Differentiated Instruction Based on Learning Styles and Resources in the Online Classroom: A Case Study in Higher Education

The online classroom is a popular offering for higher educational institutions. According to the eLearning Industry, “Today, e-Learning is a $56.2 billion industry, and it’s going to double by 2015…Today, it’s estimated that about 46% college students are taking at least one course online. However, by 2019, roughly half of all college classes will be eLearning-based.” (e-Learning Industry, 2014).

Differentiated Instruction and the Online Course Shell

Differentiated instruction entails various forms of instruction based on various factors related to the learning preferences and needs of the students. It is most popularly attributed to Carol Ann Tomlinson and Jay McTighe. According to Tomlinson and McTighe (2006), “Differentiated instructions offers a framework for addressing learner variance as a critical component of instructional planning.” These variances or factors can stem from brain research, multiple intelligences, culture, language, ability/disability, gender, learning styles, and more. (Jakubow-Rashtchian, 2015) For the purpose of this paper, differentiated instruction based on learning styles in the higher education online classroom will be explored.

Differentiated instruction may be challenging in the online classroom. The online classroom is typically created via a course shell that has included in it all the standard curriculum, objectives, material and assignments. Typically instructional designers will work with subject matter experts to create this material based on the course objectives that have been approved and accredited by an accreditation board. A template will be followed and the material will be created to populate the course shell. A survey of educational institutions with online classrooms to gather statistics on what elements are included in their course shell is an area for further research.

Most often the online shell has in it a syllabus which may or may not be interactive, lecture material which may or may not include multimedia such as videos, audio or be live, discussion questions and assignments which depending on the school and subject matter may include hands-on activity type assignments. The following is a table that I constructed that overviews several schools that I have worked at and their course shell components and platform.



Individual instructors usually cannot change any items in the course shell. This is so as to promote a standard delivery of the course curriculum based on the approved and accredited objectives. These requirements can be found in the contract of employment with the institution, as well as, the editing capabilities in the course shell itself.

This author maintains that the course shell should contain resources for all learning styles to promote differentiated instruction to the extent as based on learning styles. Even if an instructor has some ability to add to the course in a differentiated instructional manner, the standard, quality and frequency may not be the same as if it were implemented by the institution in the course shell itself. In order for differentiated instruction to be effective it must follow the framework recommended by Tomlinson and McTighe (2006). As a course shell standardizes curriculum, objectives and material, it can also standardize differentiated instruction based on all learning styles.

As case studies were analyzed and one conducted for this paper, the relevance of learning styles were not as apparent as thought. But, there were favored learning resources which that in itself should warrant more research into what should be included in all course shells for optimal effectiveness. A standard that addresses all these issues should be proposed.

Differentiated Instruction Based on Learning Styles

The term “learning styles” refers to the concept that individuals differ in regard to what mode of instruction or study is most effective for them. (Pashler et Al, 2008). However, with their in depth study on learning style literature, it was concluded by Pashler et al that “Our review of the learning-styles literature led us to define a particular type of evidence that we see as a minimum precondition for validating the use of a learning-style assessment in an instructional setting. As described earlier, we have been unable to find any evidence that clearly meets this standard.”

(VARK, 2015)


According to Natalie Milman in “Differentiating Instruction in Online Environments” “there are many diverse ways in which one might differentiate the content, process, and product of instruction in an online environment.”(9) For the online classroom, the didactic can be represented in the online lectures, reading resources and glossaries. The authentic pedagogy can be represented in the discussion boards and question and answer forums. The transformative pedagogy can be represented by the discussion forums, chat, social media networks, and group projects.

When offering differentiated instruction based on learning styles, many of the resources preferred by Verbal and Visual leaners are already included. There are lectures in written form which may include visuals and also be in audio form for the Auditory learner. Discussion questions are in written form that cater to the Read/Write learner. Assignments are typically papers or presentations.

For this case study, the students were asked for their preference in resources based on their acknowledged learning style. The learning styles used for this case study are those depicted in the Neil Fleming’s VAK/VARK model.

