Many of us remember from our college-level education courses about different learning styles, in which learners retain knowledge best depending on which sense they prefer. Various models of learning styles exist, but the one we all know is "visual, auditory or kinesthetic" (or VAK). In the classroom, some learn best through seeing (by reading text and watching images or video), others learn best through hearing (by listening to an instructor), and still others learn best through touching (by handling or manipulating objects).
Of course, the VAK model is a theory that describes how learners prefer one sense over another. In reality, effective learners apply all their available senses and cognitive abilities to gather information and process it into knowledge. Not applying one of the senses can lead to interrupted learning. For example, a learner who doesn’t pay attention during one minute of instruction—by deliberately not listening or by being distracted by an unrelated visual stimulus—could have difficulty understanding the instruction during the following minute.
All possible senses
When training employees in the classroom, we shouldn't rely on VAK or another model of learning styles. Instead of testing how they learn best and then focusing on providing the primary stimulus they prefer, it’s a good idea to appeal to all possible senses simultaneously. In other words, trainers must speak, display slides, use other audiovisual materials, hand out participant guides or reference materials, and lead lively discussions and role-playing exercises. If appropriate, the trainer can offer learners a hands-on lab with tools, devices or other objects to enable access to their sense of touch. In addition, introducing aromas that stimulate the sense of smell is becoming a valuable technique for increasing learner retention.
With elearning courses, on the other hand, learners apply their visual and auditory senses through reading text, listening to narration, and watching images, animation and video. Their kinesthetic sense is limited to things like touching the screen on a mobile device, clicking a computer's mouse, or dragging and dropping objects in an activity. After all, it's pretty difficult during self-paced learning to let employees handle the instruments or devices they’ll use on the job. Hands-on training must often be held at a different time and place.
Many other 'senses'
At the same time, elearning gives the instructional designer an opportunity to address many other “senses” that learners have. Here are just a few:
Their sense of purpose and understanding: A statement of purpose should specify why the course is important for learners, and it should be presented in a meaningful way. The statement should appear in the first few slides, and preferably backed up with research. For example, “The latest OSHA data shows that the improper use of safety equipment has resulted in thousands of deaths and injuries over the last five years.” While a list of topics or learning objectives is important for any course, it doesn’t take the place of the statement of purpose.
Their sense of wonder and enjoyment: Learners become more engaged if they find something that catches their attention and they weren’t expecting, such as a well-designed infographic or other image, an annotated cutaway view of a device, a thought-provoking exercise, a stimulating game, a compelling animation or an interesting video. They’ll experience apparently ordinary content in an entertaining way, and they’ll want to spend more time with the course.
Their sense of direction and location: Learners need easy-to-use tools that access topics or features at any time, so that they feel comfortable about where they are and where they’re headed. Such tools include the course’s table of contents, topic search function, forward and backward buttons on the control panel, slide numbers, a progress bar, and bookmarks (for returning to their most recent slide after exiting the course). If necessary, explain the navigational and other features at the beginning of the course.
Their sense of participation and interaction: Learners need to feel as if they’re participants in the learning experience, not passive guests. They can interact with the curriculum by adding to it, responding to knowledge questions by revealing what they knew before, as well as answer survey questions that ask about current practices within their department or organization. They can be given the option of learning multiple topics in the order they prefer, instead of going through the course from the first to the last slide. At the end of the course, they can complete an evaluation or rate their experience in an e-mail or social media post.
Their sense of accomplishment and self-confidence: Learners should complete a course knowing that they’ve achieved the objectives and feeling that they’ve mastered the curriculum. They might receive a personal certificate of completion that they can either print immediately or receive later by e-mail. Of course, they should also be informed if they’ve fallen short of success. In that case, they should be given the opportunity to review the course and even retake the exam.
Their sense of humor: Jokes, puns or other types of wordplay rarely have a place in online learning. As long as humor is used in moderation and with the intent to teach and not distract, you can often insert amusing anecdotes about misconceptions that learners might have about the subject matter. In addition, audio or video scenarios can demonstrate the wrong way of performing a task, communicating, or solving a problem. The humor they find in an inappropriate situation often enhances learning.