Solving the Problem of Learning Styles

Meeting the Needs by John Adsit

Rob and Maria are two fictional students who appear in Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns by Christensen, Horn, and Johnson. In the early stages of the book we see Rob struggling to understand a concept in chemistry that Maria picks up easily. Fortunately, Rob’s father has not forgotten those lessons, and he is able to help Rob understand by using a different instructional approach from the one used by Rob’s teacher. The lesson the book would have us learn is that the teacher used an instructional process that fit Maria’s learning style, but Rob needed an approach that matched his learning style in order to find success. The book looks forward to a day in which emerging technology related to online education will allow instruction to match learning styles and bring educational success to everyone.

The concept is seductively simple. A student’s learning style is assessed at the beginning of the class, and the results are used to direct him or her through a succession of learning activities designed to meet his  learning needs. As you explore the concept, though, you begin to see that it isn’t all that easy. Ironically, a little more study may suggest the opposite—that it is even easier than it looks.

The first problem is determining what we mean by learning styles. Most readers probably think they know because they took a workshop or read a book that taught the concept. Most readers are probably thinking along the lines of VisualAuditory—Kinesthetic. That is not, however, the only theory of learning styles. In fact, my own research indicates that there are at least 100 different theories of learning styles, and many are significantly different from one another. While I have certainly not looked at all 100, the ones I have reviewed all seem to make sense to some degree, but they all seem incomplete as well. I have never found one that perfectly matches the student differences I saw in my teaching career.

What kinds of lessons can we create that work most effectively with the identified [learning] styles?

But let’s say we could come to agreement on an identifiable set of learning styles. What would we do about it? Would we send the student down a path in which every lesson has the same instructional qualities? Most theorists say that you then design instruction to match the learning style, but others say the opposite, that we need to strengthen the weaker areas. What kinds of lessons can we create that work most effectively with the identified styles?

And at what cost will this be? Will each course have to be essentially four to five courses running in roughly parallel paths? It costs enough to make one course, let alone four different courses that somehow interweave.

A number of years ago I had an enlightening experience that may point the way toward a solution, one that is within the means of present technology. Back when people were first realizing that IDEA contained Section 504, which required regular classroom teachers to accommodate the identified learning needs of students, I wrote an article on this on behalf of the school district’s special education director. She gave me a pile of newly compiled documents detailing accommodation suggestions for various handicapping conditions so I could include examples in my article. I was surprised to find that the same instructional strategies were being suggested over and over again for different handicapping conditions. A teacher who routinely used a relative handful of methodologies would have almost never had to change instruction to accommodate any student.

When I asked the special education director about this, she explained that all students, regardless of ability, learn better when these methodologies are used. It’s just that some students have the motivation and the ability to learn without those methods, while other student must have those methods to succeed. Unfortunately, those effective methods are not the most popular ones in education, especially at the secondary and post secondary levels.

So let’s look again at Maria and Rob, whose chemistry teacher presented a traditional fact and math-based lecture on gas laws that Maria understood but which Rob did not. Rob was able to get the lesson later when his father used some visual aids to enhance understanding. I contend that if the teacher had used a different approach, not only would Rob have gotten it, but Maria would have gotten it more easily as well. In other words, Maria was able to overcome the teacher’s weak instruction, but Rob was not.

All students, regardless of learning styles, learn better when they are in an educational environment that includes active learning, mastery learning, engaging tasks, and higher order thinking.

When I first started experimenting with innovative instructional approaches, I was teaching the extremes of secondary education—I had both Advanced Placement and ninth grade remedial classes. At first I tried these methods in the remedial classes, and I was immediately rewarded with significant improvement. I maintained a more traditional approach in the AP classes since they were doing well enough, I thought. Eventually the methods migrated to AP as well, where, to my surprise, they had an even greater effect than in the remedial classes. By the time enough years had passed that I had former ninth grade remedial students passing the AP exam, I was sold.

All students, regardless of learning styles, learn better when they are in an educational environment that includes active learning, mastery learning, engaging tasks, and higher order thinking. We simply need to provide a wide variety of such learning activities throughout our classes.

So can this be done in online education?

The first time we ever had a special education student enroll in our online school, a very unhappy special education teacher pointed at the student’s IEP, with its page-long list of required modifications, and asked us how we were going to meet all those needs. So we looked at them .The first was that the student had to be allowed to take notes on a laptop. OK. The next was that he had to be allowed extended time on tests. OK—our tests were generally untimed.  By the time we had read through the list, she saw that fully 90% of the requirements were met simply by his being in an online environment.

A well designed, varied online curriculum, with a variety of multimedia pieces and engaging learning activities, can meet the needs of students with varied learning styles, even without major advances in technology. It can do many of those things even better than it can be done in a regular classroom.

So I am confident that we can meet the needs of students with varied learning styles. I believe the bigger problems we face involve prerequisite skills, sequencing, and transfer loads, but those topics will have to wait for future columns.

8 Responses

  1. Variety is the spice of life — and, it seems, also of the classroom. My classes were pretty much the same thing day after day: dull. No wonder many students do not succeed. Students must be self-motivated for success under these conditions.

    I don’t think that it’s particularly easier to design engaging online courses with variety than to do so in traditional classrooms. However, once the design is done, the software does the work online. The teacher must do the work year after year in the traditional mode. Presenting all of that variety and keeping students engaged in a face-to-face setting has to be more of a challenge to teachers.

    Are a variety of multimedia pieces required to make a good course? Weil, I’m not really sure what multimedia means here. Certainly, a variety of learning experiences will help all students, as John suggests.

