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Roundup on Research: The myth of “learning styles”

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Introduction

If you have been anywhere where teaching is involved, you have probably heard mention of “learning styles.” “I’m a visual learner” vs. “I’m a hands-on learner” or “My instructor didn’t teach in my learning style” are all the types of commentary that are common when some individuals talk about their own learning. Although it is deeply appealing to be able to categorize individuals into easy methods of learning, unfortunately, it is deeply flawed, has little empirical evidence to support it, and might cause more problems than it solves.

What are learning styles?

To best understand why learning styles are problematic, it is important to clearly define learning styles. The idea of learning styles is that there are stable, consistent methods that individuals take in, organize, process, and remember information, and by teaching those methods, students learn better. 

One popular concept in learning styles posits that the modality of information is critical – a “visual” learner learns best by seeing versus an “auditory” learner who learns best by having things spoken or described to them. Learning style theory would suggest that by using visual aids, a visual learner would organize and retain information better than say, an auditory learner. The implication is that matching modality information to the modality of learning style is critical to student success.

At face value, the concept of learning styles makes sense. Individuals learn differently. Most educational settings are trying to reach large numbers of students in personalized ways.  It would be useful to have an easily applied theory that would help all students learn! As educators, we want to recognize the “uniqueness” of each student and help learners in any way we can. This desire has led educators to look for easier ways to navigate the complexities of teaching. Unfortunately, learning is not that simple.

Do learning styles really exist?

In general, most learning style theories make two presumptions: 

  1. Individuals have a measurable and consistent “style” of learning, and 
  2. Teaching to that style of learning will lead to better education outcomes, and conversely, teaching in a contradictory method would decrease achievement. 

In other words, if you are a visual learner, you should learn best if you see things, regardless of the situation. If you are a kinesthetic learner, you will learn best if you can physically manipulate something, regardless of the topic. However, neither of these two assumptions shows any grounding in research. These two propositions are where we can see the concept of learning styles breaking down.

Are learning styles measurable and consistent?

Did you know that there are actually over 50 different theories of learning styles by various researchers? Researchers have been trying for years to find a correlation between individuals and how to help learning. Some theories suggest the modality of learning matters (like the common VARK theory) while others propose details like time of day and temperature of the room define a learning style. One study that suggested using a cell phone was a learning style (Pursell, 2009).  Just the number of different styles makes it difficult to measure and make sense of an individual style. 

In addition, most learning style inventories rely on a student’s self-report about how they perceive they learn best. These self-reports are generally not validated in any way.  Generally, humans tend to be poor judges of our own learning. Therefore, these surveys are generally measuring “learner preference” rather than “learning style.” You may think you are an auditory learner but until it is validated that you objectively learn better through audio format, it is a preference, not a style. 

Also, when reporting results, many studies will rely on “student satisfaction” as a measure of success, or rely on students’ reflections as a measure of success in a class. For example, many measures of learning styles will ask students how they believe they learn best. Unfortunately, satisfaction with a class or a student’s recollections of success are subjective measures, and generally not accurate (Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013, Kirschner, 2017).  While understanding a learner’s preference is useful as is understanding student satisfaction with a lesson, it does not have the same weight as necessitating teaching to that preference. 

Finally, ​​”styles” are unstable and unreliable. The research on learning styles has suggested that these preferences may be unstable – they be topic-specific, but they also change over time (Coffield et al., 2004).  That means that although an individual may be a kinesthetic learner in history this week, that person is a visual learner in math when talking about calculus (but not about geometry), or prefers to learn how to ride a bike kinesthetically instead of reading about it in a book. This questions whether a learning style is a “trait” (or something stable and persisting for a person) or a “state” (something that is temporary and may change). Learning styles as a state of mind are not particularly useful. How can a teacher know the preference of an individual student today in a given subject? 

Does teaching a learning style result in better learning?

Even more importantly, however, is the second assumption – does teaching to an individual’s learning style lead to achievement? Simply put, there is no evidence that supports teaching to a person’s specified learning style results in better learning (Alley, et. al., 2023; Cuevas, 2015; Kirschner & van Merriënboer, 2013; Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006; Pashler et al., 2008; Rogowsky et al., 2020). No study has shown that teaching to an identified learning style results in better retention, better learning outcomes or student success. Instead, we see that teaching to a self-identified learning style has no impact on learning in children or adults (Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006; Paschler et al., 2008; Rogowsky et al., 2015, Rogowsky et al., 2020). Some research suggests that some students performed better on tasks when taught in a different modality than their self-identified “learning style” (Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006, Rogowsky et al., 2020). Most studies of learning styles use a methodology that uses multiple styles to all learners – meaning that there is no way to isolate learning style to teaching method. This leads us to ultimately conclude that while the concept of learning styles is appealing, at this point, it is still a myth.

Alternate explanations to learning styles

Anecdotally, there are many stories about the success of leveraging “learning styles.” If learning styles are not empirically supported, how are these successes explained? There are alternative explanations for why teaching in multiple methods increases achievement that do not prescribe students into style categories. Multi-modal learning explains how learning improves with various methods of teaching.  

Learning requires sustained attention. Therefore, if an educator can capture and maintain students’ attention, students’ learning outcomes likely improve.  Providing engagement with content in multiple forms – be it through hands-on activities, or different modalities – makes students pay attention to content in different ways, and requires learners to integrate knowledge in new ways. If an educator is using multiple methods and modalities, it’s just more interesting, and students pay more attention, which leads to better learning. Mayer and colleagues (2001, 2003) have extensively studied how students learn with visuals and audio, and the interaction of the two. What he and his colleagues suggest is that by providing dual streams of information in multiple methods engages learners to work harder at understanding the material, which leads to better learning. It may be that the research on learning styles is actually showing that teaching with different modalities is just more interesting to students rather than catering to a particular style of learning ​​(Krätzig & Arbuthnott, 2006).

