What are the different types of learning styles? And, as instructional designers, how can we design a course that fits these different kinds of learner needs? If you’re creating a course for a large enough group of people, such as at a big company, it may be worth it to send out a pre-course survey using your company’s LMS, then sign the trainee up for a course that is created with his or her learning style, background, and needs in mind.

And, while this may seem daunting, there are a few ways to divide groups of learners. And, using just one of these divisions in assigning your learners will help them become more successful.

External Vs. Internal Motivation

When I was a kid, we had a run-down piano in our living room. I remember spending hours trying to learn the piano, banging out notes, and trying to create music. I wanted to understand how the piano worked, how music worked, and was content exploring the piano for hours: my motivation for learning was internal.

musical notesTrying to be the good parent to my own 4-year old, I’ve been sending him to violin lessons, and practicing with him can be quite painful! He’s always moving around and doesn’t seem interested at all, no matter how much I tell him how much fun playing can be.

His teacher suggested that I turn practicing into a game: he works on a skill, and as a reward, he gets to jump around and be silly.

And the new approach has done wonders for my sanity!

The important point is that he and I are very different learners when it comes to music. I was and still am motivated by internal factors; for whatever reason, I’ve always loved music. For now, my son is motivated by the external factor of “fun”; and I’m hoping that as he gets better, he’ll find the internal motivation of loving to play an instrument.

How can an instructional designer benefit from knowing whether a particular learner is externally or internally motivated? In an eLearning course, external learners could be given a course which uses gamification, or some other reward for going through the course such as a course certificate or a small cash incentive. And if you’re lucky enough to wind up with a group of internally motivated learners, then providing extra optional course resources such as documents, videos, and links could be enough of a “reward.”

Ninja vs. Novice

Ninja working at a computerAnother way to divide learners is by how much they know going into the course. Are they ninjas in the topic, or have they just gotten started? Again, a pre-course survey could do wonders in finding out what learners know and what they just think they know.

In a traditional environment, having two separate courses based on someone’s knowledge is possible, but this could be challenging due to the logistics and cost of organizing two separate courses.

However, two separate online courses could much more easily be created. For example, much of the material could be similar, but the depth of the assessment questions could differ between the two courses. In addition, supplemental modules could be created which are designed to push those who already know a lot about the course material.

“Doing, Seeing, Hearing” learning styles

If I don’t actually work something out myself, I won’t understand it, no matter how easy the skill is. Other people I know can just watch someone else do it, and they seem to get it. Still others can hear someone talk about a concept and they seem to understand it automatically. And then there are others that really need some combination of the above to really understand a concept.

If you could get away with one type of learning style in creating your course, then your life is made much easier. However, since it might be a bit tough to figure out what style works for all of your learners, try to engage the different senses when creating your course. For an online course, you can use images to help your learners “see” the concept, video, to help your learners both “see” and “hear” the concept, and assessments, surveys, and forums to actively engage them in “doing” the concepts.


Learners don’t all learn the same way.  Different learners have different learning styles and it’s important for the instructional designer to address these different learning styles to help the learner become more successful.

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