Human beings, unless they engage in the careful, systematic work and thinking that is the backbone of modern psychology, basically understand others by thinking others are like themselves. We project our inner experience on those around us.  Our internal experience is what is most readily available to us. It makes most sense to us. Believing that others experience things the same way we do follows straight forwardly.

Modern psychology has shown that this “others are like me” approach is in many ways successful at letting us get on with the business of daily life. The only time this approach gets us into trouble is when we interact extensively with another person. During such complex, lengthy interactions, the other person will communicate and behave in ways that may or may not line up with how we think they will. When the person does not, we learn that this person experiences things internally in ways that are different from our own.

So how is this relevant to learning? Well, educators do the same thing. They project their learning styles onto their students. If I want to know an educator’s learning style, I look at the way they teach. Educators teach the way they personally learn. Unfortunately, not all of their students learn share their personal learning style.

E-learning most do better than this. An e-learning program can potentially reach thousands of individuals. So how we, as e-learning designers and creators, get around this normal human tendency?

The best way is to use a model of learning that provides you with an explicit design framework that keeps you from doing this.  I use one of the following two models in my own work.

David Kolb’s Learning Style Model 

Kolb’s model has been available since 1984. It is widely used and referred to.

Google “Kolb learning styles” to find thousands of Internet references.

I use Kolb’s model as my guiding framework whenever I am designing e-learning programs that will be used by individuals. I explicitly include elements in the program that cover all 4 kinds of learning. I started to do this years ago, when building conventional learning programs. My practice simply migrated to my e-learning design work.

In some ways, this is a “shotgun approach. But since I have been doing this, my learning material received far higher ratings it did in the days when I simply projected my personal learning style onto people. I used to design learning material in a way that stressed my personal “concluding / learning from the experience learning (Abstract Conceptualization)” learning style preference.  I am no longer this naïve. (See my e-learning program on making e-learning course content design trade-off decisions (

My Development Styles Model

Roelf Woldring's Development Styles Framework

Roelf Woldring’s Development Styles Framework

I use the Development Styles framework whenever I am designing professional development programs that will involve individuals interacting in groups. I explicitly include activities that allow participants to engage in all four of the behaviors

  • Clarifies Verbally,
  • Clarifies Reflectively,
  • Validates Against Experience,
  • Validates Through Consistency

that define these 4 Development Styles.  Each person gets an opportunity to do what works best for that individual as a learner. I use this model because professional development normally includes know how to and know why elements as well as know that material.

  • Know That – facts and ideas – the kind of knowledge that is tested in simple multiple choice tests
  • Know How – ability to do, to ability an ability to do something – often a full body skills
  • Know Why – Understanding why to do or NOT do something – often involves values and value based principles

My goal in developing learning material is to maximize the “skill transfer back to the job” for each individual. Without the ability to “do what I am learning in a way that makes sense to me”, individuals may not transfer their learning successfully. If my professional development designs were limited to my personal development style – Conceptual Active, I run the risk of missing this goal for all those participants whose personal development style is different from my own

My goal in all my learning design and development work, whether or the web or for face to face programs, is first to create a great learning opportunity. But that is only a means to an end. My real goal is to get my participants to take it back to the job, even if that job is simply the day to day business of living life.

The Future of E-Learning – Dynamic Adaptive Presentation of Content

Just taking this simple step – consciously designing and including material that covers all of the learning dimensions in one of these two models will go a long way to increase the effectiveness of your e-learning programs. But this is only a first step. Whenever we have the budget, we need to do more, particularly if our learning objective is changing behavior on the job – whether that job is income oriented or just living day to day life.

We need to structure our e-learning content delivery in a way that explicitly matches each e-learner’s learning style. When we do that, we achieve the following.

  1. We maximize this person’s engagement during the time they are working on the program, which will lead to improved speed and ease of learning.
  2. We deepen retention, meaning that it will be easier for this person to take what they are learning and apply it back on the job.
  3. We increase their fun and enjoyment during the learning experience, energizing them to work through the strangeness that always accompanies learning new ways of doing things, and leaving old ones behind.

Determining a person’s learning style is not that hard to do. By using one of the models above, presenting participants with a few short scenarios based on it, and asking them to indicate which choices best describes how they like to learn, we can rapidly determine that individual’s learning style.

Once we know that, with a bit of background programming, we can present our learning material in a way that has been explicitly created to match this person’s learning style.

Of course, the cost during the development phase of our work will increase somewhat. But if we are already using a “shotgun” approach in our e-learning design and development, this increase will not be dramatic.

The day will come when this way of delivering e-learning will become the norm.  It maximizes the value of the learning experience for the learning. This is learner centric, rather than educator centric learning. Educators will stop projecting their personal learning style onto their e-learning program participants and become true learner-centric educators.

[1]McLeod, S. A. (2010). Kolb – Learning Styles. Retrieved from


[3]. Kolb’s model has been available since 1984. It is widely used and referred to. Google “Kolb learning styles” to find thousands of Internet references.

[4]See my previous writing on the differences between knowing that, know how to and knowing why – and how they impact developing learning programs on

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