Cognitive Styles in Learning Design


Most of us when being trained or studying instructional design have been told to take learner’s learning styles or preferences into consideration. This has made us think that we must design eLearning courses which have to cater for visual and auditory learners, or even kinesthetic ones. While this is a very good thing, I feel we are going to extremes about this. Let me share with you why I think so.

Some time ago, I met the L&D director of a top-tier company. She shared they were facing issues with the performance of new hires and they were thinking of using eLearning to train them. But her concern was that they didn’t have any graphic designers and had to outsource some good ones. She said the courses must be “amazing looking” so the staff will be enticed to go through them!!

I hear this from my other fellow learning designers too. While aesthetic is one aspect of course design, it seems it is considered the most important criteria to judge a course quality! I recently completed an online training. The course was mainly text-based with no interactivity or videos but the content, activities, and assessments were so rich and well-designed that I was eager to keep continuing it. I must admit when I first logged into the portal to access the course and saw there were no videos for delivering the content, I was disappointed, but after going through the content, I was immediately engrossed in it. I myself have been an advocate of visually appealing design, but this made me wonder whether we are focusing on the right thing! The idea of making learning ‘fun’ is sort of overpowering our whole notion of learning design these days. Are we changing because technology is changing us, or vice versa?

The fact is that an “amazing looking” course might get our adult learners somewhat attracted to it, but if they realize that the content or activities are not mapped to their goals, they will certainly lose interest in the course. We must focus more on learnability and cognitive styles of learners rather than learning modalities, aesthetic or ‘fun learning’.

Cognitive style is about processing and organizing information during learning. It divides learners into two fundamental dimensions: Wholist-Analytic and Verbal-Imagery. It’s important to know how an individual organizes information, either by deconstructing it into its component parts or keeping the global view of it. Surely, an analytic learner will get confused when information is presented as a whole, or a wholist might find it confusing to refer to parts of a topic and connect them to each other. Similarly, an imager experiences pictorial mental pictures as compared to a verbal who considers information in words.

If you’d like to read more about cognitive styles, below are some resources:

Cognitive Style and Learning Strategies: Some Implications for Training Design

Cognitive Styles in the Context of Modern Psychology

Cognitive Styles: Some Information and Implications for Instructional Design

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