    John also points to using “active learning, mastery learning, engaging tasks, and higher order thinking.” Unfortunately for those attempting to apply these ideas, the terms have varied interpretation. Does “active learning” require only kinesthetic activity, or must the student be cognitively active as well or even instead? How does a teacher decide that a student has mastered the material? Which tasks are engaging and to which students? The definitions of higher order thinking are all over the map.

    I’d like to see classes challenge students, not the challenges like piling up large stacks of blocks but the ones where you have to figure out how to design the pile to optimize some parameter, and the design is not obvious.

    Finding challenging activities presents a challenge to the educator. The trick, I think, is finding challenges that cannot be handled simply by copying material from the textbook or notes from lectures.

    I’ve been writing material for online science labs for ten years now. I began trying to make every question a challenge. The grades were low, and both students and teachers complained. I caved in and now put in only a very small percentage of such questions. I know that I’ve succeeded when I get notes asking where to find the answer in the background material provided. It’s not there, except by extension and combination.

    By all means, follow John’s advice. Just make sure to include some real challenges. Don’t just prep students for a memory-based final exam. Students will experience more real learning and enjoy it more.

    Oh, and by the way, despite a hard uphill climb to get there, online education has traditional face-to-face education beaten in many ways in theory anyway — as long as the educator and student have some personal connection. Know thy students.

  2. Thanks for this stimulating text, John.

    Online accessibility is indeed characterized by redundancy – or rather “optional redundancy”. I.e. if a video is to be included in an online course that must be available to all students::
    It must be captioned for deaf students; and once you do that, you can just as well publish the caption text (or a transcript based thereon) on another page you link to and vice-versa, for students who prefer text.
    If there is important non-verbal content, an audio-description track should be added for blind students. As few online video platforms support the addition of such an audio-description track, better describe non-verbal content in the audio of the video itself (e.g. say what you are doing while making a chemistry experiment).
    But captions, transcript and audio-description tracks must be optionals, lest they clutter perception: it’s up to the users to choose what they each need or prefer among the offered ways of accessing content.

    @ Harry, re:

    Finding challenging activities presents a challenge to the educator. The trick, I think, is finding challenges that cannot be handled simply by copying material from the textbook or notes from lectures.
    I’ve been writing material for online science labs for ten years now. I began trying to make every question a challenge. The grades were low, and both students and teachers complained. I caved in and now put in only a very small percentage of such questions. I know that I’ve succeeded when I get notes asking where to find the answer in the background material provided. It’s not there, except by extension and combination.
    By all means, follow John’s advice. Just make sure to include some real challenges. Don’t just prep students for a memory-based final exam. Students will experience more real learning and enjoy it more.

    Back in pre-web times, a friend who taught biology at high school got herself hated to the point of being voted “worst teacher of the year” in a silly “competition” organized by a Ticino (CH) daily. Ticino being a small canton, it was very easy for just a few students who hated one teacher to rally friends and relatives to vote against him/her.
    Anyway, the reason they hated my friend was that she demanded that they demonstrate in test that they had acquired reasoning skills and methods. So she allowed them to bring their textbook and notes for the test. They would have much preferred questions were they could have spouted back the course content: “Thinking is a dizzy business”, as the Continental Op says in Hammet’s “The Dain Curse”.

    Yet once I met a Ticinese girl who was studying biology at the Zurich Polytechnic. I asked who was her biology teacher in high school. She named my friend, then blushed: “I couldn’t stand her back then. But when I got to the Poly, I realized the advantages of the way she taught us”.

    Now that, beside textbooks and notes, so much more info is available on the Net – especially for students of online courses – your and this friend’s active learning approach is all the more vital.

  3. Thanks, Claude. Thinking takes effort. For those unused to it, thinking may seem painful. People dislike those who inflict pain on them, even when it’s for their own good.

    Figuring out how to require thinking in a completely online setting also takes lots of thought. (I don’t get to interact with students using Smart Science® education.) The path to online education utopia is not a smooth and easy one.

  4. Claude’s comments on the hated teacher reminds me of a presentation I once did that I called “The Trap of Best Practice.” My thesis was that using the best educational practices in an online environment can actually lower student achievement. The paradox is true because the students are not expecting it. When they encounter lessons that are constructivist in nature, or that generally ask them to think and draw conclusions, they are stymied. They skim through the materials, looking desperately for the responses they can put down on a multiple choice test. Failing to find those answers spelled out, they declare the course confusing and poorly written.

    I once had an interesting conversation with a student regarding the topic of Feudalism, about which she was trying to write in my class. She knew absolutely nothing about it. She could not even define the term. She had just completed the Feudalism unit in her world history class, and she had received an A on the unit exam. She explained that the test was 100% open book multiple choice, and the told me taht everyone int he class just skimmed the text until they recognized the key phrases in the questions. They did not even read the sentences completely.

    The students voted her teacher of the year that year.

    I once worked (briefly) with an online school whose tests were all exactly of that nature. They were very proud of their high passing rate, and they were very upset with new online courseware that required students to think and make decisions.

    Perhaps this should be my next article rather than a reply.

  5. Excellent comment! I particularly like the remark that multiple-choice tests can require thinking by students and not just be recall and memorization. When I began writing questions for my own online materials, I spent considerable time designing questions that required some thought. The push-back was strong due to low grades. My retort that these were not assessments but learning devices did not go over well. Now, I must severely limit the number of such questions in each lab unit.

    Educators must stop allowing students to pass by memory and by skimming for key words. Life doesn’t work that way and neither should our education. No matter how painful, we must challenge our students, or we all suffer later with dysfunctional members of our workforce.

  6. […] Harry. 2010. Solving the Problem of Learning Styles. (Online)https://etcjournal.com/2010/01/05/solving-the-problem-of-learning-styles/, diakses 17 […]

  7. learning styles should be assess first in order for the students to know their preferences.

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