Teaching & Learning

Design for Adult Learning, Teaching and Learning Theory, Feedback

A student with many questions

Design for adult learning

Ideally, the design of a course should allow students to customize the experience to meet their goals and complement their personal learning styles. Leonard and DeLacey draw two observations from an Adult Learning Workshop [*] held at Harvard Business School that are useful to keep in mind when designing enhanced, blended or fully-online courses:

  • students who already know the power of a classroom experience will not easily abandon that model for something new;
  • because humans have "certain, predictable preferences and capabilities in learning," some principles of learning span different academic methods.

They offer seven simple, yet valuable ideas that should be incorporated into the design of online courses:

  • Learning is a social activity: group activities and communities aid in the effectiveness of the learning experience because of the basic nature of human beings as social creatures.
  • Integrate learning into life: making connections to a student's work or life outside the classroom is critical because it provides a context in which the acquired knowledge can be used.
  • Enable learning by doing: practice is the best way for a student to truly gain mastery of a subject or concept.
  • Encourage learning by discovery: research indicates that people retain information longer when they are given the opportunity to realize ideas and solutions from their own understanding.
  • Remember that individuals have different mental receptors for material: coherence of new material somewhat depends on what a student may already know. This can both help and hinder learning, and an instructor needs to be cognizant of this fact when delivering material.
  • Make it fun: students who are engaged and involved are obviously more open to the learning experience. Fun is not just for children because a playful non-threatening environment also helps adult students benefit from the experience.
  • Build in assessment, but don't delude yourself into thinking you can measure learning: quantitative assessment becomes more difficult with increased content complexity. Also, some learning may take time to digest and is not accurately measurable within the temporal course.

[*] Leonard, D. and DeLacey, B. Designing Hybrid OnLine/In-Class Learning Programs for Adults. c.2002; http://www.hbs.edu/research/facpubs/workingpapers/papers2/0203/03-036.pdf

Factors to consider

Whether you teach in-person or online, careful consideration should be taken when designing the relationship between course goals, activities, and evaluation for engaged teaching and learning. Many instructors may have already thought of the following key factors, but it is good to revisit them in order to get a clear idea of the needs and goals for the design.

  • Motivation for the student: Why learn this? Where and when is this used? What are the payoffs for learning?
  • Motivation for the faculty: What are the reasons for developing this course? How can you create the best learning experience for the students?
  • Time: Preparing all materials ahead of time requires significant time commitment.
  • Pedagogical considerations: What pedagogical models and learning theories will you be incorporating into the teaching of the material?
  • Orientation: Help the student adjust to the environment or content being taught, i.e., preview, objectives, overviews, summaries, prerequisites, and schedule.
  • Information: The content the student needs to master, i.e., facts and evidence, demonstrations and skill steps, definitions and examples, evidence and cases, control and explain events, recall data, perform tasks, identify concepts and infer outcomes.
  • Application: How will the student demonstrate learning, i.e., practice, prompting, feedback, remediation?
  • Evaluation: How will you assess what the student has learned, whether the content was relevant, or whether the instructional method was appropriate?
  • Technical Competency: Are you comfortable with the technology used to deliver your course content? Will you need training or support?

Teaching styles

Instructors develop a teaching style based on their beliefs about what constitutes good teaching, personal preferences, their abilities, and the norms of their particular discipline. Some believe classes should be teacher-centered, where the teacher is expert and authority in presenting information. Others take a learner-centered approach, viewing their role as more of a facilitor of student learning.

Although individuals have a dominant, preferred teaching style, they will often mix in some elements of other styles. If you wish to take a more open approach to your teaching, a blend of various styles may be very effective.

Focus On: Content Learning

Seller or Demonstrator:


Works best with students who need little direction from the instructor, and/or those who accept responsibility for their own learning.

Example practice: Emphasis on independent learning activities for groups and individuals.

Coach or Facilitator:


Works best with students who accept responsibility for their own learning, enjoy working with their peers, and/or those who may become easily frustrated when facing new challenges not directly addressed in the classroom

Example practice: Role modeling and coaching/guiding students on developing and applying skills and knowledge


Professor or Expert/Formal Authority:


Works best with students who may become easily frustrated when facing new challenges not directly addressed in the classroom,  and/or students who may compete with peers for rewards and recognition

Example practice: Traditional Lectures

Entertainer or Delegator:


Works best with students who enjoy working with their peers, needing little direction from the instructor.

Example practice: Collaborative learning such as group work, peer review and other student-centered learning processes consistently emphasized in a course.

