Learning Styles and Instructional Design: Do they go hand in hand?

Learning Styles and Instructional Design: Do they go hand in hand?

Kolb’s learning theory introduces us to four distinct learning styles (or preferences), which are based on a four-stage learning cycle – learning by feeling, watching, thinking and doing.

In other words, we all agree that individuals learn uniquely, combining a mix of the above preferences to bring out their own unique style of learning. We also appreciate that although there are as many unique learning styles as there are individuals; we can categorize them into a finite number as shown very elegantly by David Kolbe.

 My question is how practicable or feasible it is to try and accommodate various learning styles while designing a course, be it classroom or online?

In a classroom, the elements of instruction used seem to depend more on what the instructor/facilitator is good with rather than on addressing a variety of learning styles that the audience brings to the class.

As far as online courses are concerned, I agree we all make sure that there is a judicious balance of content, graphics, animation and interactivity.

But is there a more objective method to decide how much of each is recommended? I don’t remember collecting data on the learning styles of the target audience before sitting down design a course. Is there any research available that suggests a general distribution of learning styles in a given population?

If we know, even in general terms, the distribution of learning styles in a reference set of population and if we can get hold of an objective method of deciding what instructional elements we can use and in what proportion, I think our training programs will be much more effective.

I would welcome my colleagues to respond with their knowledge and experience in addressing this area.

View E-book on Instructional Design 101: A Handy Reference Guide to E-learning Designers

  • RK,
    I do believe we need to create content with the different styles in mind. We need to flex the way in which we create and present materials. I also believe that when we are in front of a group we need to try to take the pulse of the group and be flexible with our style on the spot.

  • Bob

    I have done some research on this topic. Going into the research I was a practitioner who tried to incorporate course features for all of the learning styles so that no learner had a challenge. This became a strenuous task on my part as the instructional designer, not to mention, a challenge for the facilitators.

    In doing my research, I found studies that indicate the accommodation of all learning styles within a course may actually be doing a dis-service to the learner. Because the world is such a complex society, learners (people) eventually encounter experiences that are beyond their comfort zone, but not beyond their ability. So, if instructional designers cater to everyone’s unique learning skill, then we may be reinforcing a behavior that at some point may cause the learner severe anxiety.

    The solution is to design for the majority and prepare the facilitators with the tools that help those learners adapt to their non-preferred learning style. In the long run, these learners who learn to adapt will be strides ahead when they encounter an uncomfortable learning situation.

  • I believe that learning style preferences arise from averaging out how people say they like to learn across a wide range of situations. So even if you happen to know people’s average preferences, a rich design that taps into a wide range of learning styles may well create a ‘situation’ in which people learn well whatever distance they happen to be from their notional ‘average’. My understanding is that styles are average preferences and are a weak guide for creating an optimum learning design for what the individual wishes to learn.

  • Jeannette

    This article made me think of the four domains of instructional objectives (cognitive, psychomotor, affective and interpersonal). I think the domains in which we instruct offer more influence to how we design than the learning styles (that we can not always predict) of our learners. I think it depends on how you approach design.

  • JoAnn

    I just completed delivering a 2 day class on project scope management to certified project managers (PMPs) to never-took-a-project-management-class-in-their-life students (25 folks), many under 30. I received very, very poor evals from a few (the under 30’s group?) for relating my experiences of what worked, how, why, and how to use what happen to me in their projects. They desribed me as an egomaniac for relating these experience stories. I have an undergraduate degree in education and teaching math, have taught MBA and graduate nursing students in this area (and related topics) since 2000 and never had this reaction. I was very taken back, and wonder if I should teach the next class completely void of any of my 25-year expereinces with being successful in project/change work. Any comments, from anyone? Thanks.

  • JoAnn,
    My heart goes out to you. I have survived a similar experience. I had one group dislike my stories. Then with the next group I really reined it in and instead of telling my stories, I used made up examples and involved the class in those examples.
    The class where I used the made up examples complained that I probably had real life experience worth sharing and that made up examples were not valuable.
    My take away, I went back to real life stories and as long as I felt like they were being well received and that I was being authentic in their delivery I stuck with it.

