|Australian Journal of Educational Technology
1999, 15(3), 222-241.
An enduring question for educational research is the effect of individual differences on the efficacy of learning. Aspects of individual differences that have been much explored relate to differences in learning styles, strategies and conceptions of learning. Such differences present a profound challenge for instructional designers, as research has shown that the quality of learning material is enhanced if the material is designed to take into account learners' individual learning styles (Rasmussen, 1998; Riding & Grimley, 1999). In the context of the present research, learning style is taken to mean a consistent or habitual of mode of acquiring or imparting knowledge through study, experience or teaching (Beishuizen & Stoutjesdijk, 1999). The purpose of this article is to propose ways in which individual differences can be accommodated when designing self-instructional learning materials in print for distance learners. It is advocated that instructional designers turn to research on learning styles to inform the design of adaptive learning material. Kolb's (1984) learning cycle and associated learning styles are described with a view to providing instructional design guidelines which accommodate (i) each stage of the learning cycle (ii) individual differences between learners in processing and presenting information. Examples of learning activities for each stage of the learning cycle are provided from a tertiary bridging course for adult learners. It is recommended that in designing for a diverse student body, the research literature on learning styles can provide insights that have the potential to improve instructional design.
However, the reality is that in many institutional contexts, the pressure of student numbers and scarcity of resources limit the scope of learner needs analyses. Instructional material often remains fixed, unvaried and static, adaptive to individual needs in only minor ways, if at all. Students are expected to fit into the system and to cope as best they can. High rates of attrition in distance learning settings are not uncommon, and the research suggests that epistemological factors such as impediments in information presentation and the perceived difficulty of content are salient factors leading to non-persistence (Morgan & Tam, 1999; Ozga & Sukhnanden, 1998). For instructional designers, an often neglected source of information on individual differences is the growing body of research on learning styles and strategies, which explains how individuals learn, process new knowledge and represent information. It is suggested that current research literature in the area of learning styles and strategies can provide instructional designers with insights into individual differences in learning and performance that can be factored into the design process.
The most salient dimension that differentiates the terms learning style, learning strategy, learning preferences and cognitive style is the degree to which they can be observed and articulated. For example, learning preferences are easily expressed "I really like working in groups, I just can't come to terms with new concepts unless I discuss them with others". Similarly, learning and cognitive strategies may be inferred by observing students or by allowing them to think aloud as they study.
Cognitive styles and learning styles on the other hand, are often assessed using a questionnaire or psychometric test. Various instruments have been developed for this purpose including the Honey and Mumford's (1992) learning styles questionnaire (LSQ) or Riding's (1991) Cognitive Styles Analysis (CSA). Much of the research on learning styles has been conducted by psychologists using psychometric tests of personality and intelligence, and the results used to design training in management and educational settings (eg., Allinson & Hayes, 1994; 1988; Curry, 1991). Since the late 1970s there has been an increased focus on the applicability of learning styles research for learners in a range of educational settings, thus broadening the scope of research on individual differences. In the present study we distinguish between the cognitive-perceptual styles research (eg., Riding, 1991; Riding & Douglas, 1993) and the learning centered tradition which focuses on approaches to studying (eg., Biggs, 1987; Watkins, 1998). Each of these strands will be discussed in relation to its contribution to designing learning materials.
|Learning preference||favouring one method of teaching over another|
|Learning strategy||adopting a plan action in the acquisition of knowledge, skills or attitudes|
|Learning style||adopting a habitual and distinct mode of acquiring knowledge|
|Cognitive strategy||adopting a plan of action in the process of organising and processing information|
|Cognitive style||a systematic and habitual mode of organising and processing information|
Psychologists investigating individual differences have defined learning style as a tendency to approach cognitive tasks with a preferred strategy or set of strategies, corresponding with a preferred mental set (Riding & Rayner, 1998). Riding & Cheema (1991), having surveyed a number of learning style constructs, propose a broad categorisation of two cognitive style families that relate to how people process and represent information. This categorisation is useful as it suggests that learners differ in terms of two fundamental dimensions:
The learning centered tradition has grown out of process-based models of learning such as:
What has been most productive in the learning-centered tradition has been the additional insight gained about individual differences and strategies that emerge while learners are engaged in the process of learning. Individuals tend to develop learning strategies in order to deal with learning materials and therefore learning strategies can be regarded as cognitive tools, which enable learners to complete tasks and solve problems. By relating the research on learning strategies to the design of learning environments it is possible to investigate how learners approach their learning, how they perceive of themselves as learners and what they value in the learning experience (eg., Biggs, 1987; Entwistle & Ramsden, 1983).
Stated simply, the context is not just an external context imposed by somebody else. It is also an internal context- the frame of reference or point of application that the learner generates (envisions). The learners (or readers) bring their own framework to the task. They have real world problems they are trying to solve and they read the text with those problems in mind. Hence the reader is cognitively problem solving in the area of application while reading the text. What information is attended to, how the information is organised and what personal knowledge is combined with the information all revolves around.... those contexts of application the reader imposes (Honebein et al., 1993: 93).Learning styles research is of enormous significance with respect to establishing the learners' contexts of application and learning, so that these understandings can be brought into the design process.