Why learning styles are dangerous

While the intentions of learning styles are good, the implications of learning styles are more destructive than helpful.   On the positive side, reflecting on how one learns is always a lesson. However, by focusing on a style suggests that learners are passive vessels at the whim of the method of teaching. Ultimately, most educators want students to actively engage in their learning. The best learning takes place when an individual can connect and incorporate information into his or her personal experiences and understanding. By focusing on a student’s learning style we reinforce a simplistic view of learning. Learning styles suggest that individuals have one way to learn best. Unfortunately, learning is complex, and not easy. This is hard and takes time! It has very little to do with the way information is handed to a learner, but rather, how the learner processes that knowledge once they have it. It is important to remember – learning is within the control of the learner. 

Thinking critically about learning styles

If learning styles do not impact an individual’s ability to learn, why is there so much talk about them? Articles and books are still being published about learning styles and how to tailor teaching to reach every style. Research on teaching and learning is a complicated discipline, and being able to examine theories and concepts like learning styles critically is important to anyone working in education. The challenge is to keep a skeptical eye when you hear about research supporting learning styles and ask the right questions to make sure you are getting good information.

What should you think about the next time you encounter learning styles in the wild?

  1. What framework of learning styles are they referring to? Some are more empirically vetted than others. The most popular learning style VARK (Visual-Auditory-Read/Write-Kinesthetic) is also the least validated. Find out more about the learning style being discussed.
  2. How are they measuring both learning style and success? Are they self-reported? Are they looking at academic results or a self-report of satisfaction with learning?
  3. Is the study carefully controlled? Many studies fail to tailor the learning to a particular style. Rather, the lesson uses all the styles to reach all the students. There is no way to truly measure success.
  4. Learning styles can be controversial with some people. They aren’t necessarily harmful if they encourage people to reflect on teaching and learning in different ways. They can be harmful if students believe that their learning is outside their control.

References

Alley, S., Plotnikoff, R. C., Duncan, M. J., Short, C. E., Mummery, K., To, Q. G., Schoeppe, S., Rebar, A., & Vandelanotte, C. (2023). Does matching a personally tailored physical activity intervention to participants’ learning style improve intervention effectiveness and engagement? Journal of Health Psychology, 28(10), 889–899. https://doi.org/10.1177/13591053221137184

Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Should we be using learning styles?  What research has to say to practice: Learning & Skills Research Center.

Cuevas, J. (2015). Is learning styles-based instruction effective? A comprehensive analysis of recent research on learning styles. Theory and Research in Education, 13(3), 308–333. https://doi.org/10.1177/1477878515606621

Kirschner, P. A. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth. Computers & Education, 106, 166–171. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.12.006

Kirschner, P. A., & van Merriënboer, J. J. G. (2013). Do learners really know best? Urban legends in education. Educational Psychologist, 48(3), 169–183. https://doi.org/10.1080/00461520.2013.804395

Krätzig, G. P., & Arbuthnott, K. D. (2006). Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: A test of the hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98(1), 238–246. https://doi.org/10.1037/0022-0663.98.1.238

Lau, W. & Yuen, A.  (2009).  Exploring the effects of gender and learning styles on computer programming performance:  Implications for programming pedagogy.  British Journal of Educational Technology.  40(4), 696-712

Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38, 43-52.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles:  Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Pursell, D. P.  (2009)  Adapting to student learning styles:  Engaging students with cell phone technology in organic chemistry.  Journal of Chemical Education.  86(10), p1219-1222.

Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2015). Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 64–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037478Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2020). Providing Instruction Based on Students’ Learning Style Preferences Does Not Improve Learning. Frontiers in Psychology, 11. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2020.00164

Introduction

It is safe to say that by now, you have seen many articles/posts, opinions, and stories about ChatGPT—and the larger AI-Language Learning Models (LLMs)—in relation to higher education and teaching/learning in particular. These writings included several perspectives ranging from raising concerns to celebrating new opportunities and a mix of the former and the latter. Also, these writings continue to evolve and grow rapidly in number as new AI-powered LLMs continue to emerge and evolve (e.g., Google’s new AI LLMs: Bard).

The intent of this piece is not to add another article sharing tips or concerns about ChatGPT. That being said, this article (1) summarizes the major concerns about ChatGPT and (2) the ideas about its positive implications based on what it is published to date.

Concerns about ChatGPT

Faculty, scholars, and higher education leaders have raised several concerns about ChatGPT. These concerns stem from possible ways it can be used.

  • Using ChatGPT to cheat by asking it to write essays/answer open-ended questions in exams/discussion forums and homework assignments (December 19th, 2022 NPR Story) (December 6th, 2022 Atlantic Story) (January 16 New York Times Story).
  • Using ChatGPT to author scholarly works which conflict with the ethical standards of scientific inquiry. Several high-impact/profile journals have already formulated principles to guide authors on how to use LLMs AI tools and why it is not allowed to credit such tool as an author—any attribution of authorship carries with it accountability for the scholarly work, and no AI tool can take such responsibility (January 24th, 2023 Nature Editorial).
  • ChatGPT can threaten the privacy of students/faculty (and any other user). Its privacy policy states that data can be shared with third-party vendors, law enforcement, affiliates, and other users. Also, while one can delete their ChatGPT account, the prompts they entered into ChatGPT cannot be deleted. This setup threatens sensitive or controversial topics as this data cannot be removed (January 2023 Publication by Dr. Torrey Trust).
  • ChatGPT is not always trustworthy, as it can fabricate quotes and references. In an experiment conducted by Dr. Daniel Hickey at Indiana University Bloomington, Instructional Systems Technology department, “ChatGPT was able to write a marginally acceptable literature review paper, but fabricated some quotes and references. With more work such as including paper abstracts in the prompts, GPT is scarily good at referencing research literature, perhaps as well as a first-year graduate student.” (January 6th, 2023, Article by Dr. Daniel Hickey)

Excitement about ChatGPT

At the other end of the spectrum, there have been several ideas that express interest and excitement about ChatGPT in higher education. These ideas stem from how they can be used ethically and in a controlled manner.

