Catering to Different Learning Styles in the Digital Landscape

Anyone who has been a student at any time in their life has always known when they were being taught by an effective teacher and when they’ve encountered a teacher that just can’t engage them at all. As a trainer it is important to recognise that everyone has a different learning style that needs to be catered to in order to maximise the effectiveness and retention of the training presented.

The three learning style categories that most people are familiar with are visual, auditory and kinesthetic; that is people who learn by watching, people who learn by listening and people who learn by doing. The VARK model, however, lists seven learning styles (fig. 1), while other studies present considerably more, (and still others insist that there is no proof that ‘learning styles’ have a strong impact on effectiveness at all, but that is a blog post for another day). The science on learning styles is complex, but the one element everyone seems to agree on is that we need to offer a mix of resources that appeal to different people (and their different learning styles) to maximise success.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1: The VARK Model of Seven Styles of Learning

So how do we cater to different styles in a digital environment? How do we make sure that we are providing resources and activities that will give learners options to engage them and ensure that we are maximising their learning potential when they are sitting behind computer screens in distant offices instead of in a classroom in front of us? Whether you are creating self-paced or instructor led content, there are some key elements you should consider adding to your resources to maximise engagement and take-up among your participants.

1. Use a Variety of Visual Aids

This doesn’t mean empty your vault of hilarious clip-art, moving quotes on scenic backgrounds, and the latest memes. Instead it means to incorporate as many different visual aids as you can (fig. 2). Video, brainstorming, mind-maps, Wordles (fig. 3), lists and sketches can boost the effectiveness of your message and help sustain interest in participants who may be tempted to stray from training to answer an email or respond to external stimulus, like phone calls and office visitors.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2: Mindmap of options to engage visual learners

Fig. 3

Fig. 3: A Wordle or Word Map

2. Think Outside the Box for Aural Learners

Aural learners don’t just learn by listening, they excel when sound and music are utilised to get a point across. This means the use of elements such as mnemonics, rhythm, rhyme and even acrostics and jingles can help to maintain interest and boost the effectiveness of your learning. Mnemonics have long been used to assist students with rote learning, why not try adding something different to the mix?

3. Just Because They’re Alone at Their Computer Doesn’t Mean They Have to Learn Alone – Give Them Access to the Group

While eLearning and online quizzes can help people who like to have a solitary environment to flex their learning muscle, there are also valuable tools that can bring participants together in an online environment. Group chat functions, microphones allowing the sharing of ideas verbally, having participants complete group work such as case studies or role plays, or through sharing aggregate responses to quizzes and surveys all help participants to feel more engaged by utilising a ‘hive mind’ and reaching out for support in the learning environment.

4. Remind Them Why This is Relevant and What They Will Achieve Through Participation

Ensure that you guide your learners through the training process. Checklists, main points and summaries will help your participants stay on track and remind them of the journey they are taking with you in the online learning environment. By ensuring that your participants know what they is coming, and reaffirming at the end of each section what they need to take away from the class, you will ensure that your class is focused and remains on track. This will further insure that participants do not get distracted by the multimedia display and become passive consumers of your presentation; by reminding them of their role in the learning process, you ensure they remain engaged and active participants in the online environment.

Lastly, and most importantly:

5. Don’t Forget the Kinesthetic Learners!

Don’t put ‘learning by doing’ at the bottom of the pile because it is ‘too hard’ to organise in an online space. In this day and age there are multiple ways that you can engage your participants and numerous elements of online learning platforms and self-paced learning programs that will allow participants to test what you are training. Sharing desktops will allow you to demonstrate systems and processes, while programs such as Articulate will allow you to construct test environments and create branch learning experiences where participants literally choose their own adventure. Participants can interact with slides and data to help them to understand complex ideas, while quizzes and survey questions can be used to obtain feedback on case studies, test understanding of key issues, and create realistic simulations online that can function as role plays. If you are unable to do any of these things, then it’s time to create a case study to upgrade your systems and improve understanding of the eLearning systems in your organisation.

It is important to remember that online and eLearning best practice are similar to classroom training best practice, and the pitfalls that cause students to disengage are generally similar also:

  • A mostly lecture style,
  • Trainer-centric teaching with little participant talk time,
  • Death by PowerPoint through walls of text read aloud,
  • A lack of thought-provoking, well developed and realistic examples and scenarios, and
  • Ignoring the importance of engaging with and stimulating the people with whom you are interacting.

The online space has its own unique challenges, but with some creativity and dedication, there is no reason why you can’t find ways to engage your learners and create an effective learning environment, no matter what courses or programs you are training, and no matter how diverse the learning styles of your participant group may be.

Do you have any tips on ways to engage different styles of learners in the eLearning sphere? What are some tricks that you use in your online classes to boost retention?

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