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Not Another Report: Using Learning Styles to Convey Data

Some days I get tired of looking at spreadsheets. But the truth of working in data is that someone has to make the sausage. However, there is no reason why the end user of research and data, whether boss, customer, or a citizen; should have to comb through spreadsheets to find information as well. This is why organizations create reports that feature pretty visuals and an executive summary which summarizes major points of the report. The problem with these reports? They’re often boring.

Most of the literature of the last few years surrounding data has been tied to making visuals and layouts of reports interesting and fun. This is an art more than a science and the people who do this well are amazing. However, even with the flashiest visuals and the most inspiring writing style, reports play to people who either:

A. Have the time to read it thoroughly.

B. Learn easily through reading.

C. Can get full understanding of data from the written words and a graph.

Yet, this ideal reader is only a portion of the population.

People use four different learning styles to process information about the world around them. Visual Learners understand information best when there is an image or visual. Aural Learners understand things best when communicated in an oral presentation. Verbal Learners absorb information through speech, reading and writing. And finally, Kinesthetic Learners take in data by interacting with it and using their sense of movement and touch to better understand it. Everyone learns using all four styles, but but may prefer one or another. For example, I tend to learn best using Visual learning, but find I learn the fastest through Kinesthetic Learning.

To put styles in the example of learning to swim:

  • Watching someone else swim – Visual Learning

  • Listening to a swim instructor – Aural Learning

  • Reading a book on swimming – Verbal Learning

  • Being thrown in the pool by your father and you not drowning – Kinesthetic Learning!

So, how does this apply to data?

The first thing to understand is how research reports reflect these learning styles. First, reports are first and foremost written documents. This is great for verbal learners who can understand complex information through words. This is often the easiest for the data analyst themselves, who tend to be verbal learners who excelled in academics and research. It may also be why graphs and visuals have grown in popularity only now that more people have access to loads of data.

Visuals are key for the visual learner, which is why so much effort has been put into imagery, graphics and layout of late. Infographics are the best evidence for the importance now placed on capturing data in an image that many people can understand. By some estimates (though others dispute this as pop science) 65% of people are primarily visual learners. This is why captivating images are so important. If it doesn’t have pretty pictures, far less people will understand it.

So, what to do with the other types of learning?

Aural is perhaps the easiest to answer. Research can be presented in speech: either in person, or as a video. The more important the information discovered in the data, the more important this is to articulate this orally. Organizations of all sizes can take advantage of this by creating videos of their research on YouTube or by hosting a small podcast where special episodes can be about research findings. Cross listing these resources with the raw data and written report are critical to providing access for all learning styles in the audience.

Finally, we come to the least advantaged group when it comes to data. These learners learn by doing, which is difficult in understanding data. A glib analyst might say, “well they can play with the spreadsheet if they want.” This is the research equivalent of, “let them eat cake.” First, some people may not know how to manipulate data well, and more still may not have access to the program used the analyze the data. Fine if the data was built in excel, but playing with the data ceases to be a viable option for most when analysis was done in formats for SPSS, SAS, R, Python, etc. We can’t let lack of specialized knowledge be a barrier for kinesthetic learners.

Here is my suggestion for kinesthetic learning: Interactive data reports.

Interactive reports allow learners to use a mouse and click on visual and move the data as they see fit. An example of this below (courtesy of Microsoft Power BI) shows an interactive report on hypothetical product sales scenarios for an imaginary company. This report could be altered by changing the sliders (in the upper-right corner) to control time period, state, and product name. These would then alter the other visuals and graphs.

Often called business intelligence in finance departments and board rooms, this interactive report is the perfect solution to convey information to those interested in research that prefer to learn by doing. Depending on the field and purpose of the interactive report, these are also called dashboards.

Bringing this all together, research reports can be presented either in all four research styles using a variety of options. While written reports and infographics a very common, interactive reports and oral presentations are often overlooked by researchers themselves, which is why these are important to either begin to do or reinforce in your own organizations data and research efforts. Understand your audience, understand that they have a variety of learning styles, and that they will better understand the insights you have discovered when data is presented in all four learning styles.

How do you prefer to digest data? What learning styles does your organization focus on when presenting information? Which learning styles do they need to improve in communications?

If you would like to explore further how to reach all learners, lets talk. Visit aljetsconsulting.com to connect with me.


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