  • Using ChatGPT to speed up the writing of drafts for several outlets (reports, abstracts, emails, conference proposals, press releases, recommendation letters, etc.) ChatGPT can produce elaborated writing that must be edited to remove any possible inconsistencies or inaccuracies (December 7th, 2022 Social Science Space story)
  • Using ChatGPT in the process of brainstorming ideas for curriculum design, lesson planning, and learning activities. The tool can provide some novel ideas or remind educators of some instructional techniques and strategies that they had heard about in the past (January 23rd, 2023, Article by Dr. David Wiley).
  • Using ChatGPT to provide students tutoring/scaffolds. The tool can act like a virtual tutor who does not simply give the answer to the student but rather scaffold them to reach the correct answers by themselves. (Sal Khan, founder/CEO of Khan Academy, Spring 2023 TED Talk)
  • Teaching with ChatGPT to train students on using AI tools and models, provide opportunities to exercise critical thinking skills, and improve their technological literacy (January 12th New York Times story).

Concluding Thoughts

There are major concerns about ChatGPT and the larger AI-powered Language Learning Models (LLMs) phenomenon. These concerns are legitimate and are opposed by notable ideas about the positive implications of AI-powered LLMs in higher education classrooms. As we aspire to make evidence-based educational and learning design decisions, one should carefully review the research that has been done on AI in relation to higher education up to this point and engage with the gaps as opportunities to expand knowledge and find new opportunities and risks.

Our University’s newly formed advisory committee on the applications of generative AI is a good example of how higher education institutions ought to recommend the use, evaluation, and development of emergent AI tools and services. Additionally, discussions about generative AI and its implications on education happening in public venues are necessary to strengthen the public-facing mission of the University, where input from educators, students, and members of the community is welcome.

How this will help:

Identify ways that you might encourage active participation in web conferencing sessions.
Know where to find resources related to creating participatory environments.

The basics

When groups including classes meet in real-time online via a video conferencing tool, it’s tempting to just use the time for a presentation or a question and answer session. However, there are ways that you can deliberately use technology in these sessions to enable meaningful participation, deeper learning, and stronger connections.

There are two basic ways to encourage participation in this environment: 

  1. Utilize activities that can be completed by everyone at the same time. For example, you could post a question or prompt in the chat feature of your videoconference tool and then ask everyone to respond at the same time (called a “chatterfall” or “chatstream” or “backchannel”). Another easy technique is asking everyone to contribute simultaneously through an annotation feature or shared workspace such as a Google doc.
  2. Break the whole group up into smaller groups. In classes larger than 5, it helps to create pairs or smaller groups using breakout rooms. Depending on the size of your class, you can also easily scaffold a series of small group conversations (e.g. first as pairs, then as groups of four, etc) by combining breakout rooms.

When planning participatory synchronous sessions, feel free to keep the technology simple: we recommend using Zoom and a tool from the Google suite (such as docs or slides). Think about activities that you’ve run in-person and then work to adapt them in order to optimize the opportunities afforded in a remote environment. Consider the essence of that activity and build out from there rather than trying to translate it directly. Although technology can often help, sometimes activities just don’t work as well in a remote environment, and that’s okay. In this way, you’ll be using technology deliberately in the service of your goals rather than using technology for its own sake. 

Accessibility is another major consideration when running participatory virtual classes or meetings. Before meeting remotely, you’ll want to get a sense of any accommodations that your students may have and work to make sure that all shared materials are accessible and easy to use. In understanding the needs of your students before a meeting, you can choose the activities and/or the technologies that will work best for that particular group. Additionally, it’s important to combine synchronous meetings with robust asynchronous tools in order to maximize the accessibility of your course. 

For specific ideas and activities that you might try, check out our Facilitation Guide: Participatory Sessions in a Virtual Environment. This guide is designed for those new to teaching or facilitating remotely and is built around using Zoom and the Google suite to encourage participation. It includes sections covering general recommendations (such as those found below in the Practical Tips), ideas leveraging specific tech features such as chat and breakout rooms, and an appendix that walks you through how to use Zoom if you need help with the technology. 

The guide also includes full instructions for a number of activities. These activities are largely centered on Liberating Structures, a suite of activities designed to encourage better collaboration and full participation by all group members. However, these activities will feel very familiar for a teaching environment. For example, 1-2-4-All is a kind of think-pair-share, Carousel Brainstorm is a series of brainstorms that build upon one another, and Shift and Share is a set of rotations for small group presentations.

Practical Tips

If you’re looking to encourage more active participation in a remote class or meeting, here are a few of the general recommendations taken from the facilitation guide to get you started: 

  • Build an agenda with ample time for activities and breaks.  

Because there is so much to process when meeting remotely, you should be prepared for activities to take longer, and Zoom fatigue is real. You’ll want to create an agenda that includes plenty of time for all activities as well as breaks for classes longer than 60 minutes. 

  • Create separate, shared workspaces for small groups that include all activity instructions. 

If you have small groups working in breakout rooms, create a dedicated workspace for each small group that includes all of the activity instructions and space for them to record notes (called a “harvest”). This workspace helps to keep small groups on track, allows you to monitor progress, and leaves documentation for everyone in the class to use—not just that small group. See the Template Slides and Template Text Collaboration Document in the Resources section below for examples of harvest spaces.  

