Like the fabled Hydra, the myth returns each time learning professionals think they have it beat. Whether garbed as learning styles or personality inventories, the idea that matching learning content to each learner’s “type” is the most effective way to teach keeps coming back.

Attempts to personalize learning to make it more effective are laudable, but personalization does not require designing special learning materials for each different personality type. True eLearning personalization puts choices in the hands of the learner, whether those choices are micro—choosing the format of content or the time and place to consume learning—or macro, such as enabling each learner to plan a unique learning path.

Broad ‘tests’ don’t predict aptitude

While few L&D professionals rely on personality testing to target eLearning, the danger of accepting overly broad characteristics as a way to define learners and target content is real. Though their promoters tout personality “inventories” like the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, DiSC, or Big Five as ways to assess a person’s suitability for a job or likelihood of success, there’s little indication that they do any such thing.

“It seems that 83 years of research about the personality assessment industry has mostly brought us to: ‘It’s useful for understanding differences.’ Overall, there is little capacity for explaining given behaviors or predicting anything specific,” Jane Bozarth wrote in an eLearning Guild research report, Personality Inventories: Fiction, Fact, Future. “It seems important to note that no popular instrument purports to measure actual abilities or skills.”

Learners are different; no one is arguing with that. The issue is with trying to target specific forms of content to individual learners based on unscientific “typing” as a way to improve their performance. Instead, try strategies that work.

Know your learners

Knowing your learners is, of course, essential. The starting point for personalization is relevant content. This requires knowing what learners already know, as well as what they need to know. Rather than a matter of learning style or personality type, though, this is a matter of prior education and experience. Allowing advanced learners to skip basic material and providing key information in an accessible, on-demand format personalizes learning by enabling learners to quickly find the information they need—while avoiding redundant or irrelevant training.

Know your content

The next step is choosing an appropriate format or formats for eLearning materials. Again, this is not a question of providing so-called “visual learners” with different materials than self-identified “aural learners.” Much research has established that this type of matching fails to improve results.

It’s far more important to consider the learning objectives, as well as the learners’ circumstances, when choosing a format—or multiple formats. Offering learners a choice—personalization again—enables you to reach and engage more learners.

For instance, if you have a dispersed learner population that frequently travels to client sites, mobile learning is essential. Forms like podcasts, which learners can listen to while driving, might be an effective way to review product information. On the other hand, if you’re teaching a process where learners need to follow a precise series of steps in repairing a piece of machinery, a video or infographic might be more effective. In these examples, the content itself largely determines the best presentation approach.

Know your environment

Learners increasingly learn within their workflow, rather than schedule dedicated training time. While some are on the move, learning on breaks or during a commute, others learn in busy offices. The ever-increasing demands on workers’ time argue for short, easily consumed learning. And the likelihood that content may be consumed in a noisy environment or one where the learner cannot watch a screen argues for presenting content in more than one format.

Rather than focus on learners’ personality differences, concentrate efforts on developing learning tools that work in their environments. These could be tools that facilitate collaboration and sharing of resources and knowledge; they could be knowledge bases or curation sites; or they could be tools that automate some tasks, freeing learners up to develop and use higher-level skills.

Personalization is not about personality type

Personalized learning has little to do with learners’ personality types and much to do with the content, the learning goals, and the work and learning environment.

Read Bozarth’s full report to explore more deeply the use and misuse of personality inventories in attempts to personalize or improve eLearning. The report, Personality Inventories: Fiction, Fact, Future, is available for free download to all eLearning Guild members.