Letting Learners Choose Their Own Path

Designing for Different Learning Styles

The ultimate goal of any effective instructional endeavor is to impart knowledge or skills onto a learner, right? Some teachers and course developers think of this within an instructor-led framework, in which students are simply receptacles for pre-packaged content delivered by a teacher. But there are problems with this perspective. When learners receive homogenous content, there are going to be some who struggle with comprehension because they have different learning styles (in addition to having diverse backgrounds, abilities, and learning goals). For example, let’s say you have students listen to a podcast to learn about economic theory. Sounds like a fun assignment, but in reality, only 30% of learners absorb information by listening to it. So that means that you’ve failed 70% of your learners. So let’s revise our first statement: The ultimate goal of any instructional endeavor is to impart knowledge or skills onto a learner in a way that works best for each individual.

Three styles of learning

There are three main learning styles you should be familiar with, but bear in mind that most people don’t fit neatly in one category. Visual learners are by far the most common, with 65% of people reporting that they learn best from viewing images, video, and written text. This is great news for eLearning developers, since much of online content is delivered in these formats.   Auditory learners make up that 30% who got all the information they needed from the economics podcast. They absorb knowledge best when it’s delivered aurally—via lectures, recordings, narrations, and even music.   Kinesthetic learners learn by doing. Dancers are a great example of kinesthetic learners—they can watch performances all day, but in the end, only moving their body themselves will help them learn the choreography. At only 5% of the population, kinesthetic learners are the most rare.

Letting students choose how they want to learn

The tricky part is, you don’t always know who your learners are going to be when you develop your content. In fact, your learners might not even be aware of what style works for them. So how do you design in a way that will work for everyone? Here are some tips:
  • Offer multiple approaches to a single lesson. Let students choose whether they want to listen to a lecture, read the transcript, or view the PowerPoint slides. Certain students may benefit from accessing more than one model—some research says that students learn best when they perceive information through more than one method.
  • Let learners choose an assessment that works for them. Visual people may want to create their own spatial representations of information, such as drawings, photographs, charts, or written papers. Auditory learners may choose to showcase their knowledge via dialogue, storytelling, or oral quizzes, while kinesthetic learners typically feel more comfortable demonstrating their new skills, rather than describing them. (Don’t make automatic correlations between learning and assessment styles, as a single learner may prefer to absorb information visually but reflect on it orally. Giving the learner a choice is important.)
  • Don’t forget about kinesthetic learners. In the eLearning world, it can be tempting to ignore the 5% of learners who absorb information in a tactile way. While it’s easy to create lessons that appeal to the visual and aural senses, the body itself is often overlooked in online situations. But be creative and get the learner using their mouse—use drag-and-drop games, rollover text, hyperlinks, and other interactions that require more than passive viewing or listening. Even the simple act of dragging and clicking through a scenario can satisfy a kinesthetic learner more than watching a video.

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