  • Set clear expectations at the beginning. 

It helps to give students some expectations and guidelines so that you are creating a comfortable environment for participation. Some ideas include:  

  • Ask students to mute themselves unless speaking. Be clear that you’ll mute anyone who doesn’t abide by this expectation. 
  • Recommend that students configure their screens so that they can keep the chat window open during the entire class, rather than flipping back and forth. 
  • Encourage students to keep a piece of paper and writing utensil nearby.  
  • Let everyone know that video conference tools such as Zoom are strict facilitators; for instance, they will probably be whisked away from a breakout room while in the midst of a sentence. 
  • Acknowledge that a remote class will feel different than a face-to-face class, and that’s okay.
  • Enlist students to help with facilitation. 

There will be some additional responsibilities and considerations when meeting in a videoconference session, and it’s easy to become overwhelmed. To help with this, consider having 1-2 students act as “backchannel” moderators for the class. These students could be responsible for keeping track of questions, making sure all activity instructions are posted in the chat, and/or possibly summarizing the session at the end.

Resources

University of Michigan

Other resources

How this will help:

Understand key principles of ethical community engagement and how to operationalize them when designing and teaching online community-engaged courses.
Learn concrete suggestions, resources, and strategies for addressing the needs of students and community partners during online community-engaged teaching.
Discover ways that Ginsberg Center staff can support your community-engaged course, from finding remote engagement opportunities for students to helping prepare your students to partner with communities and maximize their learning.

The basics

Community-engaged learning is when “students engage in activities that address human and community needs, together with structured opportunities for reflection designed to achieve desired learning outcomes” (adapted from Jacoby, 1996). In your face-to-face classes, you may have experience working directly with community partners in various ways to integrate students into community-engaged learning.

But what does this look like in an online class? Or when the community engagement is virtual? When shifting to an online environment, many community-engaged instructors at the University of Michigan have expressed the difficulty of balancing students’ needs for accessible and empathetic virtual instruction, community partners’ rapidly-shifting needs and priorities, and general public health and safety concerns. However, online instruction does not mean isolated – instead, it is possible to leverage technology as well as use it as a lens to examine community engagement.

The Ginsberg Center is a community and civic engagement center with a mission to cultivate and steward equitable partnerships between communities and the University of Michigan in order to advance social change for the public good. Our Best Practices for Online Community Engaged Teaching and Learning provides tangible suggestions, resources, and strategies that are rooted in the 6 key principles that guide our work. The guide also synthesizes research on online service-learning and community engagement with a particular focus on the opportunities available at the University of Michigan. We offer highlights from our guide below:

1. Connecting Civic Learning Across Contexts:
We support students’ integrative learning across classroom, co-curricular, personal, and community settings. Reflection is a critical component of this integration throughout the partnership process.

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Have students reflect on their assumptions about technology and how these assumptions may impact their work with community partners.
  • Use technology to allow students to reflect in multiple ways: online journals, group discussion boards, videos, and audio recording. 
  • Take time to reflect upon how using technology has affected your approach to teaching and community engagement.

2. Starting with Community: Our approach centers around community-identified priorities and how we can most effectively match University of Michigan resources and expertise to those of community partners working to address these priorities. It’s important to start with your community partners’ goals and priorities when deciding how and when to integrate technology into your engaged course.

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • If community partners are co-creating the virtual course with you, ask about the partners’ technological preferences and capacity explicitly, and maintain a dialogue through the course.
  • Consider inviting community members to your virtual classroom as a guest speaker because community partners bring ideas, perspective, language, and knowledge to the table that can be inaccessible otherwise.
  • If the community members virtually “host” the students with their organization, communicate the roles of the community partner clearly and take an active role in managing your students’ participation.

3. Centering on Equity: We strive for balanced impact in our partnerships, which means that students, faculty, university staff, and community partners all have the opportunity to share their interests, goals, and expectations. Leveraging technology may bring more opportunities to converge interest and goals but may also present added challenges to centering equity..

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Co-create course objectives with your community partners, and use these objectives to determine what technological tools are most appropriate and compatible with the goals and capacity of the community partner.
  • Give community partners access to all virtual components of the course, including discussion boards, course announcements, and readings.
  • Develop a plan to prepare students for both synchronous and asynchronous interaction with community partners.

4. Fostering long-term Partnership: We focus on stewarding long-term relationships with community partners that last beyond a particular project or engagement. 

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Work with Ginsberg to learn about what technological resources and supports are available to you and your community partners through the university.
  • Discuss with your partner how they can continue to have access to any online resources (readings, recordings, discussion boards, students’ work, etc.) that were created during your course. 

5. Acknowledging Power: Cultural humility requires a recognition of power differences and conscious attempts to balance these differences through reflection and learning (Tervalon & Murray-Garcia, 1998). Technology adds an additional layer of power and equity into the community conversation.

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Consider how power imbalances might manifest in specific forms of virtual interactions (video meetings, phone meetings, email, discussion boards, etc.) and establish a plan for how issues will be identified and counteracted.
  • Invite your students to reflect on how technology can be used to decrease the negative effects of power and privilege and when it may exacerbate those effects.

6. Moving from Individual to Collective Action: We support coordination, collaboration, and increased coherence by bringing together parties with shared interests to amplify positive community impact.

Examples of how to apply this principle:

  • Consider inviting community partners into the virtual classroom to share historical, political, organizational, and community contexts for the issues they are addressing and who else in the community is working on the issues.
  • Work with the Ginsberg Center to access our extensive network of partners so you can connect efficiently with partners ready and eager to collaborate.

