Learning Styles: One Size Does Not Fit All

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With multiple generations in the workplace today, one size truly does not fit all in meeting the learning needs of your organization. Based on backgrounds and experiences, preferences for how people learn vary widely. While we must be careful not to draw stereotypes based on age or generation, we do need to use a variety of approaches to learning to address varying needs and preferences.

The Generations: Considerations for Learning

Most workforce experts recognize four generations represented in today’s workplace. Dan Levonius provides his perspective in the 2015 Association for Talent Development article “Generational Differences in the Classroom.” With many people working longer in the past, either by need or by choice, this is probably the widest span of generations in the workplace we have ever seen:

Silent Generation/Traditionalists

This generation is now of traditional retirement age or older, but many remain in the workplace. As the children of survivors of the Great Depression, they tend to have a strong respect for authority and loyalty to the organization. They typically view learning as something that happens on the job, and something that benefits the company rather than the individual.

Baby Boomers

Baby boomers were born post-World War II and grew up in a more radical era. They tend to be quite ambitious and are more likely to challenge authority and the traditional norms of the workplace. Because they are more driven, they tend to work long hours and have less work/life balance. They view learning and skill building as ingredients for success, but not as important as time and energy invested in their work.

Generation X

Generation X individuals grew up in an era where the traditional nuclear family was less prevalent. Many were “latchkey” children as both parents found it financially necessary to work outside the home. Some watched their parents being laid off. They grew up having to take more responsibility for themselves in a less traditional environment. Their tendency is to see learning as a gateway to their next job. Although work ethic may be important, building their skills is critical.


Millennials grew up in a more sheltered environment and with constant exposure to technology. They are the most highly educated generation in history. Although they are ambitious, they are also highly independent and can be impatient if not offered a substantial level of responsibility. They view learning as very important and they are motivated to constantly learn, but they also want to see immediate results.

Approaches to Technology and Adapting Learning Strategies

L.L. Cooney provides ideas about technology and learning strategies in the 2008 Kentucky Law Journal article “Giving Millennials a Leg Up: How to Avoid the ‘If I Knew Then What I Know Now’ Syndrome.”

Traditionalists and baby boomers did not grow up with technology and have had to adapt to the use of technology in the workplace. As “Digital Immigrants,” they can struggle with rapidly changing technology. They tend to prefer direct interpersonal communication but recognize the importance of adapting to technology developments.

Generation X and millennials grew up with technology and can be considered “Digital Natives.” They are quick to adapt to new technologies, and millennials particularly embrace technology changes quickly. Their preferred mode of communication tends to be using technology.

What does all this mean for designing and implementing learning strategies? A few important thoughts to keep in mind:

  • A blended approach is very important. With such a variety of learning styles in the workplace, don’t assume that a singular approach will meet the needs of your learners. Blending more traditional modes with technology will help your content appeal to all your learners.
  • You should not make assumptions based on your learners coming predominantly from one generation. Although your workforce may consist mostly of millennials, their learning preferences may be all across the board.
  • Embrace the benefits of a multi-generational workforce. Incorporate opportunities to interact and learn from each other’s experiences into your learning design.
  • Whether designing traditional instructor-led classroom learning or digital learning, sound instructional design fundamentals are still critical.