One of the urban legends in education has been that good teaching requires catering instruction according to one’s learning style. People are supposed to belong to a group with a specific style for learning, be it visual, reflective, holistic or kinesthetic.

The assumption is that when developing an (online) learning program, educators should take their learners’ preferred styles into account to facilitate their learning and help them reach best possible learning outcomes.
The idea that some of your learners are kinaesthetic while others are auditory and a third group visual is false. To be precise, this means there is very weak if any evidence to support the claim that learners would learn effectively when offered material according to their learning style. Many articles one after another have not been able to find evidence of their effect.

The belief of learning styles is not just inaccurate, but may also be harmful, as stated by Kirshner and van Merriënboer. A belief in a permanent trait directs a learner to settle with their weaknesses instead of strengthening them. Whether you see your features as something you are born with or something you can improve has a great impact on your mindset.

Are all my learners the same?

As any educator would tell you, learners are not alike. But if not for their learning style, then what makes them differ from one another?

First of all, learners are interested in different things. Many are willing to spend a lot of time and energy in diving into things if they feel that they have the power to choose what to do.

Secondly, the amount of background knowledge differs. While some may be well acquainted with a subject, others may be complete beginners. Digital learning solutions allow for tailoring learning programs according to one’s level.

Also, one should bear in mind that novices learn differently from experts. For example, a beginner learns better from studying examples, while experts benefit from theoretical knowledge and solving problems themselves.
Learners also differ in their ability for self-directed learning. While others may be able to set themselves goals, strive for them and evaluate their progress, other’s may need more scaffolding.

Learners also have different abilities for applying learning strategies. A classical separation is made between the surface and deep approaches to learning. While students with a surface approach try to memorize facts, a deep approach refers to trying to understand the content more in-depth. As a consequence, some need more support in learning how to learn.

Finally, there are a set of fairly stable personality traits, which are evident especially among younger learners. For example, others are more open to new experiences or social situations, while others would prefer pursuing more familiar assignments in solitude.

For what do I personalise?

No need for despair or throwing all your hard work on your teaching materials and methods away. A recent study on medical students found no effect of learners’ assessment of their learning styles, on their study strategies and learning result. Rather, specific learning strategies, such as using a provided virtual microscope were found to be positively related to final class grade. That is, while learning styles had no impact, helpful learning tools and effective study strategies did make a difference.

Functional learning material is effective, but the decisions should be made based on the learning goals, not on the learning styles. That is, if the goal is to learn a practical skill, even a claimed auditory learner should be served possibilities to rehearse the skill in practice.

Here are things to base personalisation for:

  1. Give learners a choice. Especially in online learning, learners should be able to decide how to organise their time and workload. Options in the way to tackle a given assignment, order in which learners want to go through topics and optional assignments increase the experience of autonomy.
  2. Offer diversity. You can still offer videos, texts and games. The reason is not catering learning styles. It’s that the more ways you give learners to get to know a topic
  3. Leave room for serendipity. Offer learners a possibility to share interesting materials and resources to the whole course. Ask learners for what they want to learn, encourage them to participate in discussion and to introduce appropriate tools for learning.
  4. Tailor optional learning paths for learners with different background knowledge. A digital learning platform offers possibilities for assigning individual progress. A novice can start with the basics, while an expert can jump ahead.
  5. Provide support when needed. Learning analytics provides opportunities to perceive which learners are struggling with which parts of the course.

All in all, these are good ways to build a lively and active learning community, which makes for a vibrant online learning program. Many of our customers have had great success in implementing these. Contact us for more information.

Topi Litmanen

Dr Topi Litmanen works as a Chief Educational Scientist in Claned Group. He is responsible for ensuring, that the pedagogical aspects of the Claned are based on latest learning research. Topi makes sure that Claned customers get the needed support for meeting their digital learning needs.

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