Practical tips

  • Want some ways to get started in community-engaged learning right away?
    • Consider inviting community partners into the virtual classroom to share historical, political, organizational, and community contexts for the issues they are addressing and who else in the community is working on the issues.
    • Consider inviting community members to your virtual classroom as a guest speaker because community partners bring ideas, perspective, language, and knowledge to the table that can be inaccessible otherwise.
  • The Community Engagement: Collaborating for Change MOOC offers free, online modules to help you and your students prepare for community-engaged learning.
  • Ginsberg Center staff hold regular Community of Practice gatherings and workshops for instructors of community-engaged teaching. View our full calendar of events.
  • Read the full guide for Online Community Engaged Learning and the general guide for Community-Engaged Learning.

Resources

University of Michigan

How this will help:

Explore what it means to be a person and instructor in an online environment.
Identify activities to increase instructor presence in the online classroom.

The basics

One of the most frequent concerns of new online instructors is whether or not they will be able to “get to know” their students and vice versa. Presenting yourself as an instructor and as a person is just as possible in online courses as it is in the face to face setting.  Through the use of learning platform tools and some creative activities, you will be able to let your students get to know you without meeting in person.

In your face to face classroom, you have most likely shown your personality in many informal ways like body language, tone, physical appearance, and management style. You may have shared a passion or hobby with students during lecture breaks or before or after class. You may develop a rapport with students as they develop an understanding of your unique teaching style. Casual questions asked before or after class may have shaped a future presentation. 

There are many ways that your presence as an instructor manifests in a class. One way is through the way you teach. The style of assessments you prefer, your communication style, the types of media/readings you choose, and the structure of the course all play into how students view you as an instructor. Another way is how you interact with the class as individuals. This might take place through feedback or coaching that you might provide, or engaging with students on a course topic to promote deeper learning. A third way is informal and social interactions. But there is also the informal – your excitement for a particular topic in class, the casual comments about your cat, the mention of a hobby you engaged in over the weekend, or perhaps something you saw in the news that interested you. These aspects of you are still very important. Even in an online space, students appreciate knowing there is a complex human on the other side of the screen – complete with a life outside of class. 

In the online world, being yourself may feel challenging and profoundly different. As academics, we typically use writing for formal conversations. For many of us, being on camera is another source of stress and may not feel as natural. 

This is also why it is so critical to create a presence in your classroom. Students frequently report feelings of isolation in an online class. In contrast, the best online classes find ways to build connections between students, as well as between students and the instructor.  Building a community by showing multiple dimensions of yourself as a human makes for a more connected class.

But how do you connect with students when it feels so foreign?

Start by thinking about what makes you a good teacher

This is a great time to reflect on what you bring to the classroom. Do you have a particular passion for the topic? Do you spend a lot of time personally getting to know your students? Do you like to integrate current events into lectures? Do you use the Socratic method for understanding what your students’ understanding? These are all things that can still be done online, if they are important to your teaching style. 

What are you comfortable sharing about your personality?

Sometimes, revealing pieces of yourself can make you feel vulnerable. Think about what aspects of yourself you are comfortable revealing. For example, if you aren’t comfortable sharing pictures of family members, that’s fine. A picture or short video of yourself though can go a long way. Share things as you would if you were in a face-to-face class. For example, if you are a person who enjoys embedding popular memes or humor into your classroom, do this online as well! 

Establish communication early

Students look for structure and consistency in an online course, including in communication.  They are also looking for you as the instructor to establish the tone for the course. Showing your personality and welcoming the participants at the start of the course are best practices for building a foundation for instructor presence.  Start the class with a welcome email, including a brief introduction to the class, to yourself, and perhaps an early link to the syllabus sets the tone for the importance of communication between the instructor and students while humanizing yourself as the instructor. Consider mentioning what excites you about the content and what you look forward to working on during the semester.

Keep up communication throughout the course

Communication with students does not stop after the introduction week. In an online space, we have to consciously create spaces to allow for social interaction. In the discussion board, create a thread for “What’s fun this week” or “Off-topic.” Not only encourage students to post on these threads, but occasionally jump in yourself to keep the conversation going.

We generally recommend sending some kind of communication to students each week. Definitely include some kind of introduction to the topic, perhaps a connection to the previous week’s content. But don’t stop there, add in a brief personal reflection on the topic as well or maybe something how it relates to current events. If you have a story to tell, post it in one of the social spaces (mentioned above) and refer students to that space. 

There are also some small things that can help you build your presence in the class. During the course, try to address students by their names in the discussion board or in a videoconference. Holding regular meeting times sends a powerful message to students that you are available to them and care about their progress. The goal is to build a community where learners feel connected and facilitate in ways that content is deliverable and thought-provoking.

Practical tips

If you aren’t feeling immediately comfortable building community, these suggestions may help you along.  

  • Welcome email or video Include a brief overview of the course, contact information, recommended activities prior to the beginning of the course. Consider including personal information that you may feel comfortable sharing with the group. Anything from favorite books or movies, hobbies, past travels, etc. will help create a more fully formed person on the other side of the computer.
  • Post an introduction assignment that is less about content, more about the person. Not only will you help build community, but students will become more familiar with the technologies being used!
    • Create and post a google slide or virtual poster that represents you and ask students to do the same
    • Discussion board posting with a quick description of who the participants are, why they are taking the course, and what they hope to learn
  • Hold a weekly synchronous office hours session to connect with students
  • Keep track of student progress. Pay attention if a student suddenly seems “absent” from class. Reach out first with an email, and then perhaps with a phone call. If a student feels isolated, they may not even realize that they are missed.
  • Include your own reflections when discussing content.  You are modeling your thought process and giving students insight into how an expert thinks about content.
  • Ask students for feedback on the course.  Create a google survey to get feedback on what the students think is going well, and what would they like to see more of.
  • Don’t be afraid to use humor, but use it carefully. Set group norms about what is appropriate in the classroom environment.
  • Get creative with your assignments. Instead of doing a formal discussion post, have students make a meme that directly relates to course content. Have them reflect in video or in poetry rather than narrative. Have a theme week – one instructor had a different “hair band” theme from the 80s each week of the course.

