The COVID-19 pandemic created an educational environment that had never been seen before. Many students –– and instructors –– were abruptly forced to transition from traditional classroom learning to adopt a new remote format. It accelerated the emergence of a new dynamic learning environment, where students learn in innovative ways far different from how education systems were originally designed. With advancements in technology and the rise of remote learning, classrooms are being remodeled and redefined to fit the evolving needs of modern digital learners.
But if there’s one thing that educators have learned over the last two years, it’s that a one-size-fits-all approach to instruction doesn’t work when you want to empower everyone to succeed in the classroom. Many educators were forced to rethink how to keep students engaged, and pandemic-era learning has only further highlighted the importance of differentiated instruction.
The forced disruption was also the catalyst for students and teachers to quickly acquire digital skills that are ripe to be amplified, taking them from consuming skills to creating skills. As teachers integrate technology into their lesson plans, they’re discovering various classroom tools effective in reaching and enriching the minds of all types of students—from visual and auditory to kinesthetic learners.
Five Principles of Learning
Before exploring how technology can alleviate pressure from teachers to deliver the right teaching and learning environment that accommodates various learning styles, it’s important to home in on Merrill’s Principles of Instruction. David Merrill studied various instructional design theories and models to identify a number of principles common to each. In his research, Merrill established five instructional principles that can be applied when designing a program or practice to achieve effective and efficient instruction across the various learning styles. In short, Merrill’s principles highlight that learning is promoted when:
- Learners are engaged in solving real-world problems;
- Existing knowledge is activated as a foundation for new knowledge;
- New knowledge is demonstrated to the learner;
- New knowledge is applied by the learner;
- New knowledge is integrated into the learner’s world.
These five principles outline the power of hands-on learning in each form, where each individual student makes real meaning of the process. It’s never been more important for educators to incorporate these principles into classroom practice and curriculum design, which employs STEM-thinking over siloed content understanding, to prepare students for an increasingly digital future.
Visual learners are at their best when they first see what they’re expected to know. These students are partial to seeing and observing vivid displays and can be engaged through the use of images, presentations and videos. Also known as “spatial” learners, these students might draw, make lists or take notes in order to interact and process information. Thinking back to Merrill’s Principles of Instruction, visual learners will absorb information more effectively when they see a prime example, typically through demonstration. For example, a visual demonstration of the task that outlines each step, and explores associated behaviors and skills.
Teachers can use technology to produce these visual aids to help students understand lessons. For instance, interactive displays allow teachers to apply the demonstration principle by showcasing educational videos, online tutorials, or even rich infographics that showcase main ideas. Closed captioning with videos can also enhance student engagement in the classroom. Using visual and auditory learning aids in tandem can help increase student’s retention of new information, with studies suggesting that captions can help improve students’ comprehension of topics and consequently, test scores.
Additionally, teachers can further engage with visual learners by pushing images, videos, and text-based content from their own devices while students efficiently take notes in class and follow along with lesson plans through eye-catching graphic elements. Large vivid displays can also be used for virtual field trips anywhere in the world, creating immersive and memorable experiences for the students.
This technology also enables a more seamless experience for teachers when presenting classroom materials. Teachers can use interactive displays to take screenshots of their lessons, instantly saving them and sending them to the whole class when needed. This flexibility allows visual learners to reference course material at their own time and pace, ensuring visual students’ unique learning styles are met.
Students with auditory learning styles learn best by the transfer of information through listening: to the spoken word, of self or others, of sounds and noises. These students would much rather listen to a lecture than read written notes and often use their voices to reinforce new concepts and ideas. Teachers have the ability to record lessons to share with students once class is over. Creating audio content for auditory learners is incredibly beneficial to students, as it allows them to easily reference recordings of previous lessons to relisten and process information at their own rate.
Additionally, by focusing on Merrill’s “activation” principle, teachers can emphasize the importance of linking new information to past experiences, enhancing the meaning and relevancy of new ideas and concepts. This can be done through an active conversation that discusses how new subject matters relate to real-world examples, simulations, or by telling stories that meld the old with the new. Classroom technology provides many methods of audio engagement, with standard examples including sound from computers and TVs, or through interactive displays with built-in speakers. Additionally, teachers can better engage with auditory learners by allowing enough time after a lesson to discuss or set up smaller breakout groups, as these students tend to want to hear what others have to say and share their ideas to learn and process information.
Kinesthetic learners, sometimes called tactile learners, need to perform interactive activities to understand new concepts. They thrive off of physical, hands-on experiences –– touching, feeling, holding, doing. These students learn to perform a new task by going ahead and trying it out and learning as they go. Based on Merrill’s Principles of Instruction, kinesthetic learners can be engaged through the application of skills and information they’ve learned in the form of interactive problem-solving and task performance. For example, these learners can be encouraged to carry out each step of the task or lesson plan on their own, allowing them to see the challenges and obstacles first hand. They gain the knowledge and experience they need to solve the problem in the real world.
Chalk and dry-erase markers can do the basics, but the creative tools brought on by interactive displays can garner student attention and engagement. Writing with a stylus allows for a variety of pen colors, styles and widths, allowing kinesthetic learners to feel as if they are writing on paper. But going beyond the traditional chalkboard or whiteboard, these Images can be captured, cropped and edited right on the screen. Creativity is unleashed when students can enhance visuals or create original work using a brush—just like working in watercolor or oil painting in art class, but digitally.
While many schools have transitioned back to entirely in-person learning, one in five schools still plan to offer remote learning as an option for students and parents. It’s good news for a new type of learner that emerged from the pandemic—the online learner who has thrived in the remote classroom. It’s just as important for educators to ensure these students feel connected and develop at the same pace as their peers. According to Merrill’s Principles of Instruction, the key with online learners is to ensure they’re playing an active role in the learning process, instead of sitting idly by while information is presented. The principle of engagement can be adopted in a myriad of ways, including working together in online groups to see things from different perspectives to participating in interactive scenarios autonomously.
A cohesive mix of displays, learning platforms and video conferencing can bridge in-person and remote learning in a seamless way where teachers feel like they’re teaching a single blended classroom. For instance, one interactive display can be placed at the front of the classroom to serve as a presentation screen and whiteboard, while a second display shows the remote learners just like another row in a classroom. Teachers have the ability to call on remote learners just like their in-person peers to answer questions as if they were physically together. A webcam can be placed on the second display to enhance the experience for remote learners, enabling them to see what’s happening in the classroom. Finally, everyone uses a single learning platform to answer questions, collaborate on assignments, take quizzes and more, emphasizing a collaborative, hybrid environment. The result is more inclusivity in a highly interactive classroom where everyone has appropriate opportunities to excel.
Understanding these different learning styles doesn’t end in the classroom. By equipping students with tools in their formative years, teachers are empowering them for their futures. Innovative edtech tools have proven instrumental in engaging students in the classroom, be it in-person or virtually. As we learn from the lessons from the past two years, it’s clear that the classroom of the future is closer than ever.
The success of online opportunities has led to new possibilities and greater reception of facilitating an enriching learning environment that accommodates students of varying learning styles. No two students learn the same way, but with the right tools, educators can address diversity in learning styles and experiences.