Learning styles refer to the way in which people process and understand information. True learning requires a person to be able to understand, recall and reapply information to a different context. Over the years research has shown that some people prefer certain methods of learning to others. This article examines various learning styles and looks at the implications for designers of online courses on the Internet.
Learning styles have been categorized in a number of ways. Two of the most popular categorizations of learning styles are into
Visual, auditory and kinaesthetic learners
Honey & Mumford's theory of learning styles which divides learners into pragmatists, theorists, activists and reflectors.
Before these are further explored, the following points should be made regarding the emphasis placed on learning styles: Although people generally favor one learning style, they are not solely able to learn through this method and have utilized all styles of learning throughout their life. Understanding their preferential learning style is useful for the purpose of facilitating an individual's optimum learning environment. It would also be wise to note here that learning styles should not be looked at in isolation and many factors such as interest & motivation have as great (usually greater) an influence on the learning outcomes.
Visual learners - prefer to learn through visual stimuli. Learners want to watch events and make notes. Writing is thought to clarify the experience and encourages the learner to place meaning to the event and form an appropriate structure to recall and reapply the information at a later date.
Auditory learners - prefer to learn through listening. They do not have the same requirements to write things down but prefer to focus solely on what they are hearing without other distractions.
Kinaesthetic learners - prefer to learn through doing. By taking part in an activity, kinaesthetic learners are able to explore and resolve understanding through interaction with the process.
The implications and practicalities of these 3 learning styles will be examined further on.
Honey and Mumford (1982) also hypothesized about different learning styles and expanded upon Lewin's cycle of adult learning which stipulates that adults move through learning in stages. Firstly by engaging in a concrete experience, then by reflecting on this experience, thirdly by making general rules about this experience (abstract conceptualization) and finally by experimenting with slightly modified event mirroring the first experience. Honey and Mumford used this model to postulate that individuals had preferences for one of the 4 stages of Lewin's cycle and they could be categorized into one of four types of learners: pragmatists, activists, theorists and reflectors.
The model below depicts Honey & Mumford's theory:
Activist: Prefers to learn by doing or having experiences
Reflector: Prefers to learn through taking time to observe & reflect
Theorist: Prefers to learn through exploring concepts, theories and looking at logical explanations
Pragmatist: Prefers to learn through testing out ideas, experimenting and problem-solving
Many tests have been created to help individuals assess the learning style they are best suited to. One of the best known is the Learning Styles Questionnaire by Honey & Mumford. Peter Honey's website provides further information on this.
To explore some basic ideas for categorization 1 and to decide whether you are a visual, auditory or kinaesthetic learner, the table of questions on Chaminade College website are a useful start.
Now that a variety of learning style theories have been explored, the question needs to be asked how do these affect designers of online education?
The most straightforward suggestion to online designers is to try and appeal to all types of learners and this can be done through offering variety. Varying content, varying the way in which information is presented, varying the way in which tasks can be completed.
The online designer faces a complex task because not only do they have to present informative learning activities, they have to do it in such a way that the learner remains motivated and focused to finish the course. Most online learners enrolled in educational programs are there through their own self-motivation. The successful online designer therefore has to create effective study programs so that the learner will stay self-motivated and interested.
Before the specifics of learning styles are mixed into the equation, there are a few general guidelines for online design which research has shown to be fundamental for a successful initiative with a sound educational basis.
Programs require interactivity. In online learning the activity is as important as the content. Online learning is least effective when it purely simulates a student reading an online book, however good the book maybe. The web is the most amazing source of information. Most educational programs need to focus on creating meaningful activities to assist learners in finding and understanding this information rather than spoon-feeding learners with one source of information in the form of that institutes online book.
Online Learners need to become engaged in the activity which could take the format of quizzes, exercises, problem-solving, research & development projects, recall tasks, role-play simulations, coordinated group online activities, discussion forums, online chat programs etc. Most students find engagement in activities provide a meaningful learning experience, are motivational and promote understanding.
Online learning is in the majority self-instructed. Therefore online designers need to assess whether their intended learners have the necessary skills such as dedication, commitment, time management, & self-motivation to complete programs. Many younger or less experienced learners may often have more difficulties with this type of learning and may require a high degree of intervention from tutors and assessors. The online designer needs to incorporate such requirements in their program structure.
Online learners require at least as much if not more assistance than students who attend traditional classes. Programs should be designed to incorporate interaction with tutors, a structure to deal with students who need to ask questions or require support in a particular area, a useful help or reference section, plus accessibility for students to work with other students.
