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Learning Styles and Online Education

Research in the area of learning styles has been active for at least fifty years. During this time, many different theories and models have been developed, each with its own sets of tools for assessment and implementation. The basic premise these theories share is that the mode in which a person is inclined to approach learning has an impact on the outcome or effectiveness of that learning. A corollary to this is that different approaches to teaching will have an effect on these outcomes, depending on what learning styles they best accommodate. Thus, the practical intent of research in this area is to identify learning styles in individuals and customize the learning environment to promote their success.

October 6, 2017 / EssayNews
The last fifteen years has seen an increasing trend toward online delivery of courses and course materials, particularly at the postsecondary level. As people have become more comfortable conducting all of their activities online, it is only natural that education would follow. In fact, computers have assumed an ever-increasing role in education since the 1960s, and with the development and rise of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, the possibilities for education beyond the traditional campus have broadened enormously.

In the later 1990s, schools began offering full-credit courses taught partially or entirely online. Some post-secondary schools, such as the University of Phoenix, granted degrees based purely on the completion of online coursework. Many other institutions have followed suit. Today, while degrees and certifications earned online may not have quite the status of those acquired through more traditional means, they are widely accepted in the professional and educational worlds. This has been particularly beneficial to people who traditionally had difficulty managing on-campus studies: working adults, those with young children, those in remote geographic locations, those with disabilities or illness. Online learning has increased access to education for many underserved segments of the population.

The online learning environment can emphasize elements quite different than the traditional setting; most learning style models, however, were developed prior to digital delivery and focused on classroom instruction. The intent of this paper is to briefly survey two of the most widely acknowledged theories relating to learning style, and to look at how well the online environment accommodates the learning styles they identify. It may be that distance learning in the past has been inherently oriented toward particular learning styles; but, as online delivery has become more sophisticated and fully featured, other approaches can be better integrated. This paper asks what features of online learning differ from those of traditional, classroom-based learning and how it has become such an effective means for producing successful learning outcomes.


2.1 Experiential Learning Model

One of the most widely used models for representing learning styles was developed by David Kolb. With the Experiential Learning Model, or ELM, Kolb hypothesizes two fundamental approaches to experience -- concrete experience and abstract conceptualization -- along with two modes of transforming experience -- reflective observation and active experimentation. He believes that all learners predominantly use one approach from each of these two categories. The result is four possible combinations, which are Kolb's learning style profiles: converter, diverger, assimilator, and accommodator. A diverger, for example, mainly relies on concrete experience and reflective observation. Kolb stresses that, while learners are generally most oriented towards one of these styles, they learn most effectively when they are able to use a combination of them.

Kolb's model is hypothetical -- that is, not based on cognitive science -- but has proved to be influential. To identify which style a learner tends toward, Kolb developed the Learning Styles Inventory, a 12-point, self-report questionnaire. The model's predictive ability, in terms of learning styles and outcomes, has proved to be quite good. It has also received a fair amount of criticism.


VARK is an acronym for Visual, Aural, Read/write, and Kinesthetic. Though many of the ideas for this model and these different styles of learning had been around for some time, Neil Fleming is credited with adding the read/write dimension, which has frequently been included in other researches employment of the model. Fleming also developed the VARK questionnaire, which has been widely used. The questionnaire is a self-administered, 13- or 16-point survey that identifies to what degree an individual favours each of the four learning styles. These are:

Visual: Visual learners prefer to see things and respond best to pictures and other visual aids, such as diagrams, videos, flow charts, and graphics.

Aural: This category of learners prefers listening and auditory information such as lectures, recordings, verbal explanations and discussion.

Read / Write: This is an additional visual modality. Fleming states that he added this category because, based on his observations "it seemed obvious that some students had a distinct preference for the written word whilst others preferred symbolic information as in maps, diagrams and charts" (p. 5).

Kinesthetic: The Kinesthetic learner absorbs information best by touching and doing. Field trips, experiments, concrete examples and other real physical experiences are best suited to them.

Through taking the survey, one will often find that they score highly in one or two categories and relatively low in the others. This indicates one's preferred learning style(s).


In the online environment, certain elements can be exaggerated or entirely absent from the learning experience, as compared to the traditional classroom. The lecture, classroom interactions, tutorials and live discussion groups of the classroom are in many ways transformed in this new medium. Lectures, for example, might be delivered through pre-recorded audio or video, or forgone entirely in favour of purely textual material. Most online courses include a component that allows discussion, but it is generally anonymous, mediated discussion in the form of message boards and chat rooms, not the live interaction of the classroom.

The following is a brief discussion of how the four types of learning identified in the VARK model might fare in the online environment:

3.1 Visual and Read / Write Learners

Studies have shown that online learners tend to have strong visual and read/write learning styles. This is not surprising, as content in online courses is predominantly delivered through video lectures and textual materials. Assignments tend to also be of a read/write nature, as it is difficult to incorporate other forms of evaluation, such as presentations or live discussion.

3.2 Aural Learners

As mentioned above, online courses tend to lack live discussion and aural presentations, through which the this type of learner is best reached. The fact that many forms of online education contain lectures delivered in a manner similar to the classroom, however, should enable the aurally focused to absorb content sufficiently.

3.3 Kinesthetic Learners

Kinesthetic learners will typically suffer the most in online education. The lack of hands-on, concrete experiences and experiments make it difficult to engage this type of learner online.


Online education is on the rise and show no signs of slowing. There are many students who prefer this medium for learning; studies have found that students can find themselves much more likely to participate in discussion online than in the classroom. The flexibility of online education, in terms of both teaching and learning will ensure that it continues to develop. We can see, with the recent trend to open-courseware and MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) such as Cousera, the enormous popularity of this medium. some of these courses have tens of thousands of students from all over the world participating.

As we have seen, however, work needs to be done in designing courses that generate greater stimulation in aural and kinesthetic learners. It is no worse than traditional classroom teaching at alienating certain types of learners though. As deLeon and Killian have noted, classroom lectures often lead to "passive learning behaviours" and create "limited opportunities for creative thinking," whereas the online environment can be much more collaborative, "where traditional teacher-student roles are transformed in a way that allows new knowledge to be generated rather than reproduced or imparted" (p. 6). It is this flexible and collaborative environment that makes online learning so promising. It allows instructors to become facilitators and students to be genuine contributors.


Byrne, D. A study of individual learning styles and educational multimedia preferences. Dissertation. Dublin City University, Ireland.

Cassidy, S. Learning styles: An overview of theories, models, and measures. Educational Psychology, 24 (4), 419-444.

Clark-Ibanez, M. & Scott, L. Learning to teach online. Teaching sociology, 36, 34-41.

deLeon, L. & Killian, J. Comparing modes of delivery: Classroom and online (and other) learning. Journal of Public Affairs Education, 6 (1), 5-18.

Drago, W. A. & Wagner, R. J. VARK preferred learning styles and online education. Management Research News, 27 (7), 1-13.

Fleming, N. & Baume, D. Learning strikes again: VARKing up the right tree. Educational Developments, 7 (4), 4-7.

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Online Educator

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