measuring and applying learning style for online courses


My take on learning style is that it is a name for an empirical concept (with respect to learners) that we commonly call “preference.”

Our experience informs us that there are several components to what we call “individual differences” and that understanding these differences can help us support individual learners.

I think of these components as follows:

  • ability (prior knowledge)
  • capability (intelligence)
  • motivation (extrinsic and intrinsic)
  • preference (learning styles)

That support should be considered more vital, the more you conceive of learning and knowledge as something at least in part that is highly individualized or “idiosyncratic.”

With this conceptual framework, I conducted an experiment to see how learning style might relate to learner satisfaction in the context of contrasting course delivery modes (traditional classroom instruction vs. e-blended).

My literature review and the (significant) results of my study have influenced my thinking about the use of visual materials in courses (and the highly visual nature of online courses), especially where learners self-identify as having a more visual preference and/or I measure learning preferences using learning style “inventory” such as the free Web-based questionnaire and automated data analysis described in my presentation).

Here is a Web-based PowerPoint of my conference presentation (optimized for Internet Explorer browser):

And here is a link to the published research paper in an online (open access) journal (requires Adobe Reader for file in .pdf format):

Your comments are welcome in reply,


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66 Responses to measuring and applying learning style for online courses

  1. Stephen Ray says:


    I think that your research on learning styles and the correlation between visual learning and traditional vs non traditional classrooms was very interesting. Being a teacher (an ESOL department chair and sitting on the special education committee), I truly understand the impact that learning styles can have on the learner (even though your research was geared towards the adult learner).

    I did find it interesting, but not surprising, that students who are visuals learned showed a strong inclination towards e-learning vs traditional classroom learning. I think that only means that “traditional” teachers need to modify their teaching methods and tools if they want to maintain student interest and contentment.

  2. Andrew Dudik says:

    Doc, one of the things that got my mind going when reading through your work that I also thought about earlier was applying your findings to differing environments. I.e. would learning styles differ amongst learners in an academic setting vs. a corporate setting. Each learner in these two different environments would bring in a certain set of expectations, made up of pre-existing notions what the classroom environment will be like and how materials will be presented.
    Since I work in a business training setting, I often wonder if the studies I read from the academic world translate exactly over into my world.

  3. Beryl says:

    Response to Learning Style and Learner Satisfaction

    I have never taken any type of assessment before concerning learning styles. I took the Felder-Soloman Index for the first time and was surprised to see that I scored an 11 as a sensing learner. It made sense once I read the description of preferences for sensing learners. From previous experience of theory based classes, it was more difficult for me to grasp new concepts that are not practical or have any connection to the real world. I was fairly well balanced in all other categories. In terms of learning, I prefer a blended approach of both visual and verbal. In comparison of strictly classroom instruction and e-blended classroom, I tend to enjoy the flexibility of access to online materials that can visually provide extra guidance. This preference can also sway depending on the subject of the course.

  4. Doc says:

    Thanks Sue, Deb, Shannon, Bethany, Stephen, Andrew, and Beryl for your thoughtful responses.I agree with all of you that there is need for additional studies that focus on these other areas related to learning styles, including those that explore the nature of user experience with practices that we implement in response to more visual presentation of information. That is the next step for me in what is a longer action research project. I hope that each of you will consider research and/or practice that takes learner preferences for information into account.

  5. James says:


    I viewed your presentation regarding the learner styles and thought I would like to see a more substantial study with a larger population. From a personal perspective, as a visual learner, and based on my own experiences in online courses, I prefer classroom environments. To put it mildly online classes drive me crazy. I have yet to experience an online class that delivers visual content any better than a classroom environment. To top it off, at least in a classroom environment I can ask questions with minimal miscommunication. I also feel classroom environments have a smaller work load. I have many responsibilities outside of school and I don’t have the time to log on every night, read all the comments from all the students, make peer comments etc. No my satisfaction as a visual learner still comes from the face to face classroom environment where I only have to read is the text and listen to the instructor.

  6. Doc says:

    Thanks James for your ideas. I agree that this problem area and relationship merits additional study, not only with different populations, but different methods (mine was experimental with typical sample sizes in contrasting groups), and also different contexts, such as various types of online learning environments. I will be conducting a user experience study of online visual presentation techniques described in my subsequent conference presentation.

  7. Dave says:

    Doc, thanks for your report. I am a proponent of a blended learning approach to course design delivery. I must admit my oversight of the critical need to understand and incorporate my audience’s learning styles to the degree that your research and the supporting resources suggest. The instructional design process requires that such research and assessment be done–and done well–if the course is to maximize learner’s interest and to achieve its desired outcomes.

