A Research Paper By Olayide Odediran, Transformation Coach, NIGERIA
Coaching Effectiveness and Learning Style
If a child cannot learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn. Ignacio Estrada
From a sociocultural perspective, the world has and continues to place a heavy premium on high performance. This has become even more important in the face of harsh economic realities. Rising inflation, high unemployment, and an erosion of personal disposable income amongst others demand that organizations and individuals find new ways to increase their earnings. This puts pressure on attaining premium work performance.
For several decades, closed cultures made many people resistant to coaching. Individuals were expected to drive change and growth on their own and to solve their problems discreetly, without recourse to professionals. Seeking out a coach for goal setting and future-oriented action taking was perceived as weak. However, the past several years have brought significant progress and discourse on coaching. There are many more professionals in the field and even more clients who are seeking support to learn how to attain their full potential in various spheres of life.
With coaching being increasingly seen as a significant part of performance enhancement, clients are keen to ensure that it is as effective as possible. Many endeavors to protect this interest by recruiting coaches with certain qualifications. For example, companies are likely to take on a coach only if the coach is ICF credentialed. This is because they expect that the rigor of ICF training and its continuing professional standards will ensure optimal results. However, what must be recognized is that there are other factors beyond coaching structure, ethics, and competencies that contribute to the success of the coaching relationship. One of these is the learning style of the coach and client.
Coaching has been described as an ‘actionable way to learn’ with the practice of coaching being defined as a ‘social enterprise where…coaches help coachees achieve their personal and professional goals through learning.’(Lubin, 2013). Knowing that effective coaches must facilitate that learning, coaches need to understand the way people learn so that sessions can be better structured in a way that resonates with those learners that are clients (Merriam, 2008). In line with this, the questions then are, ‘what learning preferences are there?’ and ‘how do they affect the achievement of client goals?’
Learning and Learning Styles
Learning is a ‘multidimensional phenomenon’ (Merriam, 2008) that takes place through different sensory pathways. Learning styles are broadly described as “cognitive, affective and physiological traits that are relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with and respond to the learning environment” (Keefe, 1979a p.4 in Reid, 1987). They suggest that different people learn best when information is presented to them in a certain way (Sphero, 2020).
Though there is no agreed number or variety of learning styles (Putintseva, 2006), Gardner (1985), through his theory of multiple intelligences, identified three major learning styles – visual learners, auditory learners, and tactile/ kinesthetic learners. According to the VARK Modalities, visual learners better retain information when it is depicted in the form of graphics including maps, spider diagrams, charts, graphs, flowcharts, hierarchies, and other devices used to represent what could have been presented in words. Auditory learners better retain information when it is ‘heard or spoken’ including in lectures, on the radio and when talking on the phone. Kinesthetic learners prefer the use of experience and practice (simulated or real) to connect to reality. These are summarized below:
|Learning Style||Recommended Information Modality|
|Visual||Pictures, videos, posters, slides, diagrams, graphs, flowcharts|
|Audio||Discussing topics and ideas; telling stories|
|Tactile/ Kinesthetic||Doing, touching, feeling, manipulating with the hands, body movement, practical and real|
In coaching adult learners, much research has gone into understanding how to work with adults to design their learning process (Lubin, 2013; Merriam 2008), but not as much has been presented in terms of how learning style informs the learning/coaching process. However, as argued by Liska (2013), ‘When a coach is aware of a client’s learning style, the coach is prepared to use words that make sense for the client, blend to the client’s pace, and empower the client with a full exploration of their goals.’ This is aligned with Grant’s (2002) suggestion that:
As individuals, we each have different rules for learning… Driven by our own interpretation of new experiences and knowledge from an early age. How much any individual learns is very much related to whether educational experience is geared towards their particular learning style rather than how intelligent they are or from what social background they may come from. In essence, the question to be asked is not ‘how bright is the individual’ but ‘how is the individual bright?’
It is also aligned with Williams’s (1996) suggestion that ‘learning is more effective if the teaching style used is consistent with the preferred learning style…A mismatch will have an adverse effect on learning’.
Preferred learning styles can be deciphered by a coach either before or during a session. Before the session, the coach may ask the client to complete a short assessment that highlights their primary learning modality, and then design the session based on this. During the session, the coach may gain insights into how the client learns best by noting words used to describe actions and experiences. For example:
‘Thinking about resigning makes me feel hot in my hands’ (kinesthetic)
‘I see myself winning the competition’ (visual)
‘I see what you mean’ (visual)
‘I hear what you are saying’ (auditory)
This knowledge of preferred learning styles allows for an exploration of strategies that can be used to foster learning during coaching. For example, knowing that a client is a visual learner may invite the use of visualizations (‘Where do you see yourself at the end of this session?). It may also invite the use of metaphors and pictures in exploring a client’s situation. An example is found in a personal experience:
I am a visual learner. I think in pictures and color. My brain absorbs information when it can see diagrammatically how they connect. Consequently, mentally manipulating 3-dimensional images come easily and naturally to me. My imagination is strong, and I can build on concepts simply by seeing the starting visual in my mind. This makes analogies, metaphors, and similes a joy for me to evaluate and explore. Given this preference for absorbing information, I find that I have been able to facilitate the greatest transformational shifts for clients who process information like me. I once had a client who described the resistance she was feeling towards her desired goal as a ‘roadblock… a physical wall I can see in my mind…a very boring, thick wall’. This description demonstrated that my client was also a visual learner, thinking in images. I could mentally ‘see’ the wall as she described it, and it allowed me to be an effective soundboard for her as I explored the wall with her. I was able to ask questions like:
‘What would you like us to do to that wall in this session?’ (Session goal)
‘At the end of the day, where do you see yourself on the wall?’ (Session outcome)
‘What has happened to the wall?’ (Exploring meaning)
‘We are here with the wall in front of us. We don’t want the wall there anymore. ‘Where do you think that we should start addressing this?’ (Partnering)
Our session was filled with images. At the end of it, my client reported feeling well understood. She felt that I ‘took a walk with her in her mind’ and this heightened her feeling of my presence and enhanced intimacy in our session.
