The instructional design blogosphere is all abuzz with the debunking of “learning styles.” Most of us know that there really is no such thing as visual learners, auditory learners and kinesthetic learners. More accurately, if such learning style preferences really do exist, there is no research that demonstrates an improvement when training is designed for a particular learning style.

The conventional wisdom that “learners learn best when teaching styles are matched to learning styles” has been thoroughly put to rest by everyone from Will ThalheimerCathy Moore and Peter DeWitt to Wired Magazine. Ruth Clark wrote in 2012 that we need to “Stop Wasting Resources on Learning Styles” while The Onion spoofed learning styles as far back as 2000.

This leaves us with the question: If we don’t need to worry about learning styles, then what should we use to improve the learning experience? What is the most effective way to transfer knowledge from instructor to learner if we don’t tweak the training to fit learning styles? Rather than answer the question directly, let’s reflect on a learning experience and see what insights we discover.

What is the most effective portion of a Driver’s Education class? Is it the classroom instruction that teaches the rules of the road? Is it the horrifying videos that provided lessons on the disastrous consequences of unsafe driving? Or is it the time spent in the parking lot navigating those traffic cones and traveling on the road operating a vehicle in the live environment?

If you had a hard time settling on a single answer, then you understand the futility of applying “learning styles” to the reality of training. Learning success (as measured by task performance) is not related to a preferred learning style, but rather what the learner is expected to do as a result of the training.

Consider the skill of parallel parking. At minimum, it consists of a “kinesthetic” lesson, usually in a parking lot with traffic cones outlining the parking space. It is usually accompanied by videos, lectures, explanations and diagrams. No competent teacher would say to a “visual learner” that all they have to do in order to succeed at parallel parking is to watch an expert performance of the task and they are good to go. Neither would an instructor seriously consider that a set of verbal instructions are all that’s required for “auditory learners” to acquire the necessary skills to park successfully.

You might argue the point that parallel parking is a complex activity and it cannot be confined to presentation in a single learning style. In this, you would be entirely correct. In reality, almost all the tasks we train are complex activities requiring multiple skills. Instead of relying on learning styles to achieve educational success, we need an alternative. That alternative is task-based design.

Task-Based Design

Evaluate the task or skill that you want the learners to acquire and train them in the matter that best reflects or mimics the actual performance of the task. Once you determine the target audience, the next question of good instructional design is, “What do we want the learner to do at the end of the training that they are not doing now?” The answers can be as varied as:

  • Juggling three tennis balls for five minutes without dropping any of them
  • Listing the 50 states and their capitals in alphabetical order
  • Playing a piece of new music accurately on a violin the first time through
  • Evaluating marketing advertising copy for the greatest desired impact on magazine subscribers
  • Resolving an angry customer’s complaint in a way that results in a positive outcome for both the customer and the business

All of these tasks have varying degrees of involvement in the three areas of learning, the cognitive domainpsychomotor domain, and affective domain, or to put it more simply, knowledge, skills and attitudes (KSA’s).

After identifying the desired learning outcome, evaluate what is lacking in each of the learning domains that prevents individuals from succeeding at the task. Ask these simple questions to get started:

  • What do learners need to know or understand in order to accomplish this task successfully? (Knowledge component)
  • What do learners need to be able to do in order to accomplish this task successfully? (Skill component)
  • What do learners need to feel or believe in order to accomplish this task successfully? (Attitude component)

This last question is often missing in much of instructional design, but is essential to mastering high level “soft skills” and many areas of compliance training. Learners may not need to have a deep emotional commitment or strong set of beliefs in order to list the 50 states and their capitals in alphabetical order, but if we want them to successfully resolve customer complaints in a mutually satisfactory way every time, they will need the emotional intelligence that comes with empathy and a belief in the value of individuals.

Putting the Task into Action

Once we have identified the audience, the task we want them to accomplish and the necessary KSA’s to achieve success, we are ready to begin the serious business of instructional design. At this point, we should be guided not by the myth of learning styles, but by the reality of how the task will be performed in the live environment. Our goal as designers is to create meaningful practice that closely simulates the live performance of the task as much as possible. If the task is complex, we break the learning into progressive steps that allow learners to acquire the skills gradually until they can complete the whole task.

In teaching juggling, we would start with one ball and have the learner practice tossing it up and catching it in one hand, then from hand to hand. Next, we would have them practice tossing two balls with one hand until they got good at that. Then switch to the other hand. Then they would toss the two balls from hand to hand. Finally, we would have them practice with two balls in one hand and one ball in the other and begin tossing them back and forth. We can apply the same design methodology to any of the other skills listed in our examples. The main thing is to design learning to take place in the closest approximation of the live environment as possible.

e-Learning instructional designers recognize that some tasks are not suited to online learning such as juggling tennis balls. On the other hand, there are countless YouTube videos tutoring people on this very skill. Is a video sufficient to produce a skilled juggler? On its own, probably not, but with sufficient practice, it’s a good start. As e-learning instructional designers, we shouldn’t sell ourselves short by concluding, “You can’t do that in e-learning.” We may not be able to duplicate the live environment every time, but we can provide sufficient guidance and simulated practice situations that allow learners to succeed in a wide variety of tasks. The good news is that we don’t have to make sure we include activities that speak to auditory, visual and kinesthetic learners.