Resources

University of Michigan

CRLT- How does your “online identify” impact classroom climate?

Other Resources

John Hopkins- Establishing an online presence

Online learning insights- Instructor presence in an online class – key to learner success

Research

Phillips, W. (2008). A study of instructor persona in the online environment. 168.

Dzubinski, Leanne M. (2014). Teaching presence: Co-creating a multi-national online learning community in an asynchronous classroom. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Network, 18(2), 97. Online Learning Consortium.

How this will help:

Understand how copyright impacts the items you include in your course.

The basics

The copyright law exceptions for teaching are different for teaching online than they are for teaching face-to-face courses. Assumptions about copyright that you may have about teaching in a face-to-face setting may not apply in the same way to online teaching. When you use third-party content (something created by someone else), you need to consider whether copyright law allows you to use the content.

Imagine these situations: 

  • You have a brief movie clip that you’d like to use in your face-to-face class as a way to illustrate a concept.
  • You found an image online that does a great job of illustrating the cycle of poverty.
  • You have an article that you’d like to share with your class. In your face-to-face course, you would print it out and share with students.

These are just a few ways that third-party content is typically used in courses. When using these types of content in online courses, you should think about how copyright law affects your use.

Copyright law restricts how you can use third-party content in online courses more than in face-to-face courses. It is important to consider copyright law in online course creation; if third-party content is used in a way that does not comply with copyright law, it could be taken down (disrupting the course), the unit could be forced to pay for the use, or U-M could possibly be sued.

Third-party content

Faculty members are in a great position to help avoid these risks by asking the following five questions for each piece of third-party content they consider using in their course:

  1. Are there contractual terms, terms of service, or terms of use that limit my use?
  2. Is the third-party content uncopyrightable or in the public domain?
  3. Is the third-party content already licensed for my use?
  4. Is my use of the third party content a fair use?
  5. Can I ask for permission to use the third party content?

1. Are there contractual terms, terms of service, or terms of use that limit my use?

Inform yourself of any contractual terms that might affect the use you want to make (e.g., read the terms of use of the website you’re relying on for access to the work). Ultimately, it is for you to decide whether to follow the terms you’ve agreed to or try to negotiate a different set of contractual terms. If you ignore contractual terms, remember that there may be legal consequences; reach out to the Office of General Counsel if you have any questions.

If the answer to this question is yes, move to question five.

2. Is the third-party content uncopyrightable or in the public domain?

Copyright does not protect everything. Some things are fundamentally not copyrightable. For instance, copyright does not protect any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery. To be protected by copyright, the work needs to embody some spark of creativity and not be purely factual. Works that are not protected by copyright can be used without any restrictions.

This is especially important when you want to use third-party content like charts and graphs in your course. If the chart is not copyrightable, it can be used freely because there are no copyright restrictions. Examples of non-copyrightable charts and graphs are available in the OpenMichigan Casebook.

Some third-party content is no longer protected by copyright, either because the copyright term has expired or because the copyright holder has dedicated the work to the public domain. In the US, as of 2020, all works published in the US before 1925 and all works created by federal government employees are in the public domain. Works published between 1925 and 1989 could also be in the public domain for not following formalities that were required at the time. Consult Cornell’s Copyright Term and the Public Domain in the US chart to see if the third party content you want to use might fall into this category of works.

If the third-party content is uncopyrightable or in the public domain, stop here. If not, move to question three.

3. Is the third party content already licensed for my use?

Your use of a copyrighted work might be covered by a pre-existing license. The most common type of public licenses is a Creative Commons (CC) license [Link to Creative Commons]. CC licenses are blanket licenses that give everyone the ability to use the content as long as they follow the rules outlined by the copyright holder. All CC licenses require attribution. More details can be found in AI’s How To: Attributions guide.

There are also online resources that the U-M library has already purchased. If your online course is for registered U-M students, you can take advantage of these resources in your online course by providing students with the link to the resource (commonly, ebooks and journal articles, but also some image banks) in the library’s catalogue. This will authenticate the student and allow them to view the resource.

For more information about what library resources may be available for your course, contact your subject specialist librarian. 

If the third-party content is already licensed for your use, stop here. If not, move to question four.

4. Is my use of third-party content a fair use?

There might be some third-party content you want to use that is protected by copyright and isn’t openly licensed. If there is no adequate replacement and the third-party content is crucial to the course, you should consider whether the use is a fair use. If the use is a fair use, the third-party content can be included in the course without permission.

Fair use is a user’s right that encourages certain favored uses (like criticism, commentary, and education) without the permission of the copyright holder. Fair use is context specific; there are no brightline rules here. For example, it’s a widely believed myth that 10% of a work can be used under fair use. This is not always true. Sometimes, using 10% of a work is not a fair use. Sometimes, using 100% of a work is a fair use. It is very dependent on the specific use you are making.

For each fair use analysis, consider the following four factors:

  • the purpose of the use
  • the nature of the copyrighted work;
  • the amount used; and
  • the effect on the market

For more information about fair use and some helpful guidance on how to apply the fair use analysis, consult the Library Copyright Office’s Fair Use page.

If your use of the third-party content is a fair use, stop here. If not, move to question five.

