Child with LEARN blocksI was watching the morning news when a new University of Phoenix commercial caught my attention. The setting shows a variety of people trying to put together a bookcase. One woman is reading the directions included in the package before even attempting to build anything; a man dumps out the entire contents of hardware on the floor while he randomly grabs pieces of wood based on the box’s image; and another woman has the instructions displayed on her propped tablet device, selecting tools from a properly ordered tool shelf. You see the out of sequence, random characters and those who follow each step to the letter. But in the end, each builder has a completed, sturdy bookcase. The key message is: Everyone has their own way of doing things and learning is no different. I love it!

But the commercial got me thinking… Does you individual learning style affect your chance of success in life?

In life, I’m a very orderly, structured person. That’s doesn’t mean I read the instructions from start to finish before completing a task. In fact, when cooking I often read the directions as I go, or even not clearly enough and find out a bit too late that it wasn’t yet time to add that ingredient or I shouldn’t have added it all because it was a ‘topping.’ I am a confident cook, so I don’t feel pressured to understand all the details before I start. I just say “oh, well” and continue on. Improvisation or modified recipes offer a unique result. When my mother cooks like this, my father often complains that the food is very good but he’ll never have it ever again because there is no record of the real recipe.

In my computer lab, I would often provide students with instruction sheets of how to accomplish a certain task. These tip sheets were designed for the kids who required the step by step instructions in writing in order to support their process and truly learn how to do it. Certain learners never seemed to let me down. Every week, they would delight in letting me know that the specific directions I had typed weren’t the only way to solve the problem. I  would remind them to use the process that makes the most sense to them. They are lots of shortcuts in technology, but they don’t appeal to all users. I also felt it was better to teach lower level learners the full process and once they master it, they can apply the shortcuts. I wanted them to know how they achieved the end result. If they could teach one another a shortcut, all the better!  Goodness knows, I could have spent the entire class period discussing the different ways to reach the same result with the software. Investigation and creativity need to be a part of the learning process too.

Success in an online learning program as offered by University of Phoenix can certainly be affected by the student’s learning style, but that doesn’t necessarily equate with academic success. In fact, you can find research from multiple sources to argue either end of the spectrum. Active Learners do not do well in online learning, Reflective Learners only like to work independently and therefore thrive in distance learning – or the reverse. In fact, John Battalio from Boise State University discusses this issue in his paper, Success in Distance Education: Do Learning Styles and Multiple Formats Matter? Battalio’s research conclusion states “offering both collaborative and self-directed versions of the same course would therefore appear useful. Active learners made significantly higher semester grades in the collaborative version, whereas reflective learners overwhelmingly preferred working independently.” Therefore, he suggests two different versions of the course to meet the needs and preferences of the learner.

In the end, does it really matter how we get from point A to point B?  No. It should be the goal of every learner to find the most meaningful and effective way to capture the information, skills, and strategies they need and want to know.

Western Michigan University offers Learning Styles Exploration plan for students. There are, after all, numerous factors which will affect academic success, beginning with, environment (i.e. time of day, health, lighting, noise level); psychological factors (i.e. motivation, stress), learning style (kinesthetic, auditory, visual); personalities (left brain vs. right brain); learner types (analytical, reflective, introvert); or even medical issues (i.e. repression or amnesia). There is no perfect fit. It’s what works best for you.

This is why dittos are wrong for kids. This is why choice is so important in the classroom. It’s about student centered learning, life skills, collaborative learning, and personalized learning. It can never be about a teacher’s preference for a specific process.

For instance, in high school, I slept through every single history movie shown. I worked part time, was on the drill team and served in numerous other clubs & organizations, and in additional to keeping up with my homework, I was lucky to get six hours of sleep a night. Turn the lights off in class and show movies about something I found completely irrelevant and boring did nothing for my ability to learn the content. Active learning, small group collaboration, project based learning, anything like that would have kept me not only awake, but engaged.

Even today’s digital native teachers aren’t using technology in a robust way in the classroom, even though it offers substantial ways to appeal to a variety of learning styles and give kids control over their learning. For more info on this topic, check out the article, Taking a Closer Look at Teachers’ Technology Shortcomings. There’s no doubt we’ve got a lot of work to do when it comes to meeting learners where they are and giving them the skills they need to achieve success they seek.