Thursday, May 10, 2007

Learning Styles

In 1996, when I first started working as an "instructional designer", I was taught about learning styles. In the context of e-Learning (back then it was just plain old CBT), this meant you had audio/video on the screen with timed text bullets. The learner could listen to the audio if her preferred style was auditory, OR read the text if her preferred style was visual. That's about all I knew of it. But it seemed to make sense. Give the learner a variety of ways to access the content -- on the same screen.

When I was in trade school a few years ago, all of us student were brought through a three-day class session on learning styles. The thinking being, that if you understood your own learning style, then you could maximize your strengths and preferences for better study techniques, notetaking, and, ultimately, better learning. We each took a survey, the results of which showed what type of learner you were. I came out as a VKA (Visual, Kinesthetic, Auditory). This means that I learn best through my visual channel, next kinesthetic, with audio being my weakest channel.

Last year, we did a similar exercise at the school -- although this time, I was a teacher taking the test. We used a different approach: The Playground Theory of Learning developed by Shelly Loewen. Loewen's TIPP system is for "helping learners maximize their learning efforts and helping instructors address the learning differences of individuals and groups with ease." See my earlier posting for more on that experience: TIPP . Loewen's system classifies learners into Traditional, Playful, Personal, and Ideational with a visual, audiotory or kinesthetic preference. This time, I scored stronger on auditory than visual. Imagine my confusion.

I've been looking into the learning styles theory a bit the last few days, after having a humble learning moment.

I found some great articles/old posts on learning styles, thanks to Cathy Moore who pointed me to her reading list. Thanks, Cathy -- great stuff!

1) Learning Styles, ha, ha, ha
Jay Cross December 2005
The comment thread is really great.

2) Brian Alger -- Experience Designers Network
Learning Styles: Whose Styles Are These And Why Should They Matter To Me?

Theories do not help us to expand our awareness and understanding of learning; they serve to reduce and confine it.

3) Brian Alger -- Experience Designers Network
Learning Styles: Whose styles are these and what are they for?

The idea of learning styles commonly refers to some notion for a preferred way of learning. It implies that each of us has a natural inclination toward learning of some kind, and that if that natural inclination can be identified then teaching experiences
can be provided that facilitate our learning. Obviously, there is diversity in learning. However, to identify a generic set of abstract categories, label people according to these categories, and then provide experiences designed to help people in that category learn contains a variety of assumptions that need to be examined more closely...
Brian makes this important distinction:

Perhaps part of the solution is to separate, to some degree, the idea of being educated from the idea of learning. We might then explore the notion of "educating" styles - which seems like a term more appropriate to what is being described as learning styles. This would help to unhinge the assumptions that learning and education are intimately connected.

4) Jean Marrapodi just pointed me to Bernice McCarthy's 4MAT approach. Her slide "People Learn Differently" looks very similar to Loewen's Playground Theory.


Cathy Moore said...

I can see how theorists might argue that reading text aloud to the learner addresses multiple "learning styles," but the real-world experience is one of frustration: you want to read ahead but you can't because the narrator reads more slowly than you do. I usually lunge for the mute button, but often I still have to wait for the now-silent narration to finish before I'm allowed to move on.

In e-Learning and the Science of Instruction, Ruth Clark cites research that suggests that reading text aloud to learners usually hurts learning. It's also a bad idea if you believe (as I do) that learners should be in control as much as possible. If a you have to wait while a narrator painstakingly reads all the text that you've already read, you're certainly not in control.

Cammy Bean said...

I'm with you. I always tune out the audio and read ahead. But I just thought that was my learning style.

Ruth Clark does say that there are times when text and audio are OK -- for instance, if there are NO graphics on the screen.

I think I'm still hung up a bit on feeling the need to have some text representation on the screen to reinforce the audio and provide a point of reference -- even when there's an animation on the screen. Perhaps the best way to handle this would be on the next screen. Or a job aid. Or -- perhaps even better -- to just let go, Cammy.

Cathy Moore said...

If you're feeling the urge to have text on the screen, maybe you could go with that urge, and leave out the audio.

I think audio is very effective when you want to establish an emotional connection or when the visual is actually important to the content and needs to be described (as opposed to eye candy like stock photos).

But even when there's a visual that needs examination, it might be more effective to provide a rollover rather than explaining the image with an audio presentation. That way, the learner can determine what part of the image to learn about next and take as much or as little time as they need to digest each bit of info.

If you do go with audio, it's seems like it would be fine to include bits of text on the screen as reinforcement, displaying the bits when they're spoken.

Of course, this is all just my unfounded and profoundly biased opinion (I'm very very visual).

jmarrapodi said...

I think we need to be careful here not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. You're right. There ARE a plethora of different learning style theories comparing variables, and as you observed in the reference to 4MAT, they do all look similar. 4MAT has its foundation in Kolb's model. I think some of that has to do with the roots coming from similar places. Lots of them align with Jung's work.

I guess the key take away for me has been that there are difference in the way people absorb and process information, and the biggest ah-ha for most teachers in participating in any learning styles workshop, is that other people learn differently from the way they do. Knowing that forces me to be adaptible in the way I present information. I'm intuitive, and big-picture and grasp things quickly with quantum leaps, but often need to explain in a step-by-step fashion for others who don't learn that way.

You can sort a cup of miscellaneous pens in 10 different ways, and certain pens will group together based on certain characteristics. Each pen, while it may have commonalities with others, is still unique. Ditto with people. They share common traits in the way they learn, and learning style theories show that.

As designers and teachers, we need to be careful to incorporate variety in the way we present things to touch the ways people who learn things differently from the way we do need to grasp things.

Hopefully some of those detail oriented 17 bullets per PPT slide will get that some of us don't CARE about or need all that detail that they crave. We can dream, right?

Jean Marrapodi

Cammy Bean said...

Jean and Cathy, thanks for the insightful comments. My mind has been stirring this all up...

@ Jean -- I understand how a learning styles approach works in the classroom. As a teacher, it's important to present info in different ways to get to your different students. And as a former student myself, I know my best "style" for listening to a lecture is to take notes and lots of them. And there are those who say they learn best by knitting while listening.

What are your thoughts on applying "learning styles" to e-Learning? How have you done that successfully?

Deborah W. Halasz said...

Hi there! I was wondering if you had a different link for 4mat? I tried to click on it, and it told me page not found.

Thank you!