5. Can I ask for permission to use the third party content?

If the third-party content is copyrightable, not openly licensed, and your use would not be a fair use, you should ask the copyright holder for permission to include the content in your course. Third-party content can be used in any way if the copyright holder gives you permission to make those uses. When asking for permission, make sure to be clear about how the material will be used, how many people will view it, and how long the content will be used. This will help the copyright holder make an informed decision on whether or not they want to allow the use and how much they want to charge for it (if at all). Although not legally required, it is a good idea to get the permission and terms in writing and save the writing for future reference.

The Library Copyright Office has a Sample Permission Letter that can easily be adapted to fit the needs of the specific course. More information about requesting copyright permission can be found in the Obtaining Copyright Permissions research guide.

If you cannot ask for permission to use the work, you should not include the work in your course. Instead, try looking for a replacement that’s under an open license. AI’s guide on Finding Usable Materials is a helpful place to start.

Practical tips

The U-M Library Copyright Office is available if you have questions or would like to learn more about how copyright affects what you use in your course. They can be contacted at [email protected]. You can also schedule an appointment with one of their specialists.

Resources

University of Michigan

CAI- How to flip your content: Designed for those building MOOCs, this document can help you find additional open education resources

CAI- Finding usable materials

CAI- Open Educational Resources

Contributors: U-M Library & Academic Innovation

How this will help:

Recognize the benefits of peer reviews.
Convey best practices and how to conduct peer reviews to their students.

The basics

You may have participated in or assigned a peer review assignment prior to this module. Regardless of your level of experience, you may have already formed opinions regarding the use of peer reviews as an education tool. When considering online courses, peer reviews can be a great and helpful option for you and your students. When facilitated correctly, these reviews can have a positive impact on distance learning.

Peer reviews and preconceived opinions

Peer reviews are an excellent tool for helping writers view their work from a broader lens. There is sometimes hesitation from students towards peer review assignments. They may feel it is unproductive, view it as busy work, or do not understand how to conduct them. However, online tools such as Google Docs and other platforms can help with the facilitation of peer feedback. For peer reviews to be successful, it is important for instructors to be clear about the objectives, processes, and takeaways that are expected. Prior to assigning a peer review, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What course or assignment goals will your students fulfill by participating in peer review? 
  • How do you want peer review to happen in your online course? 
  • What will your students get out of this experience?

These guiding questions will ensure that the peer review is conducted correctly, effectively, and will enhance the learning process of each student. 

Why use peer review?

There are many benefits to using peer reviews in your online course. Many instructors include peer review to help students refine the final product of a particular assignment. This process allows students to strengthen communication and enhance their writing, skills that can translate into any discipline. The list below outlines additional outcomes that can result from successfully incorporating peer review into your online teaching. 

1. Gives students an opportunity to test their work on other audiences

By participating in peer review, students can gauge the responses of other readers, who may offer insights previously unconsidered. Since arguably most students view their instructors as their primary audience, peer review can help them consider other audience members’ needs and questions.

2. Gives students a chance to learn from others’ work

By participating in peer review, students can look to other models of work and consider how those approaches might work in their own projects. Furthermore, commenting on a peer’s work can help students be more objective and reflective about their own.

3. Teaches students to ask critical questions

By participating in peer review, students can learn how to ask productive questions about projects for which they identify weaknesses, as well as projects that they already consider well done.

4. Models the kind of collaborative work done in many fields

Learning how to offer constructive feedback to peers is essential to many fields, including business (e.g., when someone pitches an idea to the board), technical writing (e.g., collaborating on a workplace manual), science (e.g., responding to a colleague’s methods), and community outreach (e.g., voicing concerns to improve a community space). 

Watch the video below to see how faculty at Auburn University mended their students’ ambivalence towards using peer review online.

Practical tips

Creating a successful peer review

Develop clear guidelines and prompts for students to follow

  • What would happen if you ________ ?
  • I noticed that you ________ . Would it be better to ________ ?
  • What do you think about ________ ?
  • One thing I didn’t understand was _________ – can you tell me more?

Use technology

  • Skype, Google Hangouts, BlueJeans, Zoom (synchronous sessions)
  • Google Docs, Box Notes, discussion board (asynchronous sessions)

Assess the process

  • How does it fit into the course/assignment concepts?
  • Will it be a standalone assignment or a percentage of another?
  • Create a rubric for minimum requirements 
  • Have students submit a reflection on learning experience

Resources

University of Michigan

Faculty member Jeremiah Chamberlin’s blog on workshopping 

Other Resources 

Developing Writers- Guide to feedback 

Southwestern- Benefits to peer review 

University of British Columbia- Using peer review 

Research

Cassel, S. (2018, July 9). Peer review done right. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/peer-review-done-right

How this will help:

Articulate the value of learning objectives for structuring your course designs.
Write learning objectives for your online course that use learner-centered language.

The basics

Most of the time, when setting out on a journey, you know where you are headed and have a sense of how you’ll know when you’ve reached your destination. Learning objectives serve to define that destination for your course – it’ll be much easier for your students to engage with your course if they know where they are headed.

Most of the time, when setting out on a journey, you know where you are headed and have a sense of how you’ll know when you’ve reached your destination. Learning objectives serve to define that destination for your course – it’ll be much easier for your students to engage with your course if they know where they are headed and it will help you as you navigate the process of design.

One of the experiences many faculty new to online teaching often identify as different from their experience teaching face-to-face is engaging in an explicit design process. Most instructors teach the way they were taught, and historically, most of us were taught from a content-centric model, meaning you decide what content you want to teach, and then you teach it.