Landrum and McDuffie (2010) in, “Learning Styles in the Age of Differentiated Instruction., “argue that instruction should indeed be individualized and differentiated”. In regards to learning styles in the online classroom, this author proposes that at the very least all learning styles can be addressed with the following resources: material can be presented via textbooks, articles and transcripts for the verbal learner, visual diagrams and media for the visual learner, presentation recording and podcasts for the audio learner, interactive activities for the kinesthetic learner.

A case study conducted by Lori Mestre, in “Matching Up Learning Styles with Learning Objects: What’s Effective?”, (2010) describes the results when she surveyed groups are involved in instruction, information learning and online learning. The majority of the participants were librarians.

“In the summer of 2009, a survey was distributed to various library online discussion groups that had a focus on instruction, information literacy, or online learning. The questions were geared to find out considerations that librarians make when designing learning objects as well as their knowledge of learning styles. There were 120 responses, with 98% of the respondents indicating they were academic librarians. There were eight questions related to design considerations, six questions specifically about learning style considerations, and four questions related to assessment of the learning objects. Sixteen of the eighteen questions were multiple-choice, and each contained an option to choose “Other” and add additional information.”

(Mestre, 2010)


“Though the majority of librarians choose only one approach to their learning style considerations, one-fifth of the respondents claim that they use multiple approaches in tutorial design. The largest response was for visual and audio (narrating screens) such as with Camtasia and Captivate. “(Mestre, 2010)

Learning Styles and the Online Classroom

There are various studies that have been conducted for the online environment in regards to learning styles and instructional strategies.

A study was conducted in 2004 by Akdemir and Koszalka (Akdemir & Koszalka, 2008) where “Researchers investigated differences in learner preferences for different types of instructional strategies and learning styles in online environments. Results suggested that matches between students’ learning styles and instructional strategies did not affect their perception of their own learning outcomes, level of effort and involvement, and level of interactions in the course. Data also indicated that no single instructional strategy, among three instructional strategies tested, emerged as superior for high and low field dependent online students.” Based on this study, students did not perceive an affect by their learning styles.

Another study was conducted by Ünal Çakıroğlu in 2008,”The results of this study showed significant relationships between the students’ learning styles, study habits, and performances in online learning, and have offered an insight into the mode of delivery. The design of effective courses for distance learners is most likely to be in connection with the characteristics and preferences of the learner, as it is in the classroom. It was seen that the learners usually show characteristics of assimilators in online synchronous settings. However, the results have shown that the “divergers and accommodators” styles were associated with higher learning scores in synchronous settings. Another common characteristic of the good students was “feeling” according to the results of this study. So I suggest this for programming language learning, with online synchronous settings, and the students’ active involvement to have positive feelings and to improve their learning performances.”

According to a study conducted by Surjono (2015), it was concluded that “In an non-adaptive e-learning system, students in which their actual multimedia preferences and learning style matched with the way the material presented in online electronics course have higher achievement scores compared to those in which their learning mode were mismatched.”

In an article in USA News (2014), Consider Your Learning Style Before Signing Up for an Online Course, a study commissioned by Everest College in January of 2014 found that 52% of the students believe hands-on training is the best learning way.”(USA News, 2014).

In regards to the above case studies, there is no direct supporting correlation to learning styles and learning outcomes according to Pashler, Akdemir and Koszalka, but there are case studies like the one that I did which support the findings of Ünal Çakıroğlu, Surjono and Everest College showing the preferred or effective learning resources by online students.

For my case study the majority of students are kinesthetic learners. As stated on the Illinois Online Network, Instructional Design, Learning Styles and the Online Environmentkinesthetic learners learn best with hands-on activities.

