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Taking Learning Styles into Account
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CAL packages have come a long way from a set of floppies with merely text and graphics on them, to highly sophisticated 'interactive' learning modules. Often these packages claim learning is made easy for students, by taking their learning styles into account.

But is this truly the case? Find below some learning styles explained and translated into good practice for use in CAL packages.

Auditive or visual learning styles
One of the easiest recognisable learning styles that students have is the preference for auditive intake or visual intake of taught knowledge. Students usually either prefer look at material individually, or prefer to listen to lectures. Ideally a CAL package caters for both. A module supported with audio as well as a visual representation of content is easily achievable using modern multimedia facilities.

Supporting study styles
Tutors often explain to students how they should write essays, how to prepare for exams, how to deal with big amounts of reading work, i.e. how to study. In doing this, tutors encourage students to use better methods of learning. The better the lecture, the better this advice is ingrained in their teaching.

However, very few CAL packages support this students' need. Occasionally, a button featuring 'study advice' is available, and although this is a fairly artificial solution, it is a good start. Weaving study-related remarks into the body of a module within a package would be ideal.

Allowing for failure
In a similar way to toddlers learning how to walk by trial and error, students need opportunities to stumble and fall within their learning process. This helps them to develop knowledge that they can use creatively. However, some packages do not allow for failure. Modules are immediately followed by assessments, without allowing for a 'test-area' or playground. It is good practice to leave learning space for package users.

Interaction: none of it, false or true interaction?
Broadly speaking, all CAL packages try to incorporate interaction. Often this is explained by developers as 'the package giving immediate feedback to students input'. Quite often the feedback is no more than 'Right', 'Wrong' or 'Please try again'! This is false interaction and serves very little pedagogical purpose. Usually students will resort to a trial and error approach to this sort of interaction, with all attention going to the result of their actions, not the content.

Pedagogically successful packages give an explanation of why something is right or wrong and preferably do not allow for retrying based on trial and error. True interaction is concerned when a student's input steers the activities of the package. This could, for instance, mean that a students' right answer allows him to skip the next module, or a wrong answer adds a remedial module.

Please note that even in a mass-lecture where students are not encouraged to ask questions or discuss topics, learning often takes place in a two-step fashion. The first step is passive: the student listens to what the lecturer talks about, reads slides or looks at the blackboard. The second step is active: students generally make notes and therefore engage with the material they need to learn, however shallow this may be.

Students observed while using CAL packages showed very little active learning, unless the package promotes interaction. They are encouraged to work together or guidance is given on a more active way of working through a package (for instance by making notes).

Separation of knowledge systems.
Human beings can only retain knowledge by linking new knowledge to existing knowledge. To make factual knowledge easily accessible, it is important that one fact is linked with as many other facts as possible. It is a bit like in a cardfile: by introducing as many crosslinks as possible, any item is easy to find.

It is easiest for students to pick up knowledge if it relates to something they already know. By referring to as many topics as possible, which have nothing or very little to do with the content of the CAL package, effective students' learning can be supported. Of course this can also be done by the tutor or lecturer teaching the course, if the package is only part of a full course.

However, for developers of CAL packages it is important not to let students develop a system of knowledge solely related to the CAL package concerned, but link knowledge to a wider area within the course.

(As an illustration for tutors/lecturers: have you ever wondered why students do brilliantly at your exams, but six months later, they cannot use any of the skills you have taught them in other courses? You may be looking at the effect of separate knowledge systems).

Gwen van der Velden
Quality Promotion Officer,
University of Kent

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Last modified: 25 March 1999.