Designing a course can, in some ways, be compared to planning a road trip. A content-centric approach to course design is like deciding what tourist attractions you want to see (e.g. Niagara Falls, the Alamo, and the Vietnam War Memorial in one trip) but not defining the final destination. A backward design approach, in contrast, starts with deciding what your final destination is (e.g. your cousin’s house in Rochester, NY) and then deciding which gas stations, tourist attractions and hotels will structure your journey to make sure you get there.

When creating an online course, though, one has to think through the course design in a more detailed and explicit way (although these same design principles are useful and can be applied to face-to-face teaching). One of the common models for course design (both online and face-to-face) is the backwards design approach. Backward design, from a high level, includes three steps: identifying the desired results, determining the evidence that those results have been attained, and developing learning experiences that will help learners build that evidence. This module will focus specifically on the first step in backwards design: identifying and writing learning objectives.

What are learning objectives?

In their simplest form, learning objectives are statements describing what someone will be able to do after they engage in a learning experience. There are different schools of thought as to how much detail belongs in a learning objective, but regardless of one’s philosophy, every learning objective contains three basic elements:

  • A brief description of the context in which the learning objective is relevant
  • An active verb describing what a learner will know, be able to do, or value
  • A brief description of the content, skill or value connected to the objective

For a first draft of a set of learning objectives, begin each objective with the phrase, “At the end of this [course, module, lesson, degree program, etc], learners will be able to…” This phrase serves as the overarching context for your learning objectives. Note that learning objectives are focused on what the learner will be able to do, not what the teacher will teach. This learner-centric approach has many advantages – the first of which is it can help you, as an instructor, begin to imagine how you’ll know whether someone has been successful in your course (or other learning experience).

The opening phrase of the objective is followed by an active verb. Many instructors, when drafting learning objectives for the very first time, default to verbs like “understand” or “know.” The learning objectives you write will be more useful to you and your learners if you push yourself at least one step further. Ask yourself, “How will I be able to tell if they understand this concept?” Do they need to verbally recall definitions? Do they need to calculate something? Do they need to critique something? What does understanding look or sound like in your discipline? The more specific you can be, the better. It isn’t very helpful to your students to hear, “I’ll know it when I see it.”

One way to find verbs more specific than “understand” and “know” is to take inspiration from a framework commonly used in education: Bloom’s revised cognitive taxonomy. Benjamin Bloom (a noted educational psychologist), in partnership with others, identified six categories of objectives: Remember, Understand, Apply, Analyze, Evaluate, and Create. Within each of these categories, instructors and education experts have identified verbs that describe activities that a learner can engage in to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. There are multiple resources online for finding verbs (e.g. this table from Fresno State or this visual from Johns Hopkins).

The third component of a learning objective, the content or skill to be learned or demonstrated, highlights your priorities for the learning experience and can situate the experience within the larger context of the curriculum. Below are some examples of learning objectives for different kinds of learning experiences.

Example learning objectives:

Lesson or Module:

  • At the end of this module, learners will be able to calculate the molecular weight of different molecules with known chemical formulas. (Chemistry)
  • At the end of this module, learners will be able to identify examples of chiaroscuro in Spiderman graphic novels and describe the effect(s) of that chiaroscuro on readers. (Media Studies)

Course:

  • At the end At the end of this course, learners will be able to compare and contrast different theories of human motivation. (Psychology)
  • At the end of this course, learners will be able to analyze primary sources from different decades within the 19th century to understand the shift in gender roles over time. (History/Gender Studies)

Degree Program:

  • Upon graduation, learners will be able to conduct independent research on social phenomena using qualitative and quantitative research methods. (Sociology)
  • Upon graduation, learners will be able to place peripheral intravenous lines. (Nursing)

There are tools available to help you build your learning objectives. Arizona State and University of Central Florida host such tools. Arizona State’s tool follows the above model in which every learning objective has three component parts. The University of Central Florida tool gives users the opportunity to provide very specific assessment descriptions and proficiency levels in their learning objectives.

I have some learning objectives, now what?

When designing for online learning, generally we set our learning objectives well before we do anything with the content of the course. These learning objectives then guide every step of the design process, from which content is used to the assessments. For example, if you specify in your learning objectives that you want students to be able to evaluate a large concept critically, using a multiple choice assessment is typically not what we would recommend to demonstrate that type of learning. If you are working with an instructional designer, having some idea about what your learning objectives are can be really helpful to get the process moving more quickly. You might want to take some notes down, or use a planning worksheet.

Final thoughts on learning objectives

There’s no one answer to how many learning objectives a course should have. In general, when an instructional designer works with a faculty member to set objectives, it is typically done at a high level (more like goals) as well as at a modular level (by unit or by time). If you are in a hurry, it can be helpful to think about learning objectives in terms of what you want to have students learn during the course of a particular week.

It is important, though, to keep in mind that one of the goals of learning objectives is to help learners understand the priorities for their learning. Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe, in their book Understanding by Design, encourage instructors and course designers to differentiate between objectives around knowledge and skills that are essential for enduring understanding, important to know and do, and worth being familiar with.

Although learning objectives can help you design your course, they are also useful for your students. Sharing your learning objectives with them explicitly can help learners link the concepts in the course together and to their broader curriculum.

Practical tips

  • Try to write 2-3 learning objectives for a week. You do not have to share them with students, but it will help guide your development and keep things organized.
  • Write your learning objectives down. There are lots of online course design planners that can help articulate how you are teaching the course.
  • Not everyone likes writing learning objectives. Don’t feel the need to be creative. Some objective builders that can help you are:
    • University of Central Florida builder
    • Arizona State University builder

Resources

University of Michigan

CRLT- Readings for course design

Other Resources

Arizona State University-  Learning objective builder

University of Central Florida- Learning objective builder

Available on Amazon- Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by Design (2nd ed.). United States: ASCD.