Learner Identity & Anti-Learning Styles

Prompt: Taking the role of the online teacher, how can you identify your online learners' identity and needs? Based on this:

  • What IS learner identity?

  • What does it look like and how do you know when you see it?

  • To what extent does a learner's identity implicate their online learning experience and performance?

  • What ARE learner needs?

  • What do they look like and how will you know them when you see them?

  • How can you incorporate your online learners' needs into your course?

  • Given the fact that most of it has been designed and implemented?

  • Is it possible to have a "multiple level classroom" in an online learning environment?

  • As a follow up, should you even consider such an environment and should learners expect it?

  • How would you address and integrate the many and varied learning styles exhibited by your online learners into a cohesive online learning experience?


Everyone of us is different.  And this is a wonderful thing.

And this makes us different learners.  And that is a wonderful thing as well.

What makes us different and unique is what makes up our identity, and our identity as a learner.

For this post I might render myself unpopular.

I mentioned in passing in a previous post about the questionability of learning styles and here I want to expand on that a bit before I reflect about the online learner identity.

To identify a person's "learning style" (regardless of whose learning styles you choose) usually means that the person has to complete some sort of survey where they must select between predetermined phrases and statements that they select based on self-report.  Once the survey is complete it is scored and the person has now identified their "learning style" - at least one type of learning style depending on whose you choose.  (Haha, it rhymed and I didn't mean for it to!)

Many would assume, therefore, that once you have taken and identified your "learning style"you have identified a static aspect about yourself, a quality that is "inherent" to "who you are."  Following that assumption, you would think that if you gave the same survey to an individual (or even a different survey, but created to measure the same types of learning styles) at a different time would result in that person's same learning style again.  Unfortunately, research has not found this to be true.

Taken from another angle, one would assume that when learning is prepared to meet the needs of a specific type of learners that their achievement (in the form of a standardized test score) would go up.  Unfortunately, research has not found this to be true either.

Now - before you throw me out or write me off - I do believe that instruction/teaching/learning should be geared towards individual learners and their strengths and weaknesses.  I think that education should be inherently (as K-12 educators would put it) differentiated.

What I am skeptical of is the seeming obsession with having a label to place on people - and a label that is most of the time disempowering rather than empowering, static rather than malleable and permeable. A forgetting that we made these labels up and they don't have to be restrictive.

I think the point that I'm trying to drive home is that it's not necessarily about naming and classifying students within a particular taxonomy. It is about knowing and being in relationship to students and doing everything in a teacher's power to help create a space where learning can flourish - and that means meeting the needs of learners.

The phrase "diverse learners" is kind of funny when you think about it. Isn't it true that, really, there is no such thing as "learners" - an entity that has absolutely no variability? Learners implies a group of individuals ... And we've already established that individuals are different.

So how do you identify a learner's needs? There are two options: (1) watch/observe them and make inferences or (2) ask them.

Should learners expect their needs to be met? Absolutely! How do we do this? Not to be blunt or too obvious - but the same way that we would do it in a face-to-face classroom: differentiated instruction, stratified assignments and expectations, and open, honest, and trust-based conversations between teacher and learner. I know that this is possible.  It may take some work (and some shifting of assumptions) but I know it can be done.

Resources and Readings

Clark, R. E. & Feldon, D. F. (2005). Five common but questionable principles of multimedia learning. In R. E. Mayer (Ed.) The Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning, pp. 97-115.

And cited within that chapter:

Clark, R. E. (1982). Antagonism between achievement and enjoyment in ATI studies. Educational Psychologist, 17(2), 92-101.

Duff, A. & Duffy. T. (2002). Psychometric properties of Honey and Mumford's learning styles questionnaire. Learning and Individual Differences, 33, 147-163.

Henson, R. K. & Hwang, D. (2002). Variability and prediction of measurement error in Kolb's learning style inventory scores: A reliability generalization study. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 62(4), 712-727.

Kavale, K. A. & Forness, S. R. (1987). Substance over style: Assessing the efficacy of modality testing and teaching. Exceptional Children, 54(3), 228-239.

Loo, R. (1997). Evaluation change and stability in learning styles: A methodological concern. Educational Psychology, 17, 95-100.

Mayer, R. E. & Massa, L. J. (2003). Three facets of visual and verbal learners: Cognitive ability, cognitive style, and learning preference. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(4), 833-846.

Richardson, J. T. (2000). Researching students' learning: Approaches to studying in campus-based and distance learning. Buckingham, UK: Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University PRess.

Richardson, J. A. & Turner, T. E. (2000). Field dependence revisited I: Intelligence. Educational Psychology, 20(3), 255-270.

Salomon, G. (1984). Television is "easy" and print is "tough": The differential investment of mental effort in learning as a function of perceptions and attributions. Journal of Educational Psychology, 76(4), 647-658.

Stahl, S. A. (1999). Different strokes for different folks? A critique of learning styles. American Educator, 23(3), 27-31.

More current readings

Another Nail in the Coffin for Learning Styles, http://jkmcdonald.com/blog/2010/11/01/another-nail-in-the-coffin-for-learning-styles/
Learning styles = astrology?, http://www.johnniemoore.com/blog/archives/002682.php
Follow up to previous link..., http://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=54054

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Originally posted on September 23, 2010 per the requirements of EAC 539: Teaching in the Online Environment at NC State University in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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