Indiana State University's Center for Teaching and Learning has developed an elaborate online resource about teaching styles and online teaching, based on the work of Anthony Grasha. (http://www.indstate.edu/cirt/id/pedagogies/styles/tstyle.html) Their web site includes:

  • an overview of teaching styles and instructional uses of the web;
  • teaching style inventory;
  • curriculum planning guidebook, divided by style;
  • outline of the styles and rhythms of the WWW;
  • discussion of using email, chat and discussion groups for different styles.

What is your teaching style?

Not all professors approach teaching in the same way. Major differences exist depending upon academic discipline, class size, and on individual instructor preferences. The Indiana State University Center for Teaching and Learning (LINK) has identified four teaching styles:

  • formal authority
  • demonstrator
  • facilitator
  • delegator

They offer an interesting discussion of instructional design for different teaching styles, "teaching rhythms" for each of the four different teaching styles, and "planning a web site" template for each teaching style. Brainstorming with fellow faculty members who have taught online before can help determine ways to apply technology and create the teaching and learning experience you desire. Questions to think about:

  • When you teach in the classroom, how do you facilitate interaction between the students? Do you have whole class discussions, break the class into groups, etc.?
  • When you teach in the classroom, how do you deliver the content to the students? Do you use powerpoint complete with audio and animation, black and white overheads, a chalkboard or video?
  • When you teach in the classroom, what sorts of interactive things do you use in the course? Do you have the students move their desks around to setup the classroom the way they want it?

Take a Teaching Style Inventory (http://fcrcweb.ftr.indstate.edu/tstyles3.html) from Indiana State University Center for Teaching and Learning to reflect on your teaching style.

What is learning?

Is learning product or process?

This section explores different orientations to learning. Exploring these diverse perspectives should help you think differently and more broadly about what learning means and how it happens. Teaching is not just telling, and learning is not just listening. The chart below provides a good overview of some of the main ideas related to learning theory. Many other theories are based on combinations of these basic theories. For example, the constructivist theory which is very popular now, draws heavily on the cognitive approach, but also combines elements of the theories below. Constructivism looks at learning as an active process in which the learner builds on prior knowledge to select and transform information based on their own cognitive structure (patterns of mental action that form intellectual activity).

For Four orientations to learning (after Merriam and Caffarella 1991: 138) see http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-learn.htm

For an index of learning theories, see http://www.learning-theories.com/learning-theories/.

Learning styles

There are differences in how people process information and learn. Constructivist, student-centered teaching focuses on teaching for understanding rather than covering the curriculum. Student-centered teachers create learning environments (in the classroom or online) which encourage learners to examine their current beliefs, enable them to explore and be exposed to new ways of thinking, and include experiences which require them to re-formulate their understanding. Instructors and designers of learning experiences should have an awareness of the diversity of learning styles which allow them to include features that appeal to different kinds of learners and help students get the most out of their learning experience. This approach need not be taken to the extreme, but often small modifications to a basic design can dramatically expand its utility for different learning styles. Instruction which focuses on development of the "whole brain", including intuition, sensing, imagination as well as analysis, reason and sequential problem solving, will reach a greater portion of students with various learning styles.


Learning Style Characteristics of students Strategies for instructors
Active "Let's try it"; sitting through lectures is difficult; likes to work in groups Discussions, problem-solving activities; students retain information better when doing something with it
Reflective "Let's think about it"; likes to work alone; lectures are difficult if not given time to 'digest' the information Provide time to think about the material, not just read & memorize;  write summaries, devise questions and possible applications of the content
Sensing Likes learning facts and using established methods, dislikes surprises; difficulty with abstract, theoretical material; good with details, memorizing fact and hands-on work Establish connection from material to the real world with examples of concepts and procedures, practical applications
Intuitive Discovers possibilities & relationships; likes innovation, good at grasping new concepts; works quickly Interpretations and theories which connect facts will help in learning; provide time to read questions thoroughly and recheck results
Visual Learns best from what is seen; a large percentage of the population are visual learners Incorporate meaningful pictures, diagrams, charts, timelines, video, demonstrations whenever possible; concept maps are good for listing key points and demonstrating relationships and can be color-coded
Verbal Learns best from the use of words Summarize or outline content verbally so that students can transcribe in their own words; working through ideas in groups can also be effective
Sequential Learn best in logical steps; linear format Break material down into smaller logical chunks; give overviews of material before getting into the content specifically
Global Digests material in leaps and bounds; tends to look at the big picture and tries to make connections to prior knowledge Provide overviews of material before getting into specifics; show how topics are related to other relevant course material or knowledge students may have from previous experiences 

Information for chart from: http://www.uncw.edu/cte/soloman_felder.htm

Another way to look at learning styles is to consider the more physical approach students may take to learning.

