Research Summary

Implications of learning style, age group, and gender for developing online learning activities

Children and Adults Have Different Preferences in Online Activities

Visitor Studies

Although many organizations are developing more online learning opportunities, surprisingly little research has been done to understand people’s preferences for different types of online activities. The researchers who completed this study—a collaborative team of media developers and museum researchers—asked this question: What is the relationship between learning style, age, gender, and preference for learning activity?

The team surveyed and interviewed 154 middle school children at a Philadelphia science museum and at a nearby school. The general public was also offered an almost identical online survey through links on 13 museum websites. Everyone surveyed was asked to: answer questions that assessed their learning style, rank six types of online activities according to their preference, try sample activities, and rate the sample activities.

The surveys included a learning style inventory based on Kolb’s experiential learning theory. According to this theory, learners fall along two axes. One axis represents perception, and ranges from concrete experience to abstract conceptualization. The other axis, processing, ranges from experimentation to reflective observation. Based on a person’s responses to the questions in the inventory, he or she can be placed in one of four quadrants related to his or her position along these two axes.

The four quadrants represent four basic types of learning
styles. The authors of this paper have simplified the names
of the learning styles and describe them as:
Social learners, who are action-oriented and prefer to tackle problems within a group
Creative learners, who are imaginative, open-minded, and seek out multiple points of view
Practical learners, who are both thinkers and doers, enjoy experimentation and technical challenges, and are goaloriented
Intellectual learners, who are organized and logical, enjoy reading and contemplation, and find facts and information fascinating

The six types of online activities the researchers offered people were:
Design activities, which use open-ended inquiry and experimentation
Interactive reference activities, which allow self-directed browsing of multimedia content
Puzzle-mystery activities, in which users use evidence in logical reasoning to reach a solution
Role-play, in which users adopt a persona and interact with others
Simulation, which allows users to manipulate a model in order to understand something complex
Discussion, in which users communicate with each other and experts

In all, over 1,000 middle school students and 1,000 adults took the survey. About 350 high school students also took the survey, but because the sample was small, and because their scores consistently fell between the adult and middle-school scores, their data were omitted.

The researchers found that the learning styles were not evenly distributed. Practical learners (39% of children and 35% of adults) were far more common than creative learners (8% of children and 9% of adults). Learning style was also more firmly established in adults. When plotted in quadrants, the children’s learning styles tended to cluster near the origin, while the adults extend out farther, suggesting that the children were more flexible and less consistent in their responses while the adults were more consistent and set with their responses. In children, there was no significant difference in learning style between males and females, but among adults, females were more likely to have a social learning style.

Among the children, just two learning styles showed a preference for a certain type of activity: social learners preferred discussion while intellectual learners preferred interactive reference. Among adults, however, all four learning styles were associated with a specific preference: creative learners preferred discussion, intellectual learners preferred interactive reference, practical learners preferred puzzle-mystery, and social learners preferred role-play. The researchers’ conjecture that the learning style-activity preference link is stronger in adults because adults’ learning styles are better established.

Adults and children tended to prefer different types of activities. Children preferred role-play and design, while adults preferred interactive reference and puzzle-mystery. Gender seemed to play some role in people’s preferences for activities, but the connection was not as strong as for learning style or age group.

The researchers suggest that there are several practical implications of these results on multimedia design. They point out that among children and adults, the practical learning style was most common, and these learners may not be satisfied with open-ended activities in which there is “no right answer.” They might instead prefer goal-oriented activities.

The researchers also suggest that activity developers might offer a range of games to appeal to a variety of learning styles.

Developers can also explore how to integrate elements that appeal to different learners in a single activity. Developers might also prioritize design and role-play activities for middle school youth and interactive reference and puzzle-mysteries for adults. And they might also keep in mind that interactive reference activities scored relatively low among children, suggesting that developers should limit its use to “homework and research sites and to topics in which children have a strong intrinsic interest.”

The Bottom Line

Middle school students’ and adults’ preferences for online activities vary by age, gender, and learning style. When developing online activities, it is important to note these different groups. Some practical considerations include: offering a range of different activity types for different learners, remembering that practical learners are the most common, offering interactive reference and puzzle-mystery activities for adults, offering design and role-play activities for middle school students, and limiting the use of interactive reference activities for middle school students, who tend not to prefer those types of activities.