“Tactile/Kinesthetic/ These people learn best when doing a physical “hands-on” activity. In the classroom, they prefer to learn new materials in lab setting where they can touch and manipulate materials. They learn best in physically active learning situations. They benefit from instructors who use in-class demonstrations, hands-on learning experiences, and fieldwork outside the classroom. Online environments can provide learning opportunities for tactile/kinesthetic learners. Simulations with 3-Dimensional graphics can replicate physical demonstrations. Lab sessions can be conducted either at predetermined locations or at home and then discussed online. Also, outside fieldwork can be incorporated into the coursework, with ample online discussion both preceding and following the experience. Finally, the online environment is well suited for presentation and discussion of either group or individual projects and activities.”

Therefore, additional discussion will be made on interactive assignments, games, simulations, and competency based education using technology. These are based on the characteristics of tactile/kinesthetic learners. In addition, assessment strategies will also be discussed being that assessment needs to mirror the mode of instruction and learning for optimal accuracy.

The Case Study

The Case

A case study was conducted for this paper where online students of higher education were surveyed on the length of time they were an online student or have taken online courses, what was their predominate learning style and the ranking of learning resources based on their effectiveness.

The Sample

A survey was offered to 142 online students from 5 different higher educational institutions with a post in the online classroom. (University of Phoenix, Rasmussen College, Devry University, South University Online, University of Illinois). 31% or 44 students responded. Survey Monkey ™ was used as the survey provider.

The Survey

The survey contained three questions. The first was the length of time they were online students or have taken online courses. The second asked them to identify their learning style. The third was to rank 10 online resources based on their effectiveness where the first choice was the most effective and the last choice was the least effective.

Question 1
Question 2
Question 3

The Results

For Question 1, the results as displayed below, most of the student have taken online course for 1-2 years, 47.73% . The next major tally was for students taking courses for less than a year. 36.36%. 15.91% of the students took online courses for 3-4 years and none of the students took online courses for more than 4 years.

Question 1 Results

For Question 2, The Kinestetic Learning Styles appears to be the major predominate learning style identified by the students at 34.09%. There was a tie between Visual and Verbal learning styles at 27.27% and a. 11.36% for Aural Learners.

Question 2 Results

For Question 3, the most popular learning resource came in highest where 45.45% of the students chose the hands-on interactive activities as their perceived most effective learning resource. Instructional videos came in next at 22.73% for their first choice. For the second choice, Instructional Videos and Discussions were tied at 22.73%. For the third choice, Live Lectures were preferred at 22.73% with a close second for Discussions at 20.73%.

Question 3 Results
Question 3 Results


For this case study, there was a low rate of completion where only 44 out of 142 students surveyed completed the survey. The results of this case study was from a low response rate. The results may be very different depending on the results of the 69% that did not respond. What may be the reasons as to why the other 69% did not respond? Another issue is that correlation needs to be done between learning styles and learning resource rankings, as well as, if the student’s choice of learning resource is perceived as being based on their perceived learning style. Also, depending on what online institution a student attended would determine what learning resources were made available to them to accurately rank the learning resources. Perhaps some of them have never experienced a particular learning resource in the list. Furthermore, the student may not have correctly identified their learning style. Elements for a future case study should have the students complete the VARK questionnaire to get a more accurate identification of their learning style. Furthermore, consideration for multimodality should be taken into a account. Students may have a predominate learning style, but experience a multimodal expression when it comes to the online classroom. Or merely, just a survey of preferred learning resources by the online student would suffice as the guidance and direction for the online course shell components.


Being that this study identified the kinesthetic learner as the predominate learning style identified by the students at 34.09% and the students chose the hands-on interactive activities as their perceived most effective learning resource. Instructional videos came in next at 22.73% for their first choice. For the second choice, Instructional Videos and Discussions were tied at 22.73%. For the third choice, Live Lectures were preferred at 22.73% with a close second for Discussions at 20.73%. Having an online course shell that includes interactive activities, instructional videos, discussions and live lectures would be an optimal response.

