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.