Rowntree (1992) argues persuasively that developers need to take into account the research on learning styles, and to design materials for flexibility, diversity and balance. In a comprehensive review of literature, Richardson (1994) also concludes that higher education requires students to comprehend, and not merely to reproduce ideas and that acknowledging different approaches to learning enables authentic tasks to be created which are responsive to learner needs. In designing a learning task there is also an increased emphasis on productive as opposed to reproductive learning activities. For example, learners are required to solve problems, produce arguments and evaluate their own work and that of others. These productive and creative activities have signaled a shift in emphasis in higher education from reproductive to higher order learning activities and an emphasis on meaning-directed and investigative styles of learning (Trigwell & Prosser, 1999). Such an approach necessitates taking into account differences in prior knowledge and a greater understanding of learning processes in which learners are participants in knowledge creation, not mere receptors of inert knowledge. Salomon & Globerson (1987) maintain that mindfulness in learning involves intentional purposeful employment of non-automatic cognitive processes addressed to the task at hand. By enabling learners to have access to resources tailored to their own learning styles and instructional procedures, tutors can foster such higher order learning outcomes.
In the United Kingdom, the Dearing report Higher Education in the Learning Society has endorsed learner-centered approaches and emphasises that learners should come to know their own learning styles. For learning tasks, they state that: an effective strategy is to guide and enable learners to be effective learners to understand their own learning styles and to manage their own learning. (Dearing, 1997: 24). Jonassen & Wang (1993) concluded that merely providing content and information and showing learners structural relationships is not sufficient for higher cognitive performance. They conclude that "what matters most is the construction of personally relevant knowledge structures" (p. 7). This means that learners must be able to engage with the learning materials at varying levels and depths and be capable of accessing resources, which match or accommodate their learning preferences. This review of literature presents substantial evidence in favour of considering learning styles research when developing instructional materials.
Despite this evidence, the research is divided in its application of learning styles research to the development and design of instructional materials. On the one hand, some maintain that learning improves when learning styles are taken into account (eg., Riding & Rayner, 1995; Riding & Douglas, 1993). For example, Claxton & Murrell (1987: 2) remark that "consideration of styles is one way to help faculty and administrators think more deeply about their roles and the organisational culture in which they carry out their work". Others favor extending or changing learners' cognitive systems or approaches to learning through adaptive, intelligent use of computer courseware and learning materials (Jonassen, 1988). In either case, it can be argued that both strands of learning styles research provide a wealth of insight into individual differences and orientations to learning that can be translated into instructional design.
Figure 1: Stages of the learning cycle according to Kolb, 1984
Figure 2: Learning styles associated with the learning cycle
According to educationists, the experiential learning model offers an excellent framework for designing, developing and delivering diverse learning experiences for adults, and offers instructional designers a tool for planning and designing learning activities (Rowntree, 1992; Tennant, 1988; Mulligan & Griffin, 1992). For instance, reflection and conceptualisation on experience or on a learning event may lead to the forms of higher order thinking that enable learners to challenge and revise ideas, and thus engage in goal oriented, on-going learning (Anderson & McMillan, 1992; Simons, 1992).
Earlier, we described the two dimensions of cognitive style proposed by Riding & Cheema (1991): the wholist-analytic and the verbaliser-imager. In support of these dimensions, studies conducted with students who were given a text comprehension task found that imagers learn better when information is presented in text-plus picture mode rather than in a wholly verbal mode (Cyrs, 1997; Jeung, Chandler & Sweller, 1997). The additional visualisation afforded provides explanation that assists in comprehension (Riding & Douglas, 1993). These findings indicate that for imagers, learning performance suffers when information is presented only in textual mode. Imagers also prefer to use diagrams to present information during recall. In recent study on learning differences with multimedia materials, Riding & Grimley (1999: 47) found that "...style interacts with the structure of the materials in affecting learning... (it) affects both performance and preference in terms of mode of presentation and also interacts with the structure of material in influencing learning".
Other research on learning styles and achievement have shown that teaching students how to learn and how to monitor and manage their own learning styles is crucial to academic success (Matthews, 1991; Atkinson, 1998; Biggs & Moore, 1993).
