Focusing On Learners
It might be a truism to say that everyone is different, but it's
a crucial fact largely overlooked by traditional educational systems
geared to serve a mythical norm. New technologies and e-learning
appear to hold out the promise of making learning more effective
by providing on-demand instruction personalized to individual needs.
We dream of accessing precisely the learning we need, when we need
it, and in the form that best suits our learning preferences. But
can these technologies live up to the promise if they are simply
grafted onto traditional ways of thinking about education and training?
Is it even possible to provide effective individualized learning
We all have different needs when it comes to learning. We have
different life experiences and so each of us builds our learning
upon a unique knowledge base. We have different ways of contextualizing
what we learn, different ways of encoding new information into our
memories (see The Learning Process),
and different learning styles (see below). We each need to learn
different things, even if we are expected to achieve the same outcomes.
So to make learning most effective, with better retention, recall,
and transfer, it must be tailored specifically to our individual
But this vision of personalization runs counter to the "industrial
model" of most modern, Western educational systems. With the
blossoming of the Internet, and especially of the Web, many educators
have jumped on board and have produced a first generation of online
courses, environments, and educational products. Many of these endeavors
have attempted to "move the classroom online" and up to
this point have met with varying success. Most online instructors
are recognizing that the successful use of the new learning technologies
involves a different way of thinking a paradigm shift
away from traditional content-centered, instructor-led models toward
a clear and informed focus on the learner.
Certainly online instructors are discovering that their role must
change from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the
side" tutor, facilitator, and coach. And the production
requirements of the new technologies digital media, learning
management systems, and learning object repositories involve
a level of technical expertise and effort that is beyond most individuals.
There is a need for a systematic, team-based methodology for developing
and delivering e-learning content that is focused on the needs of
Learner-Focused Design: The ADDIE Cycle
A learner-centered approach to instruction can be found in the
tried-and-true methodology known as instructional design.
Refined over six decades in military and corporate training environments,
this discipline utilizes a variety of techniques that focus directly
on effectively meeting learner needs. It includes the explicit statement
of what is to be learned and how that learning is to be demonstrated
or assessed. Its emphasis on pre-instruction analysis ensures that
learner needs are analyzed, recognized, and appropriately met. And
it is most effective as a team-based methodology.
There are five basic phases in this learning design approach (often
abbreviated to the acronym ADDIE):
Analysis: The process begins with analysis of learner
needs. Learner profiling (including identification of the range
of learning styles) and knowledge/skill gap analysis establish the
learner's current state of knowledge and the precise instructional
requirements that identify the desired end state.
Design: This critical phase involves detailed planning
of the course or instructional program. Explicit demonstrable objectives
(or "learning outcomes"), with associated assessment strategies,
are designed at this phase. Appropriate learning resources that
can support these objectives are identified, and instructional strategies
that match technological implementation with learning style needs
are developed, along with monitoring and evaluation plans.
Development: Learning materials, resources, and environment
are developed and produced according to the design plan, generally
including a piloting sub-phase to ensure learner needs are indeed
being met as planned.
Implementation: The learning program is delivered
as specified, including learning assessment instruments and all
monitoring and program evaluation instruments.
Evaluation: Each phase includes the collection of
evaluation data and a feedback loop of revisions to ensure that
the identified learning need is being met as effectively as possible.
The ADDIE learning design cycle
Findings from the Evaluation phase feed back into the Analysis
of the next cycle. In this way the method includes both maintenance
and improvement of the learning program in such a way that it aligns
more and more closely with learner needs.
The first step in a true learner-centered approach is to gain as
deep an understanding of the learner as possible. In the ADDIE learning
design cycle, this is the most crucial aspect of the preliminary
Analysis and results in a profile that describes the target learners
as fully as possible.
Important learner profiling information to gather includes:
- basic demographic data (gender distribution, age range, geographic
- educational background (including reading level and language proficiency,
fulfillment of prerequisite learning, etc.)
- socioeconomic data (including employment status and pertinent
- technological literacy
- expected learning locale (including access to technology, bandwidth,
- accessibility (including range of disabilities)
- motivation and learning goals
- and preferred learning styles (see below)
Some of this data might be mined from existing organizational databases,
but other crucial information requires the use of surveys of the
target population or focus groups. Once this learner profiling information
is assembled, it is used throughout the Design, Development, and
Implementation phases to guide creation and delivery of learning
content that appropriately meets learner needs.
