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Ask a Trainer: Generational Learning Styles

Tuesday, March 3, 2020
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Dear Tim,

I’m an instructional designer reporting up to an L&D manager at a tech company. My workplace, like most, is increasingly dominated by millennial and Gen Z employees. Because of this, my manager thinks we need to start designing learning in a completely new way to accommodate this younger workforce.

I’m a little skeptical that different generations have wildly different learner needs and preferences, and I don’t want to end up stereotyping learners based on age. On the other hand, I don’t want to present a generic learning solution when tailoring learning for different generations might be more effective.

What are your thoughts on generational learning styles or preferences? As an instructional designer, how much should I take that into account when designing learning?


What a great question! For years, the concept of tailoring our learning content to our learners’ preferred learning style(s) has been tossed around like a hot potato. And while many learning professionals have clung onto the idea, a 2014 study by the American Psychological Association found little correlation between learning retention and method of delivery.

But what about generational learning styles? Are there learning differences among the age groups? And if so, should we be tailoring our content delivery as a result?

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The truth is, I’m not sure. After doing some research on the topic, I’m not convinced there is enough evidence to suggest a significant difference. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of assigning blanket assumptions onto large populations of folks based on arbitrary ideas. And just like we should avoid claiming someone is an “auditory learner” because they like music or a “visual learner” because they like watching movies, I think we should avoid similar stereotypes when it comes to learners of different ages or generations. It would be like saying, “Well, because they didn’t grow up with computers, we should avoid e-learning.” I just don’t buy it.

What should you do instead? I think the best approach is to let the content and the complexity of the task or skill drive the instruction. If you’re teaching something that is a hands-on task, perhaps it’s best to create a tactile and experiential learning experience. Or, if what you’re teaching is a complex task, relative to your audience, perhaps you provide additional learning opportunities.

I think you should focus less on the generational differences of your audience and focus more on what’s the most appropriate delivery method for the content.

Best of luck!

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Tim


Do you have a learning question you’d like me to tackle? You can email them to askatrainer@td.org. Also, visit the Ask a Trainer hub to check out all of your questions and my answers.


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Please note: Content shared in this column is provided by the author and may not reflect the perspectives of ATD.

About the Author

Tim Slade is a speaker, author, award-winning
e-learning designer, and author of The eLearning
Designer’s Handbook.

2 Comments
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What a concise and cogent response to a prevalent question.
Thanks, Paige! I appreciate it. I think it's such a misunderstood topic at the moment.
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