Friday, November 27, 2009

Do Your eLearning Lessons Appeal to a Variety of Learning Styles?

By Shelley A. Gable

I took a course on learning styles a few years ago. The instructor pointed out that training practitioners tend to design instruction that caters to their own dominant learning styles. Although this may be the most comfortable approach for the one designing the training, it may result in some learners being left behind.

The point? Avoid the pitfall of designing to your own preferences - make sure you've incorporated instructional methods that appeal to a wide variety of learning styles.

Learning styles have to do with how people perceive and process new information. Since everyone's brains are wired differently (which explains the great variety of personality types among those we know), training must appeal to a variety of learning styles in order to be effective for varied audiences.

While writing this post, I opted to google "learning styles," and the first result on the list took me to a page that describes sensory modalities (i.e., visual, auditory, kinesthetic). Much research has been conducted about the role of those modalities in learning, and this seems to be one of the most widely familiar learning style models among training practitioners. In the table below, I've defined each of the modalities and suggested how each can be incorporated into an eLearning lesson.

Learning Modality + Definition

Use in eLearning

Visual = learning by observation and seeing information

Text, informative images, video demonstrations

Auditory = learning by listening to information or saying information aloud

Audio, discussion assignment in which the learner is required to discuss information with a manager or peer

Kinesthetic = learning by engaging in hands-on activities

Simulations, on-the-job task assignments

While the role of modalities in learning is important to consider, other learning style models can offer additional insights. A model that I'm partial to is the one developed by Anthony Gregorc, which explains how people perceive and organize information.

  • When it comes to perception, styles are categorized as either concrete or abstract. Someone with a concrete style relies most on physical senses for perceiving the world, while an abstract style tends to perceive through the less tangible means of emotion and intuition.
  • For organization, the categories are sequential and random. Those who are sequential tend to organize information in a linear way, whereas a random individual tends to organize information in a way that may appear to jump around more.

In Gregorc's model, a learning style consists of a perception-organization combination. Examining the characteristics of these styles not only helps you to better understand the varying ways in which people learn, but it can also aid in brainstorming instructional elements that cater to a variety of style types. In the table below, I've listed some of the characteristics of each combination and suggested instructional elements that can be used to appeal to each in an eLearning lesson.

Style Type + Characterization

Appealing eLearning Elements

Concrete Sequential = naturally structured, detail-oriented, precise, perfectionist tendencies

Simulations, clear step-by-step instructions, concrete examples

Abstract Sequential = logical, scientific, intellectual, curious

Links to additional “nice to know” information, quotes/examples from experts or positions of authority, open-ended questions

Abstract Random = relationship-oriented, subjective, imaginative, conceptual

Branching (i.e., allow learners to choose their own path through the eLearning lesson), social media, humor

Concrete Random = intuitive, impulsive, optimistic, innovative

Branching, problem-solving exercises, non-linear simulations

Admittedly, the summary provided here of Gregorc's model is oversimplified. However, it should give you a sense of the type of insight it provides into how people learn differently from one another.

What's the point of all this? To ensure that an eLearning lesson appeals to a broad audience, avoid the pitfall of designing to your own preferences - make sure you've incorporated instructional methods that appeal to a wide variety of learning styles.


  1. Shelly - thanks for sharing this information! I have thought about about a test that shows if an elearner is a good candidate for online learning. Do you know of anybody in your world who is researching/creating such a test? This could save students lots of time and grief. I did all my MA on-line and would have loved to have understood if on-line education this was a good fit/venue for my abilities to learn. My sister a School Psychologist says this idea is a for a doctorate...any thoughts?

  2. Hi Jeanne! My apologies for the slow response. I did some research on that question myself a few years ago. The literature tends to suggest that it's really more about the design of the online program rather than the type of student. Many online programs just involve a lot of reading (which works well for some learners and not so well for others)...while some programs are more engaging in multifaceted ways. While a lot had been written on the topic at the time, below is a link to a study that stood out to me.

    Given how far we've come with online learning approaches since this was published, it could be interesting to replicate the study.

    Hope this helps - good luck!


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