If you take an education methods class, you will inevitably discuss learning styles. Do they exist? If so, should we create different types of instructional content to address diverse learning styles? How much time can a teacher invest in adjusting instruction to meet the needs of diverse learners? The questions go on and on.
What about learning styles? You’ll find a lot of research on this topic. Just do a search on Google Scholar (http://scholar.google.com), using the phrase “learning styles,” and the search engine returns about 141,000 results. David Kolb writes about the Experiential Learning Cycle, telling us that adults learn differently from children and that often we need to “unlearn.” The Felder-Silverman Index of Learning Styles includes four dimensions: processing (active/reflective), perception (sensing/intuitive), input (visual/verbal) and understanding (sequential/global). The Honey and Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ) provides another way for people to analyze how they best learn. And if you are an educator, you know about Gardner’s multiple intelligences. Learning styles have been identified in the ESL/EFL classroom and associated with culture, race, and a whole slew of other criteria. How we view learning styles depends a lot on how we believe people learn.
Richard E. Mayer states that the learning style view works with the “information acquisition” theory of learning–learners are empty vessels needing to be filled with information. In contrast to this, the cognitive theory of multimedia learning is based on the assumption that (a) all learners have separate channels for processing verbal and pictorial material, (b) each channel is limited (limited capacity learning principle) in the amount of processing that can take place at one time, and (c) learners actively build pictorial and verbal models from instructional materials and build connections between them.
The multimedia principle is simple and straightforward: People learn better from words and pictures than from words alone.
If we believe the cognitive theory of multimedia learning to be true, then we can and should create instruction that is engaging, addresses all learners, and helps them build their own mental representations. After all, the goal of effective instruction is to encourage the learner to engage in active cognitive processing. Sure, there are exceptions to multimedia principles, such as expert learners not needing as much multimedia enrichment than novices, but the principles can be used by instructors to guide the design and presentation of instruction.
Instead of using multimedia to address diverse learning styles, use multimedia to address how people learn–by selecting words and images, organizing words and images, and integrating verbal and pictorial representations with each other and existing knowledge. This “knowledge construction” metaphor for learning presents people as active participants in their own learning.
Now some of you might be scratching your heads and saying–“But wait a minute. I learn better from text than from pictures.” Well, that might be true, but I would argue that this is not a learning style, but a learning preference. It just means that you selected the text to read instead of looking at the picture, too. Maybe the picture was of bad quality or a poor representation of the text. But if an appropriate picture is used along with the text, in the right place, then you will learn even better. And if you are already skilled in a certain procedure or concept, then a picture or text alone might do the trick. And if narration is used instead of text along with images, then multimedia research shows that this is even better than static text and pictures.
This post is not meant to resolve or incite the continuing debate over the validity and reliability of learning styles. And some may argue that “style” also means “preference.” That’s okay. I’m used to debating educational issues. However, using proven, research-based multimedia and other message design principles along with effective instructional strategies can go a long way in providing excellent instruction and encouraging learning. I’ve listed books below that will help you get started:
Clark, R. C., & Mayer, R. E. (2008). E-learning and the science of instruction: Proven guidelines for consumers and designers of multimedia learning, 2nd edition. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.
Fleming, M. L., & Levie, W. H. (1993). Instructional message design: Principles from the behavioral and cognitive sciences. Educational Technology.