.
  • Facial expressions reveal thoughts and emotions.
  • Phrases and words incorporate vision, such as “I see what you mean.”
  • Prefer to interact professionally on a face-to-face basis. Eye contact is important.

Educational implications:

  • Need to see the instructor in a classroom setting
  • Take copious notes regardless of the method of educational delivery
  • Find that the most useful handouts and computer presentations (e.g., computer-based learning or PowerPoint) include visual illustrations, color, and graphics
  • May be distracted by auditory or tactile stimuli when attempting to concentrate



  • Leisure activities focus on hearing, such as attending a concert
  • Emotions are revealed by the sound of the voice
  • Remember people by the sounds of their voices
  • Phrases and words related to hearing are common, such as “I hear what you mean,” or “That sounds okay”

Educational implications:

  • Don’t care where they sit in the classroom as long as they can hear. They’re listening, but may look as though they are not paying attention.
  • May verbally describe new knowledge or behaviors that need to be learned; absorb knowledge by “listening” to it.
  • Read aloud to absorb information.
  • Auditory stimulation, such as background music, helps them absorb knowledge.
  • New knowledge is associated with auditory stimuli.
  • Distracted by too much visual stimuli.



  • Leisure activities focus on movement, such as sports, dancing, or exercising
  • Associate meeting new people with the circumstances or events taking place during the meeting
  • Emotions are revealed and interpreted by body language
  • Phrases and words have a tactile focus, such as “That doesn’t feel right to me,” or “I am having trouble getting a handle on the problem”

Education implications:

  • Frequent breaks are needed
  • Preferred learning activities include return demonstration and simulation
  • Manipulating objects (e.g., flash cards and procedural equipment) facilitates learning
  • Learn most easily when education is accompanied by physical movement