Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Felder-Silverman Learning Style Model

This is number 2 on my list of Learning Theories that Actually Work.

A lot of work has been done and lots more ink has been spilled on the subject of learning preferences
and learning styles. You've got multiple intelligences, right brain/left brain, social/solitary, and many other dichotomies and trichotomies from which to choose. And frankly, this whole area can become a mud pit for learning developers. But you can't just drive around it. People really do learn in very different ways, and if you gear everything to what you happen to think is effective, you're inviting everyone who isn't you, or a lot like you, to tune out.

Some are apples, some are oranges.
Deal with it.
So how do you invite them to tune in? The Felder-Silverman Learning Style Model is a good place to start, and in fact, if you're looking for practical applications, it's also a good place to end. The model covers four important learning differences:
  1. Active vs. reflective learning (I want to try it right away vs. let me think about this first)
  2. Sensing vs. intuitive learning (Fact vs. feeling)
  3. Visual vs. verbal learning (Show me vs. tell me)
  4. Sequential vs. global learning (Just give me the steps vs. give me the big picture first)
There are a number of ways to use these variances when building learning. Some adaptive technology platforms, for example, can suss out which way you learn more quickly and then send you more pictures and fewer words, or vice versa. But most of us are working on more ordinary learning platforms, so I will stick to my criteria for "Learning Theories that Actually Work." First criteria:
  • It makes sense on the face of it
If you want to understand better how they apply to you, you can take the Solomon-Felder questionnaire to get a clear sense of your own preferences. But you probably know most of this from experience. Some people want to roll up their sleeves and just do something, anything, while others want to meet and plan and think and talk first. The latter read directions; the former don't. Some people want facts and data, while others want to discuss meaning, direction, impact. Some people use words like, "I see," while others say, "I hear you." The former prefer movies, the latter concerts. Some people can't listen to the story you're telling until you assure them everything turns out alright in the end. These are the same people who read the last page of a novel first. These are all learning preferences, and it just makes sense that appealing to each of them appropriately increases their satisfaction, which contributes to involvement, which helps learning and retention.

An example of how this works in real life, outside the classroom and training room... I was in a meeting where a vendor pitched to my CEO. The vendor started with his company's background, setting the usual context, but the CEO interrupted and said, "I don't need all that fluff, just show me how it works." The vendor was clearly put off, but obliged. When the demo ended, the CEO sat back and nodded and said, "So, how old is your company?" From there on he was very interested in "all that fluff."

Recognizing that the CEO was a strongly sequential learner might have kept the vendor from thinking his client's boss was self-absorbed, or just plain rude. And knowing this about himself might have prevented the CEO from acting that way. The point is, this is real and it matters and it just makes sense to address it when constructing learning experiences.
  • It has a solid history in research and practice
Felder and Silverman go back to 1988, and Felder and Solomon created a readily-available survey that makes it personal and even more practical. So I've chosen this as safe, solid ground for addressing learning styles. Here's a link to a bit more research on the learning style model.
  • It's easy to implement
Choosing to address different learning styles does not require any great investment of time or money. It's really about using what you have wisely.

You can address both active and reflective learners by giving them all something to do and something to think about, and then letting them do whichever they prefer in whichever order. You can address sensing and intuitive learners the same way, being sure to include both hard facts and human consequences. You can create a forum for those who need to talk. You can provide comment boxes. You can ask deeper-meaning questions. And you can let people explore concepts, never being satisfied because you can collect correct/incorrect answers.

Verbal and visual preferences can be addressed by including opportunities for learners to communicate back, or to do their assignments, using either words or images. More and more online and on-the-ground courses allow video or other forms of visual submissions. If that's not practical for you, at least be sure that visual learners have visuals.

The images above were free and clear from and took about four minutes to find, a few more to format and upload using Keynote. Maybe they aren't the perfect visuals for making the point but, as they say, if you can't do everything at least do something.

If you can get a voice to read the on-screen text, all the better. But remember, writing is already verbal, much more closely linked to auditory learning than visual learning. So if your budget or deadlines require you to choose between recording a voice to read the words aloud and finding or creating images that illustrate the ideas, go with the images.

Lecture Video
(Standard Quality)
By the way, this is why talking head video lectures are tragically ineffective... Visual learners will actually be distracted watching a poorly-lit, badly-framed portrait speak, making it harder for them to absorb the words being said. And even verbal learners will be happier reading a well-written page in their own inner voice, at their own pace, instead of trying to work through the tinny audio and the uhs and ums and pauses and slurping sips from water bottles.

And no, Ted Talks are not "talking heads." They are slickly-produced, carefully designed experiences, created by video professionals. There's a reason you can't just make your own Ted Talk and upload it.

A simple way to address both sequential and global learners is to make sure there is a "next" button and a table of contents readily available, or preferably, both always visible on screen. You should also make the decision not to limit the learners' path by requiring only a single linear progression. Let people go where they will, jump ahead, move backward and forward as they would in a book, as much as the content allows. Global learners who aren't allowed this kind of freedom--at least adult learners--will feel like cattle in a corral. And unlike cattle, they can simply choose to wander off.
  • I've tried it, and it works
As the above "easy-to-implement" examples suggest, I've found a number of ways to incorporate these learning styles. What I've found most helpful is to remember that your user interface, whatever it is, either does or does not address these learning differences. Whether it's custom-built or Blackboard, many of these can be addressed by settings on your LMS or instructions to developers.

Early in the online-learning era I was responsible for designing an interface from scratch, for online live video lectures with slides, and used Felder-Silverman. We put a button on the primary screen called "Overview," and made the decision to let learners page ahead to look at upcoming slides (Global/Sequential). We had a button for texting with online experts who were not presenters, so learners could discuss whatever they wanted at any time (Active/ Reflective and Sensing/Intuitive). And we used graphic images and pre-produced videos liberally (Verbal/Visual). We also built in Gagne with buttons labeled "Objectives," "Prior Knowledge," and "Feedback." Of course there is not much call these days to build your own interface, but you can look for the same functionality in whatever you are using. And you can use Felder-Silverman as part of your checklist if you are looking to change your LMS.

In truth, I've gotten to the point that when I'm in an online learning environment, most of these are second-nature. I'm a global learner and need that bird's eye view, but if I don't see that "next" button... I get nervous.

And that may help explain why I present in the following as part of the structure of these posts:

Click here to go to the next theory

Click in any order you prefer:

1. Gagne's 9 Events (Learning Model)
2. Felder-Silverman Learning Styles Model (Global/Sequential, Visual/Verbal)
3. Social Learning Theory (Role Models)
4. Maslow's Hierarchy (Identity-Level Outcomes)
5. Bloom's Taxonomy (Critical Thinking)
6. Active Learning (Discovery, Flipping the Classroom)
7. Metacognition (Self-Awareness)
8. Kirkpatrick's 4 Levels of Evaluation (Outcome Measurement)

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