The Application of Universal Design for Instruction in the Classroom

Understanding learning differences

We use the term “learning styles” to describe an individual’s preference for learning through a specific modality (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) or relative to a personality type, such as defined through the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (extroversion, introversion, sensing, intuition, thinking, feeling). See http://www2.gsu.edu/~dschjb/wwwmbti.html for tips on teaching students who describe themselves according to a specific modality preference or style. An individual’s learning preference is not fixed: it is flexible and interacts with the course content and the work products.

Although there are many learning styles inventories, their properties and usefulness are not well understood. In fact, in a strongly worded report published by the Association of Psychological Science in 2009, the notion of “learning styles” was debunked based on a review of the literature, noting the lack of scientific evidence that would support these theories. The researchers urged instructors to avoid spending time to “mesh” instruction with purported learning styles.

There are many factors that do influence learning. Background, experience, ability, motivation, persistence, flexibility, cognitive and metacognitive strategies all play a part. We understand that learning is constructed based on previous knowledge that serves as the foundation for new learning and that specific pedagogical techniques cannot align perfectly with all students in a class. Without the requisite skills and strategies, no amount of effort on the student’s part or teaching skill of the instructor will result in effective learning at the college level if the basics are not present.

The following websites provide information on learning theories to consider when evaluating teaching practices and how to develop the characteristics of expert learners in your students.

As students move from the novice to expert stage of learning, they are able to respond in increasingly complex ways. Moving students from one level of learning to another requires careful planning or what is often referred to as “scaffolding.”

Bloom’s famous taxonomy was revised to reflect an understanding that it is process or activation of the mind to learning that is most important. Information about the revisions is posted on http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/bloom.html. Briefly, the revised Bloom Taxonomy stages are: remembering, understanding, applying, analyzing, evaluating and creating.

Each level of learning corresponds to a different type of thinking that activates a different cognitive process from recall to conceptualization and creation of new information.

Basic knowledge, such as understanding the lexicon of the discipline, to higher level reasoning, critical thinking and creating new understandings through research must match the procedural (how to approach a task) and metacognitive abilities (self-awareness of one’s cognition) of the individual. In other words, the role of the instructor is to layer instruction to build towards the end goals systematically keeping in mind the learning preferences and abilities of the diverse group in each class.