Learner profiling also provides the foundation for designing integrated
learning systems, and particularly solutions that support personalized
learning pathways. Such systems can effectively facilitate enterprise
learning by matching organizational knowledge management with individual
learning needs and by aligning training and career paths with organizational
Each of us has different life experiences as well as different
physical and genetically inherited capabilities. Since the learning
process itself is founded on experience, it is no surprise that
different people learn in different ways. Some people need to see
things in pictures, others need to see things written down, while
others need to act things out to understand them. People develop
individual ways of learning that work most effectively for themselves.
These different preferred modes of learning are called learning
styles, and they lie at the heart of learner profiling and of the
learner-centered ADDIE model of learning design.
Educators have been studying learning styles for some time and
have devised a number of different ways of thinking (schema) about
them. Our integrated scheme places the eight principal learning
styles in a three-dimensional space.
A 3-D learning style space
Psychophysical knowledge is acquired through direct experience
and interaction with physical objects. The kind of learning involved
includes the processing of perceptual stimuli (auditory, visual,
touch, heat, pain, etc.) in relation to our internal "body
image" (based on muscular feedback and motion awareness). This
dimension spans the three classic "learning modalities"
auditory, visual, and kinesthetic with the additional
significant distinction between textually based and graphically
based visual learners. Note that this dimension contrasts "linguistic"
learning on the left with "imagistic" learning on the
- Auditory learners learn best through hearing, and particularly
through the spoken word. They process linguistic information through
listening and benefit from lectures, spoken instructions, talking
things out, and keywords on diagrams.
- Visual-textual learners process information best when in the form
of written language. They need to see it written down and benefit
from textbooks and class notes.
- Visual-graphical learners learn best when information is presented
in a graphical format or in pictures. They benefit from visual aids,
diagrams, and images.
- Kinesthetic learners learn best by manipulating physical objects,
acting it out, and other "hands on" activities. They process
information through physical sensation and action through
touch, movement, body language, and gestures.
Abstract or "logico-mathematical" knowledge (number,
length, order, etc.) is acquired through invention or the recognition
of patterns or relationships based on interactions between objects.
It involves another level of processing or a re-representation of
explicit sensory information. This type of learning covers reasoning
skills and spans two basic learner types:
- Holistic, global, or deductive learners prefer to start with
the whole picture and see how it fits with everything else. From
this they deduce any consequences or applications. They benefit
from getting an overview at the beginning of a lesson.
- Analytic, procedural, or inductive learners require all the details
or logical steps before they fully comprehend. They tend to arrive
at governing principles by inference. They are interested in acquiring
facts and find introductory overviews distracting and confusing.
Social or cultural knowledge (values, morals, history, etc.) is
acquired through interaction with other people. This dimension includes
emotional learning and spans two basic types:
- Independent learners need to "work it out" for themselves.
They require personally relevant reasons for learning. They benefit
from self-directed activities, introspection or reflection, and
from keeping a journal or log.
- Collaborative learners learn best in a social setting or when
working with others. They benefit from discussions, cooperative
learning, simulations, and role play.
The following shows this learning style model in the form of a
Integrated learning style scheme
Applications to Teaching
Here are some suggestions on how learning styles and learner-centered
design may be applied to your teaching.
- Identify your own learning and teaching styles. Remember you
may show a bias in your teaching style according to how you learn.
Vary your teaching method so that students of differing learning
styles can benefit.
- Identify the range of learning styles in your class. This is part
of your Analysis phase of ADDIE. Use the information you gather
to streamline your lessons.
- Be aware of any students with strong learning style biases. They
will require special attention. This is especially true of students
with certain disabilities.
- Build students' skills in all learning styles. The goal should
be to ensure that the learning needs of the student in each learning
style category are met at least part of the time. This is important
because it creates an "all round" learner who can adapt
to different learning environments.
- Match the technology to the learning style. For example, use technology
to integrate different learning styles into a lesson: audiotapes,
videos, CD-ROMs, computer based programs, collaborative activities,
etc. The breadth of resources is key.