Higher education instilled most of us with the belief that it is the instructor's responsibility to provide an optimum learning experience to ensure student success. This aspiration includes the written or unwritten directive for instructors to offer courses that provide a variety of opportunities for students with different learning styles to acquire knowledge. However, outside of academia, students may be confronted with educational offerings that do not conform to this belief system. Are we doing a disservice to our students with our idealistic, tailor made approach to education?
Kinshuk, Liu and Graf (2009) conducted a study of students' performance in courses misaligned with their learning styles. After assessing the students' learning styles using the Active/Reflective, Sensing/Intuitive, and Sequential/Global scales of the Felder-Silverman Learning Style Model (FSLSM) (they did not utilize the Visual/Verbal scale), the authors assigned students to courses not matched with their learning styles. In the FSLSM model, which has been modified since the original research in 1988, active learners prefer hands on activities; reflective learners prefer to think about the material. Sensing learners like facts; intuitive learners like relationships and possibilities. Sequential learners prefer learning one thing at a time; global learners have leaps of insight. Visual learners prefer picture, graphs and charts; verbal learners prefer words. Kinshuk and colleagues evaluated student performance with a final exam to examine gained knowledge. They found students who had a "strong preference for at least one of the three learning style dimensions had significantly lower scores on the final exam than learners with no strong preference for any learning style dimension" (Kinshuk, Liu and Graf, 2009, p. 744).
Other findings from this interesting study are as follows:
- Reflective learners are more successful in mismatched courses than active learners;
- Sequential learners logged in more often than global learners;
- Global learners skipped around in the course; and,
- The more time students spent on the courses and the more they requested additional "learning objects," the higher the exam scores, especially among Reflective, Sensing and Sequential learners.
What do these findings mean to you and how can you utilize them?
First, consider the educational level of the student. Graduate students are better at adapting to online courses and use more critical thinking skills (Artino, 2008). Graduate students have learned how to learn; undergraduates are still trying to figure out their best learning strategies and some are more prepared than others. Artino (2008) recommended the instructor provide rubrics so students can understand evaluation criteria. He also indicated undergraduates need more explicit instructions than graduate students. In other words, the instructor needs to connect the dots for undergraduates; graduates are better at connecting the dots themselves.
Second, remember each student brings a different set of expectations and motivational beliefs to the party. Students who have high self-efficacy scores, have higher academic success and satisfaction with their academic experience (Artino, 2008). Students may need you to build in opportunities for successful achievement of course goals in incremental ways to boost their self-efficacy. Shorter exercises that lead to larger projects in step-wise progression are but one way to do this.
Third, whenever possible, make sure the course work is relevant to the student. No one wants to do an academic exercise "just because." Artino (2008, p. 41) reiterated the need for "authentic, problem-based learning activities" to engage students and connect the value of their work to the real world. I do this in my courses by requiring students to use examples and cases from their lives outside of the university. When they connect the theoretical material to their experiences, the light bulbs don't just turn on, sometimes they explode!
Fourth, encourage student collaboration and peer-to-peer teaching. As instructors, we might like to believe that we are the fountain of knowledge, but in an online class, especially, it is our job to be facilitators of knowledge acquisition. Peer-to-peer teaching is a powerful tool. This can take the form of teamwork (I hear the groans already!) and discussion boards. One of the things I consider in evaluating students on discussion questions is if they contributed to their classmates' knowledge. Did the students respond with "Great idea!" or "What she said?" Or did they connect with each other in a respectful and meaningful way and bring additional, peer-reviewed literature to the discussion? Students will do what they are graded on. Start grading on this and you will see improvement in online discussions.
Fifth, be responsive. Do you like it if you leave a message for someone and they never return your call? Or call back two weeks later? How unimportant does that make you feel? Students don't like it either. Non-responsiveness is one of my pet peeves, too. If you are going to be away, post an away message. If you have a timeframe in which you return student work, make that known. If you have a 72 hour response time to email or voicemail messages, post that upfront. And do it. My personal response time is 24 to 48 hours. Yes, I am glued to my computer. Students don't need text messages from you; they do need to know you received their message and are responsive to their concerns. Thiele (2003, p. 365) notes "frequent communication contributes the most to student learning." Clarifying assignments, responding to student concerns, and providing supportive and encouraging feedback are critical to student satisfaction and success.
I am aware that there are colleges and universities where instructors have no control over the course content, including the syllabus and rubrics, and you may work at one of these institutions. However, you still have control over announcements, discussion posts, emails and responsiveness to students. If a student is struggling with course material, you can do the following:
- Check to see how much time the student has spent in the course and where she's spending it. Ninety percent of life is showing up. Has the student been present? Has he or she read the content? Or has the student just peeked at the announcements and posted the bare minimum in the discussion boards? The instructor can provide students with constructive feedback and support by saying, "Research shows the more time you spend in the course, the better you will do. Here's where you need to spend more time."
- You can suggest to the student that she or he conduct a self assessment of his or her learning style using Felder and Soloman's (1997) online Index of Learning Styles. The four dimensions, Active/Reflective, Sensing/Intuitive, Visual/Verbal, and Sequential/Global, are on scales from 1 to 11. Scores that range from 9-11 indicate a strong learning preference; 5-7 indicate moderate learning preference; and 1-3 indicate the student is fairly well balanced on that scale. After the student completes the questionnaire, the authors provide an immediate analysis of the student's learning style, as well as an excellent list of practical strategies for students who find themselves in a course not aligned with their preferred learning style. I completed this assessment and found I have moderate preferences for Active, Intuitive, and Global learning and that I was well balanced on the Visual/Verbal scale. You might want to complete this questionnaire yourself to see how well your learning style aligns or misaligns with the courses you teach. It's quick, easy and fun.
So, are we doing a disservice to our students with our idealistic, tailor made approach to education? Maybe. We may want to reconsider how we view learning styles and our role in providing the "perfect fit." We may be spoon-feeding our students in a way that does not prepare them for real life, which is, indeed, a disservice to our students. As we consider our teaching methods, whether face-to-face or online, it may be time to evaluate the unintended consequences of our well intended beliefs.
Sharon B. Buchbinder, RN, PhD
Sharon Buchbinder sbuchbinder(at)stevenson(dot)edu is Adjunct Professor of Nursing and Health Care Management at Stevenson University in the Graduate and Professional School. She is also the author of two books from Jones & Bartlett: Introduction to Health Care Management and Career Opportunities in Health Care Management.
Here are some references if you are interested in this topic.
Artino Jr., A. R. (2008). Promoting Academic Motivation and Self-Regulation: Practical Guidelines for Online Instructors. Techtrends: Linking Research & Practice To Improve Learning, 52(3), 37-45.
Felder, R. M., & Silverman, L. K. (1988). Learning and teaching styles in engineering education. Engineering Education, 78(7), 674–681. Retrieved from http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Papers/LS-1988.pdf
Felder, R. M., & Soloman, B. A. (1997). Index of learning styles questionnaire. Retrieved from http://www.engr.ncsu.edu/learningstyles/ilsweb.html.
Kinshuk, Liu, T-C, & Graf, S. (2009). Coping with mismatched courses: students' behaviour and performance in courses mismatched to their learning styles. Education Tech Research Dev, 57:739–752.
Thiele, J. (2003). Learning patterns of online students. Journal of Nursing Education, 42(8), 364-366.