  • Andrew

    Bob made some really good points. As I am a doctoral learner (EdD), my research is taking me in this area. Research that indicates courseware needs to be designed around the one and two sigma area.
    While I have always believed that maximum flexibility is the answer, what I have found over the last 25 years of courseware design, is that as the learner learns, their learning style can change.
    I am extremely interested in the field of integrating brain and social patterns. Following Andrew Meltzoff of University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Science, I believe we may have missed the point. We need more studies to confirm interaction of computational and social learning to determine how our brain circuitry adapts in different environments to produce learning.

  • I use Kolb’s model in designing all of my educational and training programs and have done so for years.

    When working with adult students,on line or live, I find it helpful to give them an overview (or review) of this model at the beginning of a course or program. The first benefit is
    -they gain awareness of their own preference
    The bigger second benefit is that
    – they learn to use styles that are NOT their preference! At the very least, they have more patience for the fact that others have different preferences. Assignments/material/discussions and stories that do not resonate for them are probably resonating for others. This understanding transfers at work where adult students find they have a much richer understanding of co workers.

    When I design curriculum I often find Bernice McArthy’s interpretation of Kolbs Model very useful. Writing curriculum to answer the questions WHY, WHAT,HOW and IF is simple but highly effective. http://www.aboutlearning.com/what-is-4mat.html

  • I have found in my experience that when they design courses they do not take into culture variations and all to often and constructing a generic brand course. That is one size fits all and that is not true. Also it is often the mindset that only one model can be used instead of having them interact. They have blinders on that once they decide on a model they vary little or not at all from it no matter what the circumstances are.

  • Terri Cheney

    [note: I also posted this comment on LinkedIn, where RK Prasad posted a link to his blog post. Reading the thoughtful discussion here, I thought this group might find the resource interesting too.]

    I think you will find Daniel Willingham’s website useful (http://www.danielwillingham.com/).

    What I like about Willingham’s approach is that it is both solidly research based and very pragmatic. He debunks the more extravagant claims — pretty gently, in my opinion, explaining why the ideas have such appeal and staying power and never coming across as snarky. 🙂

    He has done some terrific research on learning-related myths, including writing explicitly about learning styles. Scroll down on his home page to the part labeled “Learning Styles Don’t Exist” for links to some very good videos he posted about this rather provocative claim.

    I also just found this page when I used Google to find info for you about Dr. Willingham’s work: http://www.thepsychfiles.com/2009/03/episode-90-the-learning-styles-myth-an-interview-with-daniel-willingham/ Looks like there are video, audio and print files on the page.

    Brain science fascinates me, so I am always looking for ways to apply the must current findings in my instructional design. Willingham was one of the people who reminded me that we don’t have to make extravagant claims. The more constrained claims are plenty powerful without embellishing them.

    Terri Cheney
    CONNECT Instructional Design

  • JoAnn

    I can relate to you as I have faced simliar situations during my days as a

    You are a very experienced trainer and a PM. If I were you, I will take it
    in my stride because for one such incident there are a numereous occasions where you got good feedback. I dont think you should change your method based on this single incident.

  • Note: I also posted this on LinkedIn.

    In 2007, we launched a developmental assessment center around this philosophy. We used Honey and Mumford’s learning styles, and have been very pleased with the results. We presented our data at APA last month. Feel free to contact me if you would like more information.

  • Kelly Moller

    An interesting discussion! Soldier on to Jo Ann…those jolly happy sheet feedback forms are at best just an indicator. I too had a happy classroom for all but the most recently graduated learner (she was 1 out of 12). From one generation to the next there are quantum leaps in changes in preferred learning tools, our children expect to use a computer for almost everything. We older learners on the other hand use them as one of the many tools available. Expectations vary enormously.

    What I have found really helpful for moving away from this generation divide in expectations is to think about accelerated learning techniques, multiple intelligences and brain friendly learning. The ‘classroom’ becomes a multisensory playground right down to the brain fuel for lunch – no overdose on simple sugars for our learners! And it really works.
    For example, recently one delegate came in, saw all the dried fruit and nut snacks laid out with the water, healthy tea and not so healthy tea and coffee and said….”I can’t wait for lunch!”. He was totally engaged from the outset and gave great feedback at the end, and wanted to know more.

    See you on linked in…
    Kind regards

  • brucejohnson

    Well, I’ve been around since the days of Meso and before. I’m a vet and a heavily contributing member over on Outlaw. I;m already VERY impressed with the volume on this board and that resources available!
    I hope to make some friends and maybe help some people out..Take care!

  • Awesome post man. I was wondering from where do you get all this stuff!!