Jessica Roberts (2015) in, Differentiated Instruction Systems, offers a chart of different programs to use with learners of varying learning styles (multiple intelligences). The characteristics of the kinesthetic learner are outlined as follows:

  • “constructing things
  • physical activity
  • hands on activities
  • take pictures
  • act
  • manipulate objects
  • movement” (Roberts, 2015)

For the online environment, addressing the characteristics of the kinesthetic learner is often replicated through virtual simulations and interactive activities, videos or games. It does take additional time and cost to create these resources. Having a multimedia production department working with the Instructional Designer and Subject Matter Expert may aid in creating these effective resources.

For some course subjects it is easier than others to create hands-on, interactive assignments. but for these and others, a framework and strategy is most helpful in the creation of academically sound and rigorous simulations and interactivity.

For Univiersity of Illinois, some courses use CG Scholar, which offers an online environment with the following components: “Community – a peer dialogue space (free); Creator – a multimodal writing and feedback space (free); Publisher – a space to organize projects, from drafting, to feedback, to revision, to web publication (a modest license fee);Analytics– knowledge analytics (free); Bookstore – bringing to you articles, books, and learning modules (many for free)” (CG Scholar, 2015). In Creator, esepecially, students are reviewers as well as writers and researchers. This adds an effective hands-on component to the writing process in addition to the innovative strategies present in all the components.

For Colorado Technical Institute Online (CTU), the course shell contains practice, non-graded, interactive activities for each week for all courses. The practice interactive activity can range from drag and drop activities to short answer with pattern matching assessment, simulations with assessment on paths chosen. They are included to help the students prepare for the graded assignments.

Rasmussen College is launching competency based education flex options into their degree programs. It will involve simulations and project based scenarios to highlight competency and skill level at a higher cognitive level. In their press release, (2014), “Self-Paced, Competency-Based Courses Add Flexibility; Decrease Time and Cost of Earning a Degree”, they describe the compnents of these new courses.

“In the innovative Flex Choice learning option, students enrolled in at least two faculty-led courses can choose from a library of self-paced, competency-based courses at no additional cost. The interactive, self-paced courses allow students to demonstrate the valuable workforce skills most sought after by today’s employers, such as customer service, conflict resolution and digital communication. Students have the opportunity to practice what they’ve learned through role-playing scenarios that simulate everyday work experiences. Students can also move quickly through the courses and concepts they understand, or slow down and opt for support from academic coaches who are available to answer questions throughout their learning experience. Students receive credit for the course once they demonstrate they have mastered the skills and concepts.” (Rasmussen College, 2014)

Various higher education institutions are moving towards these self-adaptive and paced degree programs such as Intellipath (CTU), Flex Options (Rasmussen), Flexible Options (University of Wisconsin) and various other Universities as discussed in the article in US News (2014), Competency-Based Learning Provides Perks for Online Students.

Using simulation and games as described by Adrienne Fisher, in Simulation/Gaming, is more than just games for fun. Games are not just there for the mere purpose of making the experience more enjoyable as described by some who are opposed to games in education. They are complex learning systems.

“They are immersive virtual worlds that are augmented by a more complex external environment that involves communities of practice, the buying and selling of game items, blogs, and developer communities. In many ways, games have become complex learning systems.” (Oblinger, 2006) There are many ways to teach a lesson but by using a Simulation we are able to utilize Ubiquitous learning, Multimodal meaning and Recursive Feedback.” (Fisher, 2015)

In order for games to be conducive to meaningful instruction and learning they must contain various components as discussed by Philip Donner in Games in Education.

“The proper implementation of games is critical for ensuring that the knowledge and skills students learn in the game itself are easily transferred to other situations outside the game environment and connections are able to be made to the wider body of learning. As with any tool, the manner in which it is utilized will help determine its effectiveness. Teachers face the challenge of making sure that the game is actually contributing to and enhancing learning. As with any technology, games cannot stand on their own. Digital games should not be used as substitutes for good learning practice, rather they should supplement that practice. Games should be used in the proper context which includes “leading pre- and post-game discussions which connect the game with other things students are learning in class” (McClarty, 2012).” (Donner, 2015)

With the inclusion of these various resources for the kinesthetic learner, it is important that the assessment mirrors the mode of instruction and learning. This may prove as challenging if not more than those encountered when creating these advanced modes of instruction and learning.