According to the ICA (2020), in creating trust and intimacy, finding someone who is like you may indicate to you that they are trustworthy. Though this similarity is often noted in aspects like age, ethnicity, gender, and culture – broad strokes that can be seen or inferred physically – the concept of building trust and intimacy through unseen commonalities, like learning style, though much rarer, holds the potential to be more powerful.
Should a Coach Utilize Solely the Particular Learning Preference of the Client?
While there are clear benefits to utilizing the preferred learning style of clients, there are also limitations. Cognitive scientists have shown that memory and learning are stored independent of the style in which the initial information was received and processed. Instead, memory is stored in terms of meaning (Willingham, 2005). For example, the knowledge that the sun is hot is unlikely to be stored as a visual or auditory memory regardless of whether the fact was learned by watching channeled sun rays burn a piece of paper through a magnifying glass (visual), or whether the fact was simply told (auditory). The knowledge is neither visual nor auditory. Instead, the mind has been found to store memories in different formats with a single experience leading to more than one representation (Willingham, 2005). For example, when a person is shown a visual story, they have a visual representation of the pictures, as well as a meaning representation. Over time, they are likely to forget the exact images they saw, but may still be able to convey the meaning, or gist, of the story. This is because when they process the visual details, they think about what they mean to understand the story (Willingham, 2005).
The implication of this for effective coaching is that while it may be helpful to explore concepts with a client in a preferred learning style, greater emphasis should be placed on the meaning of the insights generated. This is where true learning lies. The coach must, beyond a play on words, visualizations, and feelings, lead the client to reflect on and derive meaning from what is being explored. This can be done by inviting the client to examine what the observations mean for themselves (the who), for the situation they are in (the what), and how they will translate that learning to various aspects of their lives. In the words of a visual learner, it would require the coach to go beyond the tip of the iceberg (initial information generated by learning style), below the sea to the wider, deeper parts of the iceberg that make up a greater percentage of its mass (the values, life purpose, assumptions, and expectations of the client amongst others, that make up his person). It is this meaning that will also ultimately drive the desired action in fulfillment of the goals of the coaching relationship.
Building on the above, it is arguable that the coaching relationship may be best served when the coach facilitates meaning extraction using the style that best suits the purpose, not to search (sometimes in vain) for the client’s preferred learning style. In other words, if insight gleaned from exploring with the client indicates that more meaning may be derived from a feeling, then the coach should utilize this modality in this instance rather than force a visual because the client seems to be a visual learner. As an example, even though a client speaks with ease about visualization of a block in her writing career as a wall, exploring the feeling of being an imposter would be crucial if it comes up because that feeling holds meaning for the client and the potential for reframed perspective. It would likely be less effective to try to get the client to ‘see’ what they look like as an imposter (which may also lead to many-layered, confusing questions).
An Alignment of Coach and Client Learning Styles
In conclusion, it is plausible that an alignment of coach and client learning styles makes for effective coaching because clients will learn more when the coaching engagement is presented in their best modality. However, while this may be an added advantage in situations where it occurs naturally, it is neither practical nor feasible for a coach to opt to work with only clients who learn the way they do. What may be more feasible and effective for all clients, is for a coach to engage in a multisensory way, bringing in elements of various learning styles to the session that serves the meaning being derived from insights gleaned from the discussion and allow for new habits, concepts, and skills to be learned. Working with the client’s preferred learning style may be helpful (and is encouraged) where there is a natural opportunity to do so in the initial parts of the coaching process. However, in the final analysis, meaning-making for reframed perspectives and action-taking is the goal, and communication modalities must serve this purpose.
Gardner, H. (1985). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books Inc.
Grant (2002) in Barraclough, J. What are Learning Styles and What are their Implications for Coaching/Teaching?
International Coach Academy (ICA) (2020). Course: Facilitating Growth; Module: Creating Trust.
Liska, C. (2013) Learning Styles as a Coaching Tool. Article on Center for Coaching Certification.
Lubin, M. (2013) ‘Coaching the Adult Learner: A Framework for Engaging the Principles and Processes of Andragogy for Best Practices In Coaching’, Ph.D. thesis, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia.
Merriam, s. (2008). Adult Learning Theory for the Twenty-First Century. New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, no. 119, pp. 93 – 98.
Putinsteva, T. (2006). The Importance of Learning Styles in ESL/EFL. The Internet TESL Journal, Vol. XII (3).
Reid, J. (1987). The learning style preferences of ESL Students. TESOL Qty, 21(1), 87-111.
Sphero (2020) 4 types of Learning Styles: Explaining the VARK Model. Accessed on May 11, 2022
VARK Modalities (The). Accessed on May 12, 2022.
Williams (1996) in Barraclough, J. What are Learning Styles and What are their Implications for Coaching/Teaching?
Willingham, D. (2005). Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Instruction? Reprinted with permission from the Summer 2005 issue of American Educator, the quarterly publication of the American Federation of Teachers by Reading Rockets.