A successful learning program—Web-based or not—addresses the needs of a variety of learners. Educational researchers have studied learning styles for decades, trying to find the ideal way to teach audiences from preschool through the professional years.

Their research has yielded some interesting statistics (R.M. Felder and L.K. Silverman (1988). “Learning and Teaching Styles in Engineering Education,” Journal of Engineering Education, 78 (7), 674-681, April 1988):

  • 67 percent of students learn better actively than reflectively.
  • 69 percent of learners respond better to visual input than verbal input.
  • 57 percent of students are sensors, that is, they understand more through the presentation of data and facts, as opposed to the theories and interpretations that intuitive learners prefer.

While individual instructors may prefer a certain approach to teaching and use it in all settings, Web-based training can be designed to appeal to a variety of learning styles, from active to reflective and from visual to verbal.

Defining learning styles
Active vs. reflective
Active learners need involvement with their subject matter, doing something physical with the information being taught. Reflective learners do the processing in their heads. Lectures appeal to reflective learners, while multi-media and online learning require student interaction and meet the needs of active learners.

The use of multimedia exposes students to the subject matter in exciting ways that traditional teaching methods cannot match. Using multimedia allows students to take an active role in the educational process, rather than remaining passive recipients of information.

Visual vs. verbal
Visual learners prefer graphics, charts, and demonstrations, whereas verbal learners prefer the written or spoken word.

Intuitive vs. sensory
Intuitive learners prefer theories and interpretations, the hallmarks of engineering courses. Sensors, on the other hand, prefer to deal with data and facts.

Certainly the best activity for sensors is an actual experience. It is often not possible to provide this experience in a traditional training course, particularly one with a large enrollment. Interactive Web-based training that includes a simulation of a real system can play an important role in meeting the needs of sensing learners.

Styles overlap, and people can change
Researchers have developed many learning style inventories and tests, which vary on learning aspects, environments, and names for learning styles. Despite this imprecision in the science, the information gathered can be both interesting and useful. To take a learning style inventory, or several, visit New Learning Technologies.

The styles or types that learning style inventories identify are not little boxes neatly separated from one another. They represent ways in which learners may differ. Each individual is unique, falling at different points along the various continuums that learning style inventories measure.

An important thing to remember is that learning styles are acquired preferences and habits. Students are capable of going beyond their habitual styles. They can learn strategies that enable them to learn even when taught by methods that are not compatible with their preferred style. No learning style makes nearly as much difference as the student’s prior knowledge, intelligence, and motivation.

Teach to all styles
To assume that one must teach only to a particular learning style misses the point. Keeping the whole spectrum of learning styles in mind when planning training programs is what increases their effectiveness. Online training can provide a variety of learning opportunities, filling the gaps caused by mismatched learning and teaching styles.

“Web-based training provides something for everyone. Our employees are generally very happy; so am I,” said George Skahill, president of NTL Technologies.

Something for everyone
Web-based training focuses on building feedback loops directly into the learning process—a big advantage over traditional instruction. Students can obtain frequent and accurate feedback, make corrections to their work, and structure learning experiences around their individual needs. Assessment can be ongoing and cumulative, and offsite instructors can monitor it easily.

“Online training provides some benefits that cannot be achieved in the classroom,” said Philip Martin, president of Innovative Technologies. “Besides personal convenience for the learner, graphic illustrations can help clarify important details. Learners who like details can link directly to supplemental materials and Web sites. Learners who don’t can stick to the bottom-line basics of the course. It appeals to a variety of learners.”

Trainers need to take account of different learning styles in their planning. Methods of teaching, ways of representing information, and personality characteristics of trainers all affect learning and affect learners differently. Thinking about learning styles can lead a trainer to think about different ways of teaching. An effective training supervisor needs to vary techniques and to have a wide range of teaching methods and learning activities available—including Web-based training.

Karen Cangero is the author of two books and numerous articles—many on the Internet and online issues. She has completed graduate work in education and counseling and has several years of experience in public and private education.

What kind of learning styles have you run into? Have you ever assessed your own learning habits? Click here to write to Karen and share your experiences.