Posted by: projectsinpractice | June 4, 2012

The Accidental Trainer Discovers Learning Styles

Teresa here: As our careers run their courses, some of us find ourselves “accidental project managers.” In a similar way, sometimes we become “accidental trainers” as well. The following are possible scenarios:

  • Some team members need a workshop on an aspect of your project, for example, how to use a new process or automation tool that’s been developed for the project.
  • Your team leads or resource managers want structured guidance on conducting effective meetings or working with the time tracking and status reporting system.
  • Your managing stakeholders have requested hands-on coaching on Microsoft Project Web App or your other project collaboration tool to find and analyze high-level project information they need.
  • Your project management office (PMO) has charged you with conducting seminars on project management best practices.

eyeWhether accidental or on-purpose, you can make your training sessions engaging and effective by varying the activities. That is, instead of a four-hour droning lecture, you break things up by alternating periods of lecture, demonstration, group work, and individual work, for example. Variety is the spice of learning. Not only can you present content in the most appropriate ways but you can also accommodate different learning styles.

When developing your own training presentation or workshop, understand that your students have different dominant learning styles, as follows:

  • Visual learners understand their world through their eyes, and learn best with presentations, diagrams, handouts, and videos.
  • Auditory learners learn best through formats such as lectures, discussions, and tapes.
  • Kinetic or tactile learners learn best with hands-on activities, exploring and experimenting, trying things out for themselves.

Although people typically have one prevalent learning style, we all share the three styles in differing degrees. This is fortunate, because certain content lends itself more toward visual than toward kinetic, or more toward kinetic than auditory.

For example, I’ve discovered that my dominant learning style is auditory — really great when I was in school and sat in all those lectures and discussion groups. However, when I was being taught how to change the oil in my pickup truck, I found that for hands-on skills, I learn in three distinct steps which incorporate all three learning styles:

  1. Explain and demonstrate the process to me (auditory and visual).
  2. Let me do the process myself under the teacher’s close supervision (kinetic).
  3. Let me do the process again independently with the teacher’s followup and feedback (kinetic).

earI don’t change my vehicle’s oil anymore, but understanding my own learning pattern always helps when I want to learn to operate or repair any mechanical or electronic device.

This knowledge has also helped me design classes for others learning to operate or maintain anything, whether it’s semiconductor equipment, computer hardware, a PC operating system, or project management software. It has even helped when teaching largely conceptual topics.

The following are examples of how I applied the three learning styles and varied activities to teaching hands-on skills and to teaching more abstract concepts.

Example 1. Teaching hands-on skills: Microsoft Project

When teaching Microsoft Project, first I explain and demonstrate the skill, whether it’s creating a new project, assigning resources to tasks, generating reports, or whatever. Depending on the topic, I might show visuals in a combination of presentation slides and a projection of the demonstrated software.

For the majority of time, however, students are doing it themselves. Ideally, students are at a computer, and after my demonstration, I ask the entire class to try out the procedure together, step by step.

handWhen we’ve answered questions and solved problems, I cut them loose. The students go through the same or similar procedure again independently as I wander around the classroom providing assistance and checking results. When students get into trouble and then find their way out, that’s when they really learn. I also have students help each other, because when one student teaches another, the information is reinforced in the student teacher’s brain.

I finally assign independent homework that combines several learned skills. In this way, the students continue to practice their newly acquired skills with increasing independence and confidence.

Example 2. Teaching abstract concepts: project management basics

This varying of visual, auditory, and kinetic activities also works with teaching more abstract concepts.

A while ago, I was contracted to give an eight-hour workshop on project management basics to an optics manufacturing company. I struggled with how to design a training program that would convey the concepts in eight hours while ensuring that the students wouldn’t drop off to sleep, or worse, slip out of the classroom back to work on “a pressing emergency.”

I decided to apply the principles of “doing” to project management concepts. I did the normal presentation stuff, with my slides and concepts — covering project initiation, project planning, reporting on progress, adjusting for changes, and closing a project.

After each of these major concepts, however, I broke the class into three teams, and each team applied the concept we just covered to an example project. One team planned a company picnic, another developed an operations process, and the third developed a new area for the company website. I gave the teams problems and constraints depending on whether they were developing their work breakdown structure or cutting the budget of their in-process project by 15 percent.

Working with project management software was not the focus of this workshop, so the participants worked with their projects with pen and paper as well as plenty of discussion and discovery. We came back together and discussed their experiences. Then we went on to the next concept, and within a half-hour, they were back in groups again, taking their project to the next level to practice the new concept.

I’m happy to say that this was a very successful workshop. Although the exercises were not necessarily “kinetic,” students were still able to put concepts into practice by applying them to sample projects in a safe and experimental environment.

Coming attractions

So you see, by mapping the learning content to the most appropriate activities, accommodating your students’ different learning styles, and varying the activities throughout your training session, you can ensure that the precious project time you spend to train will pay off in spades.

In a future article or two, we’ll explore additional tips for effective training to support your projects.

Talk back: What kinds of training have you needed to do to support your project? What technique do you recommend for teaching a hands-on skill? What’s your favorite technique for teaching abstract concepts?



  1. […] couple weeks ago, I posted an article called “The Accidental Trainer Discovers Learning Styles.” There, I pointed out that as a project manager, you sometimes must deliver training to your […]

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