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Learning Preferences & the Online Learner - Part 1

Updated on December 31, 2016
Diane Lockridge profile image

Lockridge holds an EdS in Curriculum and Instruction, an MS in Elementary Education, and a BA in History. She also homeschools her children.

Online learning is here to stay. Here's how teachers can gear courses to reach all students.
Online learning is here to stay. Here's how teachers can gear courses to reach all students. | Source

This article will discuss the types of learning preferences, tendencies of each type of learner and ways that teachers can structure the online course to effectively teach to a range of student preferences. This is part 1 in a three-part article series.

Effective Online Classroom Techniques

Clearly not all students learn best through the same teaching methods; what makes sense to one student may not make sense to another. Just as teachers in the traditional classroom must vary teaching techniques and types of classroom activities to suit the needs of each student, online instructors and course creators should consider how to relate course material best in the online format.

Carson suggests that teachers tend to teach students in the matter that they prefer to learn and asserts that despite the mixture of learning preferences in the classroom, “no one approach or single presentation style maximizes learning for all students”. How then, should course creators structure the online classroom and learning activities to appeal to all learning preferences while not giving preference to one learning style over another? This article discusses the tendencies of adult learners and how the concept of learning preferences should be implemented in the online classroom.

Understanding the Online Learner

The phrase" learning preference" refers to the tendency for a student to prefer one teaching style to another. The concept of learning preferences does not view one method as good or bad, but rather it refers to the way a student responds to the stimuli and how he interprets the material.

Murphy and Cifuentes further remind course instructors and designers to consider the technological skills of the adult learner. Hillman, Willis and Gunawardena as cited in Murphy and Cifuentes note, “until students are able to use technology tools effectively, they can not [sic] proceed in their online learning”. Del Valle and Duffy suggest that computer skill and knowledge alone do not indicate course success. In their report, Del Valle and Duffy discuss difference in adult learners regarding their learning type, and make assumptions on how successful a student will be based on his work patterns, habits, and learning preference; time online is often indicative of how well a student will do in the course, however it is not the only contributing factor.

Chen, Lambert, and Guidry suggest that hybrid courses, which utilize traditional methods and online resources, have “a significant positive impact on learning outcomes, with hybrid courses having a greater impact”. Olgren, as cited in Murphy and Cifuentes isolates three features that influence distance learners to succeed: cognitive learning strategies, meta-cognitive activities, and motivation.

The online learning environment allows students to take control over their learning experience and become more engaged than in the traditional teacher-directed classroom. Although the online classroom allows students the opportunity to be more engaged, Lim notes that instructors cannot assume that students will engage themselves and want to learn. It is therefore necessary for instructors to provide students with the opportunity to become engaged in the learning process to stimulate the best learning opportunities.

Just as traditional teachers should provide directions in the classroom, Rovia and Grooms remind online instructors to provide students with specific instructions. Specific instructions appeal to the Myers-Brigg’s sensing-feeling and sensing-thinking personality types. “The implication for practice is that an online course can achieve equity in learning for all personality-based learning styles provided the course is designed to include elements that would appeal to each student,” notes Rovai and Grooms.

Interestingly, Rovia and Grooms found that there was no significant difference in coursework success between those of different preferences. Although they admittedly did not explore the role that intrinsic and extrinsic motivation played in course success, they noticed that the flexibility of course structure appealed to some type of students more than others did.

Moore as cited in Murphy and Cifuentes generalizes that distance learners are highly diverse, motivated, and task-oriented. What non-millennial adult learners may lack in technological skills often needed for online classrooms, they make up for in application and life experience. Discussion board assignments, where students collaborate, generate responses and discuss opinions allow older students to inform and support younger students.


Carson, D. (2009). Is style everything? Teaching that achieves its objectives. Cinema Journal, 48(3), 95-101. Retrieved December 1, 2011, from Research Library. doi: 1876730441

Chen, P.D., Lambert, A.D., and Guidry, K.R. (2010). Engaging online learners: The impact of web-based learning technology on college student engagement. Computers & Education, 54(4), 1222-1223. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.11.008

Del Valle, R., & Duffy, T. (2009). Online learning: Learner characteristics and their approaches to managing learning. Instructional Science, 37(2), 129-149. doi: 1894693521

Lim, C. (2004). Engaging learners in online learning environments. TechTrends, 48(4), 16-23. Retrieved December 6, 2011, from Career and Technical Education. doi: 2386159851.

Murphy, K.L. & Cifuentes, L. (2001). Using Web tools, collaborating, and learning online. Distance Education, 22(2), 285-305. doi: 98666700).

Rovai, A., & Grooms, L. (2004). The relationship of personality-based learning style preferences and learning among online graduate students. Journal of Computing in Higher Education, 16(1), 30-47. doi:1975935191


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