Learning Orientation Research

Individual Learning Differences

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Sequencing for Online Learners

A. Educators have long been faced with the challenge of how to sequence instruction for individuals learning on their own--away from the instructor and classroom. Over the years, we have gone through programmed instruction, intelligent tutoring, adaptive learning, and aptitude treatments. Reliably accounting for individual learning differences for groups of learners has been an ongoing dilemma. This continuing problem suggests that we still lack reliable or proven scientific foundations to guide how we sequence or adapt solutions in the hope of accounting for and best supporting individual learning differences.

In the past, most individualized solutions depended on primarily cognitive perspectives, which have often proven inadequate. Today's technology solutions need more sophisticated, whole-brain perspectives and the ability to support measured progress. Recent neurobiology of learning and memory research efforts (e.g., Zull, Kandel, and Ledoux) are providing insights for understanding critical sources for learning differences. Meeting today's challenge includes integrating these recent advances in the neurosciences and technology to update today's educational theories and models.

The neurosciences can have a significant impact on implementing instructional technologies and measures that are based on standards and grounded in evidence-based scientific research.

"The big breakthrough, has been the availability of PET scan and functional MRI devices that allow scientists to observe mental activity directly, to take a 'picture' of the brain at work. So exciting are the possibilities here that there's been an outpouring of federal funding in support of neuroscientific inquiry. It is the Decade of the Brain.'

With this activity, a veritable flood of discoveries has come forward on the functioning of the brain. These have excited hopes among educators that soon, at last, we'll learn what really happens inside all those student heads and have a scientific basis for teaching" (Theodore Marchese, 2002).

B. Sequencing is actually part of a larger problem related to providing appropriate treatments matching needs for different groups of learners. Snow and Cronbach's work is representative of the research associated with finding stable measures for supporting individual differences. They searched for stable cognitive/aptitude treatment interactions to match treatments and support individual needs of groups of learners. They discovered that the cognitive perspective was insufficient.

They warned that individual difference constructs or aptitude complexes needed greater consideration of the joint functioning between cognitive, conative, affective, and social processes. These researchers were looking for a way to fit realistic aspects of mental life, such as mood, emotion, impulse, desire, volition, and purposive striving into primarily cognitive instructional models.

According to Cronbach, the best instruction involves treatments that differ in structure and completeness and high or low general ability measures. Highly structured treatments (e.g., high external control, explicit sequences and components) seem to "help students with low ability but hinder those with high abilities (relative to low structure treatments)."

C. Accounting for individual learning differences has especially increased in importance as learners transition to online learning and seek more personalized solutions. Unfortunately, over the years too many learners in the typical classroom setting have been taught to be overly dependent on the instructor. So how do you provide sequencing for more self-directed learners vs. those learners who have been taught to rely on instructors and the traditional skills learned in the classroom?

D. The neurosciences are highlighting how emotional impact (e.g., fear, frustration, passion, motivation, happiness) consistently appears to have a profound influence on learning maturity. Good instructors in the classroom intuitively consider these key human factors (e.g., gratification, satisfaction, boredom, and rewards) and adjust solutions (including sequencing) accordingly.

Instructors who tap into our drives, expectations, values, and goals are certainly more likely to get our attention and appreciation than those that overlook or override our wants and needs. As a result, the social relationships between the instructor, learners, peers, and environments are traditionally an integral part of the learning process--some learners depend more on these social and learning relationships than others.

For example, consider the instructor who knows that one learner loves to solve problems, is good at problem solving, and needs little assistance. In contrast, the same instructor may respond differently to another learner who hates solving problems, is not very good at it, and needs a different kind of support and encouragement. In this example, in addition to helping the learner solve a particular problem, the instructor's goal may also include encouraging the learner to improve overall problem solving ability long-term.

Our challenge is developing technology that can reliably support groups of learners with personalized instruction, measures, and targeted outcomes.

D. In conclusion, the discussion about sequencing instruction highlights the need for adequate scientific foundations that can account for critical sources for learning differences among groups of learners and provide the missing link to the instructional design process. This foundation must expand the typical educational studies, which primarily focus on the cognitive perspective with an updated biological perspective. The personalized frameworks contrast with the conventional focus on how learners think or process information differently, such as learning styles.

So what do we do in the meantime? The whole-person approach considers the impact of emotions and intentions on how individuals feel about learning and how they may want, intend, or need to learn differently. It also considers how sequencing instruction can help learners improve online learning ability and take increasing responsibility for managing and assessing their own learning. Additionally, it provides a scientific basis for understanding, predicting, and managing learning--for the instructors, learners, designers, and organizations-towards accomplishing common goals in addition to personal goals.

The learning orientation research explores the whole-person approach and seeks to contribute to the evolution of more reliable scientific foundations.

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Cronbach, L. (1975). Beyond the Two Disciplines of Scientific Psychology. "American Psychologist," 116-127.
Cronbach, L. (1957). The Two Disciplines of Scientific Psychology. "American Psychologist," 12, 671-684.
Cronbach, L. & Snow, R. (1977). Aptitudes and Instructional Methods: A Handbook for Research on Interactions. New York: Irvington Publishers.
Snow, R. (1989). Aptitude-Treatment Interaction as a framework on individual differences in learning. In P. Ackermann, R.J. Sternberg, & R.
Glaser (eds.), Learning and Individual Differences. New York: W.H. Freeman.
Kandel, Eric.
Ledoux, James (2002). Synaptic Self : How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Viking.
Marchese, Theodore J. The New Conversations About Learning: Insights From Neuroscience and Anthropology, Cognitive Science and Work-Place Studies. In Assessing Impact: Evidence and Action, pp. 79-95. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education.
Snow, R. (1987). Aptitude Complexes. In R. Snow & M. Farr (eds.), Aptitude, Learning and Instruction, Cognitive Process Analyses of Aptitude (Vol. 3, pp. 11-34). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.
Snow, R. (1980). Aptitude Processes. In R. Snow, P. Frederico, & W.
Montague (eds.), Aptitude, Learning and Instruction, Conative and Affective Process Analyses (Vol. 1, pp. 27-60). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum Associates.
Zull, J. (2002). The Art of Changing the Brain. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.


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Created by the Successful Learning Research Team.
Some projects were funded in part by the Society for Technical Communication
(STC Research Award, 1997-1998).
Copyright Margaret Martinez 1996-2002
Updated August 2002 by Margaret Martinez.
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