Although teachers are vital in online learning, the actual nature of the program should be learner-centered rather than teacher-centered. This equates to exploratory learning for which the student takes an active role and the teacher takes the role of a guide. Learners make decisions on tasks & pathways. The program must allow enough leeway for learners to explore avenues of particular interest to them. Again this is motivational and makes learning meaningful.
To assist further with motivation and meaning, programs should be as realistic as possible in terms of using examples and features that carry authenticity or are part of everyday life to which the learner already has a knowledge, understanding or association.
Assessment of learners should be an integral part of the program rather than an add on at the end. It should be planned alongside the activities.
If these are good practice principles for online design of educational courses, how can these be further expanded by incorporating the various learning styles mentioned earlier?
Designers can provide options for the learner which allow them to follow their preferred learning style where appropriate. Below are examples of activities which are engaging for different learning styles and that can be applied to online design.
This type of learner benefits from the inclusion of diagrams, pictures and illustrations within online programs. They also like the chance to summarize or make notes about topics, these can be included as tasks within programs. Visual learners also benefit from tasks such as quizzes and online discussion as this provides them with a chance to explore their ideas in written format.
Auditory learners respond well in online conferences when they have the chance to listen & participate in conversations with other learners or the instructor. They may wish for a greater degree of interaction with tutors. Online designers can include the option of listening to instructions/information instead of reading.
These learners are best suited to online programs which are project-based with lots of hands-on discovery. Problem-solving activities where the learner has to test things out for themselves, try alternatives and draw conclusions are likely to involve this type of learner rather than more traditional reading & writing based tasks. Simulations and role-plays will also suit kinaesthetic learners.
Activists will tend to enjoy online learning programs which have a high degree of hands-on learning whereby learners do activities, projects, simulations and learn from the experience of participation.
Reflectors are flexible learners who will be happy to take part in a multitude of tasks from written assignments to discussions to projects, but they will need time to consider what they've learnt before formulating their ideas to take assessments.
Theorists will prefer tasks which allow researching and exploring information and arriving at detailed explanations and answers. Written assignments and projects will suit theorists which have a large amount of reference materials and include analytical assessments.
Problem solving and experimental style learning are enjoyed by the pragmatist. Online projects where the learner has to draw conclusions from information they research are preferred by this type of learner.
In practice then, how can this flexibility for learning be achieved? Below lists a brief hypothetical example for online learning aimed at clarifying some of these ideas.
1. Explore the distribution of tropical rainforests around the globe 2. Understand climate of a tropical rainforest 3. Describe and explain the vegetation found in a tropical rainforest 4. Analyse the current dangers to tropical rainforests
As an experienced scientist for the research & development team at York State University, you have recently been selected to provide an independent report to the new government of Brasilia on the current conditions in Borba in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. Your report needs to include ecological & climatic information, vegetation status, rates of destruction, foreign influence, local perceptions and a recommendation for governmental strategy for 2003-2005.
Possible Research Information
Possible Preferred Learner Style
http://www.amazoninfo.com - Statistical data on Amazon destruction since 1985
http://www.amazonmaps.com - Pictoral & interactive displays & maps of Amazon areas, forests & areas under cultivation.
http://www.amazonchannel.com - Radio broadcasts of current debates on the situation in Borba
http://www.behindtheamazon.com - Explanations on the effects of Amazon destruction on Brazil and globally
http://www.photoamazon.com - Photographs and diary of two weeks spent in the Amazon
Online Class discussion
Using online discussion forum. Scheduled for Tues 17th March at 4.30pm. Reply by email to confirm attendance
Class role play
Roles are assigned to phone-ins/netmeeting learners to debate the various issues in Orinoco. Send email to sign up before 3rd March and an email informing you of your role and background information will be returned to you by 6th March
Individual tutorial meetings
Mandatory 1 hour per week. Either via online chat or telephone
2. 25% report summary of meeting, 75% written script of role play of a future meeting discussing all the outlined variables. Due 31st March
Theorists, Visual, Reflectors
Activists, Pragmatists, Auditory, Kinaesthetic
The brief example above examines just one way in which varying the resources, activities, tasks, & assignments of the module, students have an option to focus on their preferential learning style.
To summarize, people like to learn in different ways. Where possible online educational design should attempt to cater for different learning styles. This can be done through imaginative design which is student-centered, authentic, explorative, focuses around activities and is well-supported by tutors.