As Daniel Fales states in, Project Based Learning Assessment, “Assessing project based learning can be challenging and time consuming but has the potential to yield a greater depth of assessment of a student’s understanding. Assessment of project based learning is not a separate occurrence existing outside the project’s work. It is an ongoing recording and observation by teachers and by students in the context of self assessment, peer assessment, and group assessment while journeying through the process of accomplishing the goal. It it a multi-faceted approach to assessment pulling evidence from the learner’s own reflections and that of his or her peers as well as the teacher’s own observations and of course, the final product’s evaluation.”

In Maura Brand’s paper on Simulation-Based Assessment, there is discussion on the use of ECD as the foundation for simulated assessment.

“ECD begins with the claim space stage where designers and educators consider students’ knowledge – what they should know and how they should know it. In theevidence stage, designers and educators identify acceptable evidence of knowledge and how they will analyze and interpret the evidence. For the task/situation stage, designers and educators determine how the students will communicate their knowledge. As needed, the team moves forward and backward to refine the design to obtain accurate measurable evidence (“Navigating Change”, 2012). (Brand, 2015)

In Sol Roberts-Lieb, Paper, Automated Essay Assessment many tools are offered to automate essay assessment. But, as with every innovation, there are the pros and cons that may reduce its effectiveness and hinder its recognition.

In addition to innovations in assessment to mirror the innovations through differentiated instruction in the online environment, continued research and implementation of learning analytics would prove to be most useful in identifying what resources are most effective for learning.

As stated by Jason Ertz (2015), in Learning Analytics, “It is the process of taking all the data being produced and collected by the technologies, activities, and assessments used for learning and using them to measure and provide feedback on the progress of particular learning outcomes. This process is also interested in making the feedback loop much shorter, and in turn, more useful to the learner and the teacher. The feedback loop in learning assessment (grading and evaluation) historically has been difficult to speed up and, in turn, act upon before the learning outcome/lessons have ended. The learner and teacher can act on analysis that would suggest remediation, review, or advancement into particular disciplines.”

Through learning analytics, as it identifies progress on learning outcomes, the learning resources and methods used can also be analyzed as to their effectiveness to meeting the learning outcomes and may even be correlated to learning styles.


For the results of this study, the results concur with those of Everest College (USA News, 2014) and Ünal Çakıroğlu (2008). 45.45% of the students chose the hands-on interactive activities as their preceived most effective learning resource. Instructional videos and Discussions came in next at 22.73%.

With these statistics, it is concluded that hands-on activities and instructional videos need to be included in all course shells in addition to the usual course shell template for an optimal learning environment. Further analysis needs to be made to correlate the learning resource choices with the learning styles if deemed fruitful.

As maintained by Akdemir and Koszalka (2008) through their case study and Pashler (2008) et Al, through their literature review of learning styles, there is no evidence to support a correlation between learning styles and learning outcomes as perceived by students. Further study and analysis needs to be conducted for verification.

As stated by Mestre (2008), “The results of the study indicate that students recommend the use of multiple modalities in the design of learning objects. They prefer that the learning objects include both images and sound, are visually engaging, and are available at point-of-need, with some way to pick and choose sections to review. In previous student usability studies, students did better on the post tests when they had something active to do in the tutorial. However, it appears that many classes are still mainly verbal.”

Perhaps the best solution is to just make sure that all course shells include activities that are preferred by online students. Understanding learning styles has allowed for the innovation of and insight into the available types of instruction and learning possible. This will help to accommodate all students as based on Surjono’s (2015) findings.

Statistical analysis can be done over a period of time to verify the frequency of and effectiveness in the usage of the various learning resources to perhaps recommend further action for those that are not used or deemed effective as proposed through learning analytics. Furthermore, consideration for multimodality should be taken into a account. Students may have a predominate learning style, but experience a multimodal expression when it comes to the online classroom.


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