Designing Learning for Any Style

Learning styles are often used as a catch-phrase to say that the training will be suitable for different tastes and abilities. Clark Quinn has one word on learning styles – rubbish. I agree, noting that Will Thalheimer still hasn’t had to pay anyone on his challenge, “I will give $1000 (US dollars) to the first person or group who can prove that taking learning styles into account in designing instruction can produce meaningful learning benefits.

Without citing more research (you can follow the links and comments on the above and find out more), here are three practical approaches that you can incorporate into any instruction:

Read Ruth Clark’s Six Principles of Effective e-Learning (PDF) from The E-Learning Guild

Buy the book, Learning to Solve Problems: An Instructional Design Guide by Dave Jonassen

Use CAST’s Universal Design Principles:

  • Multiple means of representation, to give learners various ways of acquiring information and knowledge,
  • Multiple means of expression, to provide learners alternatives for demonstrating what they know,
  • Multiple means of engagement, to tap into learners’ interests, offer appropriate challenges, and increase motivation.

10 Responses to “Designing Learning for Any Style”

  1. Clark Quinn

    Harold, I mostly like CAST’s Universal Design.

    Multiple means of representation follows from Spiro’s Cognitive Flexibility theory (great likelihood of comprehension, activation for a relevant problem, and matching a framework to solution).

    Multiple means of engagement: tapping into Keller’s ARCS model (and my own work on engagement).

    My only quibble is with multiple means of expression: that depends on the degree of transfer being sought. If it’s specific, e.g. chemical hazard identification, I want one means of expression: correctly identifying the toxic material found, across multiple contexts but only one ‘right answer’! If it’s broad, e.g. ‘justice’, then I’m happy to have it expressed in multiple ways.

  2. Harold

    I see multiple means of expression as providing the option of writing a test or doing an oral exam or showing competence on the job. Some people don’t do well on written tests. However, in all cases, the performance standard would be the same. My experience with critical skills (like chemical hazards) is that any drill & practice or tests should replicate the actual work conditions as much as possible.

    Thanks for the reference to the other models, Clark, which I’ll have to review.

  3. Jennifer Nicol

    ‘Learning styles’ can be a useful reminder that not everybody thinks like me, or you. But in our constant search for the direct path, we often confuse our tools with the Answer. I think the source of this confusion is half a lazy hope for a quick solution, and half a fantasy that there is one Answer.

    Like the iPhone… this week’s Globe and Mail included a couple of delightful articles from Ian Brown about people lining up outside Manhattan stores to await the product release. Quoting some members of the line-up, Mr. Brown suggests the source of the fantasy that is (this week) the iPhone:

    ” ‘Do you think the iPhone’s like a mother?’ someone said. ‘You know, something that takes care of all your needs, comfort, pleasure …’
    ‘It’s more like having a dream wife. Everything you want in a wife. Except it’s also a great mobile device.’ It wasn’t clear if that made it better, or worse.”

    Brown concludes “It was the ancient longing for the one thing that will do it all. The Holy Grail and the peace that passeth all understanding come to mind.” (Globe and Mail, Saturday, June 30th–link below)

    This ‘ancient longing’ also governs a lot of the rhetoric (spoken and unspoken) around the web in general, and e-learning specifically.

    Aren’t you glad that we humans and the way we think still eludes such easy solutions?

    Link to G&M article: (

    (Happy Birthday to my fellow Canadians… as I was writing this, the Snowbird planes flew by my window in formation… very exciting to watch!)

  4. Karyn Romeis

    I am writing a paper for my MA on the pluses and minuses of learning style theories in respect of teaching practice, and the one big plus I have identified so far among all the faulty research and bumpf is that teachers have been compelled to “mix it up” in classroom delivery.

    I think Jennifer has a very valid point, though, about us wanting a panacea – it provides us with sense of security.

  5. Dave F.

    “Learning style” is one of those hydra-like nostrums that you can’t kill and that wouldn’t stay dead anyway.

    Richard Clark of USC, at an ISPI conference, cited research by Richard Snow to indicate that people’s preferred learning styles actually can work against learning. For example, if you’re already knowledgeable about some field, you tend to prefer well-organized, concentrated information about that field… but Snow’s research suggests you’ll learn better in a less structured, free-form environment.

    Conversely, novices to a field, who tend to prefer that free exploration, will do better with more structure.

    Thalheimer has valiantly tried to lay to rest a similar deathless bundle of flapdoodle: the percentage of stuff we remember by doing (versus seeing, hearing, reading). Here’s a link to a recent post that connects in turn to his initial one:

  6. Becky

    You say: “Learning styles are often used as a catch-phrase to say that the training will be suitable for different tastes and abilities.” I think the heart of the issue is that a single training method can not be applied to different tastes and abilities. I think you need a variety of training interventions in order to accommodate how different people learn. It should not be about trying to build the “ultimate” course that meets all needs, rather it should be about building many courses that each take a different approach to the topic, so learners can select the one that best suits their requirements.

  7. Harold

    or maybe building no courses, because the course is a factory production model that has outlived its usefulness?


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