Types of Learners: Understanding learning styles and what they mean to eLearning designers

Learning stylesLearning styles refer to a diverse set of theories that attempt to identify various types of learners and explain the differences in how individuals learn. The underlying view of these theories is that individuals learn differently and that one can categorize learners by their learning styles.

Learning styles and what they mean to eLearning designers

ELearning designers can learn a lot by understanding the types of learners for whom they are developing learning content. However, instructional designers must bear in mind that the theorists themselves have differing opinions about how to define learning styles, and how to classify learners.

Knowing the learning styles and types of learners an eLearning designer is catering to can help in tailoring pedagogical approaches for that specific audience. eLearning designers can also maximize learning outcomes by using design elements and learning tools that coincide with the learning styles and preferences that learners (or at least the significant number of them!) exhibit.

On the other hand, learners too can be beneficiaries of understanding their own learning styles and the types of learners they identify as. In understanding their unique learning styles and preferences learners can use specific learning techniques and approaches that deliver enhanced personal learning outcomes.

Additionally, if course instructors aren’t catering to a specific audiences’ learning style, learners can immediately raise that as a point for further accommodation. This won’t happen if a learner is oblivious of his/her own learning style.

Activities for each learning style

To recap, learning styles define the methods various types of learners use to understand and learn new information. These “styles” are how learners receive, perceive, understand, express, retain (memorize) and recall new concepts and knowledge. The most widely accepted model of learning styles is that offered by educational theorist Neil Fleming. His VARK model defines four major learning styles:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Read/Write
  • Kinesthetic

Here are some best practices to consider for each learning style:

  • Visual Learners: They learn through seeing:
    • Design content and activities heavy with visual displays and presentations
    • Use lots of graphics, diagrams, pictures, and charts when designing course activities and assignments
    • Vary spatial arrangements when presenting textual content
    • Use different fonts, highlights, and colors in content development
  • Auditory Learners: These types of learners learn by listening:
    • Activities should include instructor-delivered lectures and peer-participation group discussions
    • Use loud, audible and clear (accent-free) speakers/voice, encourage learners to ask questions and foster extended deliberations on new and complex subjects
    • Make heavy use of audio recording, eBooks and in-person tutorials
  • Read/Write Learners: These types of learners learn by reading/listening and then writing what they’ve learned:
    • Learners with this learning style will benefit a lot if eLearning designers use plenty of reading material (text, slides, lecture notes, PDF documents, links to supplementary online resources)
    • Go heavy on glossaries and Coles Notes-type content
    • Design activities that encourage learners to re-phrase or paraphrase learning content
    • Have learners produce multiple (written) versions summarizing the same topic, lecture or concept
    • Activities should include multiple-choice quizzes and list-rearrangement exercises
  • Kinesthetic Learners: These types of learners learn by doing and practicing what they’ve learned:
    • Create learning activities that bring to play all the senses of the learner – sight, touch, hearing, taste, and smell
    • This learning style thrives on “solving”, “trying out” and “practicing” – so include such activities as part of the curriculum
    • Design interactive labs and tutorials as part of your content
    • Include lots of “Now you try it…” or “Your turn now…” type of exercises and examples
    • Create as many practice quizzes and exams as possible

Because of how these styles differ from each other, using “cookie-cutter” content to accomplish learning objectives may not work. Instead of designing “one size fits all” tests, assessments and assignments, eLearning designers should customize learning activities to tap into the unique attributes of each of these types of learners.

ELearning theorists who talk about learning styles

Learning theories span the gamut from Behavioral to Cognitive, with eLearning developers also embracing Constructivist and Active Learning theories. While most theorists agree that individuals learn differently, few agree on exactly what those “differences” are. Understanding different learning style theories may help eLearning developers design better courses.

We’ve already discussed Neil Fleming’s VARK theory earlier. Here’s a summary of what three other leading theorists say about various types of learners and how they learn:

  • Psychologist David Kolb presented his learning styles theory in 1984. Kolb theorized that learning styles are cyclical: Experiencing, Reviewing, Concluding and Planning. Kolb holds that learning styles evolve as a result of genetics, life experiences, and influences of the environments in which learners exist.
  • Educationists Peter Honey and Alan Mumford used Kolb’s research as the basis, and in 1986 advanced it further by offering their own interpretation of learning styles. According to Honey and Mumford, there are four distinct learning preferences or styles: Activist, Theorist; Pragmatist and Reflector.

The following diagram effectively maps various types of learners identified by the Kolb to those described by the Honey & Mumford theories:

learning styles and types of learners

  • Harvard University professor Howard Gardner proposed his learning styles theory in 1991. Howard’s theory identified seven types of learners based on how they learn: Visual-Spatial, Bodily-kinaesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic and Logical-Mathematical.

Other renowned theorists that have advanced their own versions of learning styles include Isabel Myers and Katherine Briggs {Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)}, Ned Herrmann’s Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument (HBDI), and Bernice McCarthy’s 4MAT system.

Accommodating learning styles through various modalities

Having reviewed everything said above about multiple learning styles and different types of learners, the obvious questions eLearning designers may have are:

  1. How to accommodate all learning styles during course design? and
  2. How do connect with all learners through various modalities?

The answer to these questions isn’t straight forward. It all depends on the complexity of the topics covered, and the types of learners you are addressing. Regardless of which styles individual learners favor, it’s best to engage learners through a broad array of multisensory activities. And make sure to include content and activities that appeal to each of the four modalities identified in the VARK model.

To aid eLearning developers produce more personalized content, and help instructors deliver the courses effectively to various types of learners, it may help if you first understand the learning styles and preferences of each individual. Use tools available online to do this, so your content caters to various learning styles.

It may help also eLearning designers produce content appropriate for each style if they took the VARK quiz and learn more about the type of activities and content suitable for each of these types of learners.



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