  8. Doc says:

    Thanks Dave, for your comments on the need to conduct learning research and consider learning styles as a way to determine learner preferences. However, keep in mind that learner research can be conducted quite effectively in an action research approach by teachers or instructional designers with as few as five learner subjects from whom you collect data of a qualitative nature and have at least one followup interview to confirm and probe their initial responses. This research does not require a large sample size or statistical testing as does a quantitative survey and is much more appropriate to the work of instructional designers and teachers. In the case of determining learning style preferences, a teacher or instructional designer can use the Web-based Learning Style Inventory as I did in this research and often use at the beginning of my courses to note preferences for that cohort of learners.

  9. Casey Neff says:

    Doc, thanks for sharing this. A few questions:
    1. Is there a way to download the .ppt? I’d like to share with others. Also, I’m very interested in how learning styles play into ID.
    2. Are results of the learning style questionnaire captured and aggregated anywhere? It would be interesting for ID’ers to see these results.
    3. Do you think there is utility in having a student population complete the questionnaire prior to, or at the beginning of, an extended training class (we have a 12-week class, run each quarter, for new sales and service reps)? With a class that length, the ID team would have time to update later content, but I’m not sure about doing that quarterly.
    4. For a combination of 2 and 3 above, if aggregate numbers are available, we could use those numbers to inform our initial ID. That gets us closer to the likely overall preferences of our class without having to change the instruction each quarter.

    Thanks for your help.

  10. Doc says:

    Hi Casey, I think you can download the presentation and the associated research journal article, but otherwise you can access the blog post or place the links for these resources in an email or Web page. The best way to aggregate is to get a learner population such as a course or program to take the test (at least prior or early in the course) and share the results and then look for trends in their learning style and base your design of instructional materials or at least modify your facilitated delivery of teaching or training centered around those trended preferences. I use the latter approach and work from a re-usable set of instructional resources representing varied learning style preferences (e.g., video or textual material, etc.). As for aggregating over several courses at once or other several semesters, you could likely identify longer term trends in which to guide the instructional design choices. This is really a case for action research by the ID team and instructors to test, design, and evaluate. There are lots of decisions that can be made on the fly by facilitators based on learning style test results at the beginning of a course, for example, if there is a trend toward global learning preference, I might open up all 8 weeks of the course material at once so these learners can get the big picture from day 1.

  11. Casey Neff says:

    Doc, thanks for the info above. We have one business unit which brings in about 100 new employees each quarter for a 10-week training program to be call center operators. Training is largely developed by the ID team, and delivered by business SME’s. The business group is finding, however, that they have a 50% annual turnover rate and are looking for answers. One opportunity I would like to suggest to them is the ILS. They have the opportunity to have the students take it even before the class begins and, since the class is repeated, the economics of modifying or preparing some alternative instructional materials may work out. We could also track ILS style as a variable in long-term retention and success.

    Finally, what are your thoughts on any connection between personality style (such as from MBTI) and learning style? I’m going to do a search in Purdue library on topic, but I’d appreciate at least initial thoughts on worth pursuing or not.

    Very interesting stuff. Thanks.

  12. Doc says:

    Thanks Casey for sharing your proposed use of learning style as the basis for improving learner experience through the corresponding refinements to training course design and delivery. I think it is worth testing and should prove useful for the short and long term. As for personality measures versus learning style, I think that should be approached through testing (research) to see if their combined or separate use would be appropriate for your setting and application.

  13. Casey Neff says:

    Doc, thanks for the ideas and support. I’m going to suggest to our training team that they consider both ILS and MBTI for incoming classes to establish some initial data points. We can then follow over time to assess correlation. I’m also going to suggest they consider the MBTI for our expert performers and long-term call center employees to see if there are common traits which may prove insightful. Of course, we’ll have to balance all this against privacy concerns and HR policies. Still, even some insights are better than flailing about blindly.

  14. Doc says:

    Your plan might work as a graduate thesis research if your organization and the school are open to it from a human subjects perspective. Best wishes! Doc

  15. Kimberly Buenger says:

    I appreciate that the awareness of learning styles for the student is addressed. The suggestion that prior to the start of the course the measuring learner style survey should be taken to allow students to become more aware of their own learning styles. I believe that this is an important topic throughout a student’s academic career. Making students advocates for their own learning and needs allows for a better learning experience for them. Teachers need to be aware and work towards reaching all types of learning styles as well.

  16. Doc says:

    Thanks Kim, for sharing your experiential insights into the value of a learner’s awareness of their preferences for the presentation and processing of information – the crux of our individual learning experience – so it’s something we as learners need to identify and manage. And as you point out, teachers can use this information to tailor their teaching presentation to learner needs at an individual or group level. If you add that this data collection instrument is freely available on the Web, yet it is valid and reliable from years of testing.

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