From Learning Styles to Learning Science: Facilitating Student Success through Effective Course Development

Concurrent Session 1
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Brief Abstract

Two instructional designers, two learning paradigms, one learning journey: how did we get from learning styles to learning science? Based on our journey to support effective learning, we suggest ways to move from learning styles in course and activity design to inclusive practices that support research-based approaches to learning.


Dr. Melissa Williams began her career in higher education as a Ph.D. in American Studies. Her time as the Instructional Technology Fellow for her department during her doctoral program sparked an interest in the use of educational technologies. Teaching at a variety of institutions in the Twin Cities, Williams had the opportunity to explore a multitude of venues, platforms, and audiences that could benefit from instructional design and educational technology best practices. A dedicated lifelong learner, she made her way into the field of instructional design, where the brief journey into the wide variety of subjects her courses represent is her favorite aspect of the job. While she began her instructional design career at a for-profit, publicly-traded online university where she encountered the best of both corporate and higher education approaches to instructional design, Dr. Williams is now the Senior Instructional Designer at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, a small stand-alone law school that offers the first ABA-approved hybrid J.D. in the country. She has overseen an institution-wide document accessibility initiative, successfully submitted the school's first official Quality Matters certification, and developed an instructional designer onboarding program from scratch. Williams is now researching the paradigm shift in education from "learning styles" to "learning science" and how instructional designers can partner with educators to foster a smooth transition.
Patricia Beyers Pelzel is an instructional technologist/ instructional designer with over 20 years of experience in K-12 and higher education. Patricia's passion is making learning accessible to all learners which led her to obtain a degree in special education in addition to her degree in education and instructional design. In her previous role as the Senior Instructional Technologist at Carroll University in Waukesha, Wisconsin Patricia facilitated the change in learning management systems to Canvas resulting in a 94% adoption rate in the first year. Patricia recently accepted a new role at Crisis Prevention Institute where she will use her expertise to develop blended training programs that are interactive and student-centered. When Patricia is not on campus you will find her exploring new restaurants and attending her daughter's many sporting events.

Extended Abstract

Two instructional designers, two strongly held learning paradigms, and one learning journey: how did we get from learning styles to learning science? Join us at the intersection of learning styles and the science of learning to discover how one designer let go of her strongly held belief in learning styles and used learning science to move to a new perspective on instructional design. Based on our own journey to understand and support effective learning, we suggest concrete, pragmatic ways to move from focusing on learning styles in course and activity design to embracing inclusive practices that support research-based approaches to learning.

Learning styles have been prominent in educational circles for decades with little question of their validity. There was strong belief in the effectiveness of identifying personal learning styles to increase comprehension and engagement. As an educator and instructional designer, learning styles theories were foundational in much of Patricia’s undergraduate and graduate work. In many learning circles people identified themselves by their learning style (“I’m a visual learner so you will need to draw me a picture of that”). In the early 2000s, researchers began to investigate the effectiveness of learning styles by looking at the VAK (Visual/Auditory/Kinesthetic) and its impact on learning effectiveness. The VAK is a commonly used assessment tool that identifies a person’s learning styles based on their answers to several questions regarding learning preferences. Researchers have not been able to establish a causal relationship between designing instruction based on VAK and increases in learning effectiveness. Current neuroscience research indicates that a learning styles approach to differentiating instruction is not effective and is, in some cases, harmful (Bozarth 2018).

What does work? Research shows that there are certain instructional methods that are more effective than others in fostering knowledge construction. A focus on active learning, student engagement, and strategic placement of material all further student success in measurable ways. Examples include self-testing, spaced retrieval, interleaving and elaboration, all of which we will describe during the presentation (Dunlosky et al. 2013).

The question of how to encourage educators to embrace these learning strategies remains. Surveys of educators suggest as high as 90% still use learning styles theory to guide their pedagogy (Dekker et al. 2012). Until recently Patricia was one of them. Asking educators to change their perspective on the validity of learning styles can be challenging. How do instructional designers help move instruction to employ current cognitive research in ways that minimize conflict or resistance?

In our session, we provide concrete ways to shift the design focus from a learning styles foundation to a learning science supported approach. We will share a chart we developed that provides learning paths encompassing multiple learning tools and design methods that can be used to systematically create courses that meet the needs of all learners.  During the workshop participants will use the chart to navigate several instructional design case studies and reflect on the process with their peers. A bibliography of supporting materials will also be provided.

Level of Participation

After a brief overview of the history of learning styles and the evolution of the neuroscience of learning, presented in the context of our in-depth, and sometimes humorous, exploration of the subject, we will introduce our approach to integrating learning science into course development collaborations. We will provide participants with the chart we developed and then engage them in a role play exercise. They will receive common scenarios, use the chart to identify possible approaches to transitioning to a learning-science-based approach, and then conduct a roleplay with their partner. After the role play, the partners will discuss the effectiveness of the approach, apply it to their own institutions and prior experiences, and offer feedback on how they might tailor their approach for maximum effectiveness in their own work environments.

Session Goals

By the end of this session, participants will be able to do the following:

  • Trace the evolution from learning styles to learning science in education.
  • Employ methods to move from a learning styles approach to approaches grounded in learning science research.
  • Identify methods for introducing research-based learning strategies to educators that avoid challenging the learnings styles paradigm.
  • Discover the power of employing multimodality in learning materials and course design.

Works cited

Bozarth, J. (2018). The truth about teaching to learning styles, and what to do instead? [White paper]. Retrieved March 21, 2019 from The eLearning Guild.

Dekker, S., Lee, N.C., Howard Jones, P., and Jolles, J. (2012). Neuromyths in education: Prevalence and predictors of misconceptioins among teachers. Frontiers in Psychology 3(429), 1-8.

Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K.A., Marsh, E.J., Nathan, M.J., and Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving students' learning with effective learning techniques: Promising directions from cognitive and educational psychology. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 14(1), 4-58.