The application of Kolb's learning cycle to design of learning activities utilised Collis' (1998) approach to designing an adaptation within a course module (see Figure 3). The academic unit was intended to cater to the learning needs of individuals by balancing task design to ensure that it encompassed:
Figure 3: Steps in designing an adaptation within a learning module
Learning activities were designed with a strong focus on metacognition and problem solving. Throughout the unit, students were confronted with situations and contexts which were problematic and in need of development, for example their own study skills and management strategies. Through inquiry into how others might approach tasks and by comparing this with their own situation, learners reflected on aspects of their situation that required change. Reflection and evaluation then led to action, and the learners created an improved study plan in which goals were identified.
|Stage of learning cycle||Learning method||Learning activities|
|Concrete experience||Real life activities, use of prior knowledge, authentic activities||Speak to a friend and find out how they organise their study. Draw up or create a timetable for your study that fits in with your other obligations. Discuss with a colleague.|
|Reflection||Observation, self-commentary||How do you learn best? Think about a situation in which you performed well and record your thoughts in a journal.|
|Conceptualisation||Analysis and synthesis of concepts||How would you describe yourself as a learner? What are your strengths and weaknesses? List the goals of your study for this unit.|
|Practical application and testing||Application of principles to practical problems||What time management strategies could you apply to you own situation? Which would be most suited to you? What benefits might they bring?|
Table 2 provides examples of learning activity design in microcosm that are consistent with the principles of experiential learning while accommodating learners at each stage of the learning cycle. The principles for the design of tasks within the unit of study, informed by Kolb's experiential learning model can summarised as follows:
|Style||Learner characteristics||Text presentation offered|
|Wholists||Tend to see the situation as a whole||Advance organiser to indicate parts and structure of material|
|Analytic||See collection of parts||Overview to provide a picture of the whole|
|Verbalisers||Represent knowledge verbally (speech and text)||Verbal versions of pictorial material|
|Imagers||Represent knowledge pictorially (images)||Pictorial form verbal material|
This advance organiser enabled learners to gain an overview of the content in advance, to orient them to key terms and concepts and to return to this organiser throughout their learning.
In summary the process of visual design involved presenting information in dual mode and integrating graphic modes of presentation. This enabled learners to access information in a presentation format that was congruent with their own learning style.
Figure 4: Advance organiser used to present a visual overview of learning material
It is suggested that Kolb's learning cycle (1984) can be combined with more conventional methods of instructional design of learning materials, such as events of instruction (Gagné, Briggs & Wager, 1992). In addition, learning materials need to be evaluated in terms of learner responses and preferences so that instructional designers can learn about the needs and cognitive styles of learners and become more responsive to these needs in the design of materials.
There has been a lack of confidence in learning styles research because inventories and definitions of learning styles vary and also because researchers in different traditions and contexts have addressed learning styles in unique ways (Murray-Harvey, 1994). This article has drawn attention to two traditions in the learning style research and how each can be applied to instructional design. One tradition of research derives from psychology and has been labeled as the 'cognitive-perceptual' tradition that focuses on different modes of processing and presenting information. Two principles cognitive styles are identified: wholist-analytic and verbaliser-imager (Riding & Cheema, 1991). Research has found that individuals learn best when information is presented in ways that are congruent with their preferred styles (Riding & Grimley, 1999). Applying this principle to the design of print-based learning materials requires balancing visual and textual modes of presentation.
The second stream of learning styles research has been labeled the 'learning-centered tradition', with a focus on approaches to learning, and conceptions of learning (Entwistle, 1981). Within the 'learning-centered' tradition, Kolb's (1984) experiential learning cycle is adopted as model for design of activities. The stages in the learning cycle are linked to Honey & Mumford's (1992) four style differences, activists, reflectors, theorists and pragmatists. It is posited that every learner goes through this set of stages towards understanding. The learner may have experience or prior knowledge, which is activated through appropriate design of learning tasks. The stages of review, reflection and abstraction can be fostered through design of learning tasks. In the final stage, new knowledge is fully integrated into the learner's experiences and the cycle is complete. Honey (1989) claims that only a minority of learners have all four styles, and that most learners have the capacity to employ all four, but never have the opportunity. Course designers who aim to encompass all stage of the learning cycle are therefore not only catering for diversity, but also expanding the learning repertoire of learners by providing for contextual, experiential and theoretical elements of the learning process (Seden, 1994; Knapper, 1995; Anderson, 1992).
To promote improved design of instructional materials, knowledge about individual differences needs to be integrated and connected directly with the design process, so that instructional materials are not only flexible, but also supportive of diversity and capable of accommodating a wide range of learning styles. Further research into the application of Kolb's learning cycle in online environments for learning would provide interesting insights into how the model could be adapted or extended for hypermedia design.
In conclusion, the literature on learning styles and individual differences provides a rich but largely untapped source of data for instructional designers. Consideration of this literature can lead to a greater understanding of learners' approaches to study, greater awareness of individual differences in learning and improved design to cater for diversity.
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|Author: Dr Catherine McLoughlin is Senior Lecturer in Higher Education in the Teaching and Learning Centre, University of New England, Armidale, NSW 2351. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Tel: +61 2 6773 2670
Please cite as: McLoughlin, C. (1999). The implications of the research literature on learning styles for the design of instructional material. Australian Journal of Educational Technology, 15(3), 222-241. http://www.ascilite.org.au/ajet/ajet15/mcloughlin.html