Dominant Learning Styles

  Characteristic Learn by Usually enjoy Instructors should use for emphasis Instructor should use for reinforcement Action words
Visual (about 65% of the population) Visual learners need to see what they are learning Watching Reading Charts, bold colors/patterns, outlines Writing notes, concept maps, graphics See, look, draw
Auditory (about 30% of the population) Auditory learners need to hear when they are learning Listening Discussing Key ideas through voice inflections, tones Speaking aloud Hear, say, speak
Kinesthetic (about 5% of the population) Kinesthetic learners need to move around while learning Doing Being physically involved Analogies, anecdotes,  examples Writing on flip charts and simulating tasks Feel, do, demonstrate

Find out your dominant learning style: http://www.ldpride.net/learningstyles.MI.htm

Multiple intelligences

When designing an educational experience, Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligence Theory can be employed by making a conscious effort to include activities that incorporate various abilities or "ways of knowing". Traditionally, instuctional methods tend to favor verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences, and don't focus on the arts, self-awareness, communication and physical education. By employing roleplaying, musical performance, cooperative learning, reflection, visualization, story telling, etc. as well as assessment methods that account for the diversity of intelligences, the learning experience can be richer for all students.


Type of Learner Likes to Is Good At Is Best At
-- the ability to use words and language

Word Player



Tell Stories


places, trivia, dates

Saying, hearing and seeing words

--The capacity for inductive and deductive thinking and reasoning, as well as the use of numbers and the recognition of abstract patterns



Works with numbers

Explores patterns

Math, logic, reasoning,
& problem
Categorizing, classifying, & working with abstract patterns
--the ability to visualize objects and spatial dimensions and create internal images and pictures


Draw, build, design


Watch Movies

Play with machines


Sensing Changes

Mazes & Puzzles

Map reading



Working with pictures

--The ability to recognize tonal patterns and sounds, as well as a sensitivity to rhythms and beats

Music Lover

Sing, hum

Play instruments

Listen to music

Respond to music

Picking up sounds

Noticing rhythms

Keeping time





--The wisdom of the body and the ability to control physical motion


Move around

Touch and talk

Use body language

Physical activities Moving

with space


--The capacity for person-to-person communications and relationships


Lots of friends

Talk to people

Join groups

Understanding people

Leading others







--The spiritual, inner states of being, self-reflection, and awareness


Work along

Pursue own interests

Understanding self

Following instincts


Pursuing goals


Self-paced instruction

Individual projects

own space

Feedback and learning theory

Motivational feedback can provide engagement. A friendly personalized "Welcome!" the moment you log in to a course helps you feel like the system knows you are there. A "Thank You!" message when you turn in an assignment provides a polite and and motivating response. Such feedback is not related directly to learning or to helping the learners' sense of understanding, remembering or performing the ideas to be learned, but it may help with motivation and a sense of presence.

"Check your answer," "please rate the usefulness of this page," "really good comment!" "your grade: 3.5," "tell the group your opinion" and "watch this video about drinking and driving" are all different kinds of feedback. Here are some approaches to tie feedback to theories of learning:

  • Behaviorism: positive and negative reinforcers. Behaviorists would engineer feedback in the form of positive and negative reinforcers for learner behaviors, with the goal of encouraging desired behavior and discouraging undesired behavior. Software which punishes users for wrong answers and rewards for right answers is one example.
  • Cognition: check if knowledge was received, check for schema revision. Educators who have particular facts and ideas they are trying to teach provide feedback as to whether learners are "getting it right."
  • Social & Situational: observe consequences to models. Social learning feedback can take the form of learners having the opportunity to observe others (real or video or cartoon etc.) modeling behavior and experiencing consequences. This kind of feedback helps learners decide whether or not to engage in such behaviors themselves.
  • Constructivism: check what knowledge was constructed. Constructivists want to understand what kind of knowledge constructions are happening within the learner, even though there is no emphasis on right or wrong.
  • Collaborative Learning: compare notes with other learners. Collaborative learners float ideas to others and gauge their reactions, and listen to what others are thinking in order to compare it to their own ideas. Sometimes peer review can be set up to encourage further thinking.

 Creative Commons License
Teaching Online (Teaching Styles) by Michigan State University Board of Trustees is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 United States License.