Another facet of accessibility is the fact that each person has his or her own unique learning approach. Each of us learns a slightly different way. Learning styles have been used to group people into different categories based on how they learn best. Because a student has a particular learning style does not mean that they cannot learn if the information comes to them in a different format. What it does mean is that the student may need to "alter" the information in order to effectively study it or may need to work much harder to learn the material than if it were presented in a different way.
When creating your course, you need to think about the course from the student's point of view. In other words, ask yourself, "If I were the student in this course, what would I need to ensure that I could learn effectively in this online setting?" You might even want to ask that same question of other people you know -- because not everyone will learn like you do. You should keep this in mind when developing learning objects and gathering resources for your courses. Providing information in a variety of formats can help meet the diverse needs of our learners.
The information processing area of the brain (i.e. the cerebrum) has two hemispheres, or halves. We tend to rely a little more heavily on one half of the cerebrum for information processing than the other. This is known as brain dominance. The left side tends to be more analytical and logical. The right side tends to be more artistic and creative. Generally, most of us are near the center on a spectrum of use, leaning only slightly one way or another.
Sometimes, we "shift" depending upon what we are doing, too. Someone who is usually very logical and analytical (i.e. "left-brained") may be very talented at crafts (more of a "right-brained" activity), too. Individuals who tend to be more left-brained like information presented in a very organized fashion and work methodically. Individuals who tend to be more right-brained prefer the information to be creatively presented and tend to work more abstractly.
Brain dominance merely controls your information processing. The "journey" to the answer to a question will often vary from one individual to another, but the answer will be the same no matter how the information was processed.
In addition to brain dominance, learning style will influence the student's learning of course material. Learners are typically categorized as visual, auditory, or tactile but some have tendencies to be verbal, readers, or writers. Furthermore, some students are "social" learners while others prefer solitude. Recognizing this diversity in your students and working to provide learning resources that play into the students' strengths when developing your course can help improve student performance in the class.
The visual learner must see a picture or demonstration to help them best understand information. Attending class and "seeing" the instructor teach the material is extremely important. This is not always possible in an online class. The visual learner may need to write more information down so that s/he can look at it, providing the visual stimulus that is needed in an online course. The textbook and additional publisher supplements (e.g. CD's) can be valuable to these kinds of learners. If your course does not use such resources, it will be important to consider including some images or videos in your course for your visual learners.
Auditory learners need to hear the information to best comprehend it. They may need to hear it over and over again. "Hearing" the instructor say the information will help promote understanding, but this is not a typical format in most online courses. Many auditory learners may also have tendencies to verbalize so that they can hear themselves say the words. In addition, music can play an important role in learning for these students. Including vidoes (either of the instructor or produced by an outside individual), sound clips, or multimedia presentations with sound (e.g. Camtasia or PowerPoint) will be essential to fully engage these students.
The tactile (or kinesthetic) learner likes action, movement, and physical involvement. Manipulating the computer mouse while using a CD, handling a model to examine it from all angles, or participating in some type of interactive demonstration work best for these students. Including games or course-related interactive activities, linking to publisher website interactive activities, or providing opportunities for the student to work with resources in a "live" setting (e.g. anatomical models on reserve at the college library) could be a critical component for these students in your online course.
The linguistic or verbal learners often talk out loud while they learn. They need to talk while they problem-solve or listen to someone else talk, in order to effectively learn. Online courses are often well suited to these learners as they are in a setting where it is less likely that their verbalization will interfere with others who are also trying to learn.
Visual/nonverbal learners tend to be either Readers or Writers. Readers need to read large amounts of material to understand well. These learners will benefit from reading their notes over multiple times, as well as reading through the chapters of the textbook. Many of these students need details to effectively learn about a process or topic. Once again, the online courses tend to be well suited to learners with these learning tendencies.
Writers need to physically write out information. Some write their notes over and over again. Others just rewrite the information once, perhaps using different terminology or descriptions. Encouraging your students to "take notes" while they navigate through the online course materials will usually be adequate to address these needs.
These previously discussed learning styles relate to the individual preferences that a student has for how the material is presented. At times, however, students may also be asked to work as a member of team while engaging in the course. Team dynamics can greatly impact learning for some students.
Some students seem to learn better when in a more "social" situation. In other words, they learn better in groups. These students are known as interpersonal learners. This works well for courses in a live setting (e.g. an on-campus course or the on-campus component of a blended course), but not always as effectively in an online course. Providing an online Chat Room can help with the "group" feeling for these learners, but students can also engage in online class discussions be grouped together for online projects.
We do, occasionally, get students who thrive by working on their own. These intrapersonal learners like to work at their own pace and not be bothered by interactions with other individuals. While the online setting is a "perfect" design for such learners, I believe that it is important to help such learners become more confident in their interpersonal interactions. In the working world, this person will be expected to work as an integral member of a team. Online discussions and group work components in a course can help these students to learn that working with others can be an enlightening and engaging experience.
Identifying Learning Style Preference
Often learners are combinations of the various learning styles listed above. There are many ways in which a person can determine what his/her preferred learning style(s) is. There are lots of different learning style tests that you can refer your students to so they can determine their particular learning styles. Here are a few that have tests and provide feedback:
There are other sites that you can find on the web, too, that can tell you about learning styles, thinking styles, etc. Just keep in mind, that the test results indicate a "particular" learning style that the individual will have. This is the preferred style, not the only style. This doesn't mean that this is the only way that the student can learn things. It just means that the student may need to work a bit harder to gain the knowledge. The student may need to modify his/her studies to get material into the preferred format to most effectively learn it.
Providing some suggestions in your syllabus or other course resources about various study tools and ideas that might assist their learning may help your students to perform better in your course. I have a document that I post in my class that discusses learning styles, various study techniques, "best practice" study tips, etc.