Resist the myth of the one-size-fits-all learning modality

A commitment to multi-modal learning is better than grasping for single-modality solutions that don’t deliver.

By Karen Hebert-Maccaro
May 29, 2018
Dandelion Dandelion (source: klimkin via Pixabay)

Picture this: A usually introverted but passionate learning professional finishes reading yet another proclamation that the key to effective learning is found in one delivery format or another. She sits there with a rising sense of frustration. What does she do? Well if the introverted-but-passionate learning pro is me, she mounts a proverbial soapbox and begins shouting:

“Fellow lovers of learning. It’s time to stop the silver-bullet madness. We must abandon our obsession with the one-size-fits-all approach to learning.”

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Oh I know, we say we reject one-size-fits-all notions, but in the very same breath we proclaim micro-learning as the “solution” or we design entire learning ecosystems around e-learning modules. Neither of these modalities is inherently bad—both can be done terrifically well and pitifully poorly. This is true of all modalities.

Modality is only the delivery mechanism, and while delivery matters very much, it isn’t where the single answer to learning success lies. Spoiler alert: There isn’t a single answer at all.

The truth is, the most effective learning opportunities come from multi-modal experiences.

Why is multi-modal important?

We now know that most of the research on learning styles has been insufficiently designed to suggest individuals experience real advantage to learning in one modality (e.g. auditory vs. visual) than another. In fact, cognitive science research suggest that retention and recall is improved by multiple modality learning. This is sometimes called the “context effect” and it not only speaks to the modality through which you consume content but also where you are when you consume it as well as other environmental variables. Varying your approach to learning on all levels of context increases the likelihood of retention. In other words, if “it” is something you wish to learn and you read about it, then watch something about it, then take a self-assessment on it, you are more likely to learn it than you are if you only read something about it.

So by all means, pursue micro-learning, virtual reality programs, text content, augmented reality solutions, or video courses, but don’t fall into the trap that any one of them is the answer. They may all be. Look for ways to select modalities that fit your content, learning objectives, learners’ needs, and budget, and then vary it up. After all, variety is the spice of life, right? And your learners will appreciate you for it because they will learn more and apply more of their learning. And that is what we’re all shooting for in the end anyway.

Post topics: O'Reilly Learning