International Forum of Educational Technology & Society

Formal Discussion Initiation

Learning Strategies Then and Now: Same or Different?

Time schedule:
Discussion: 8 - 17 Feb. 99
Summing-up: 18 - 19 Feb. 99

M. David Merrill
Utah State University, USA

A recent published interview with me included the headline, "Learning Styles are irrelevant." This statement is so apparently false, why is such an obviously incorrect claim attributed to me? (Zempke, 1998)

The following is what I actually said: "It's not that I'm not 'in favor' of learning styles, or that they may not be real variable. So many people talk about them and believe in them, there might be something there. It is just that Ö there is no hard, scientific evidence that if you treat people with different personality attributes differently in the classroom or via technology, there will be significantly different outcomes in their learning."

Perhaps I overstated the case. My real concern is that there are those who would argue that different students learn the same content differently. They would argue that young people today learn differently than their parents or grandparents. That we are in the "Nintendo" or "MTV" generation and that these societal factors change the way our children learn.

I have also been quoted as follows:

"Learners today are not significantly different from those of a decade ago, a generation ago, or a century ago. The basic learning mechanisms by which learners acquire knowledge and skill have remained constant amid societal change." (Merrill et al, 1996)

"Ö does playing computer games or being at ease with technology make young people cognitively different or change them cognitively? I donít think so. Ö I think that basically, underneath, at the learning mechanism level, human beings are pretty much the same. At the deep structure level, we have the same [learning] mechanisms." (Zemke, 1998)

In this brief paper I attempt to elaborate my position on this issue.

I have also claimed: "There are known instructional strategies. The acquisition of different types of knowledge and skill require different conditions for learning (Gagné, 1985). If an instructional experience or environment does not include the instructional strategies required for the acquisition of the desired knowledge or skill, then effective, efficient, and appealing learning of the desired outcome will not occur." (Merrill, et al, 1996)

Gagnéís position has been called content-by-treatment interaction (Jonassen & Grabowski, 1993) or I would prefer content-by-strategy interaction. This position suggests that the goals of instruction are primary in determining an appropriate instructional strategy for a particular instructional goal. Many research studies have demonstrated that, regardless of the learning style of the student, when the goal of the instruction, as measured by tests that are consistent with this goal, are consistent with the strategies used to teach this goal, then learning is optimal. When the instructional strategies used are inconsistent with the goal of the instruction, then there is a decrement in learning. When considering the essential requirements for a given kind of instructional strategy, learning style is irrelevant, it does not make a difference. At this level, it is not the case that different learning styles require different instructional strategies. In a recent paper we outlined a few of the appropriate strategy requirements for some comment different kinds of instructional goals (Merrill, 1998). An examination of much of the available training material demonstrates that much of our current training materials include instructional strategies that are inconsistent with the goals of the instruction. Inconsistent instruction is ineffective instruction regardless of learner style.

Wait a minute, I can hear you think, it is obvious that learning styles make a difference. How? Where? If not in the essential elements of instructional strategy, where?

Gardner argues for different kinds of intelligence (Gardner, 1983). He argues that some persons are strong in one kind of intelligence while another person is stronger in another kind of intelligence. That if my strength is in bodily-kinesthetic intelligence I might learn to dance very well while having trouble learning mathematics or science. Isnít this a case where learning style (Gardner intelligence type) makes a difference? Of course it makes a difference, but, not in the fundamental components of the instructional strategy. This difference might be characterized as an aptitude-by-content interaction. A given person might have learning mechanisms and physical abilities that favor the content of one domain of learning over another. However, the content types suggested by Gagné and myself do not refer to subject domains but rather to kinds of outcomes that are likely to occur within every domain. Each of the different types of intelligence may still require the learner to acquire a concept, learn the parts of an entity, learn a procedure, or understand a process. It is these fundamental types of outcome that determines different instructional strategies in a content-by-strategy interaction. Whether a learnerís strength is logico-mathematical or bodily-kinesthetic when learning a concept within that domain it is still necessary to have a definition, examples, non-examples, and to practice identifying previously unencountered examples in order to acquire the concept.

Isnít it necessary to modify an instructional strategy for a student learning a concept from a subject domain that is not his or her strength? Yes. It may be necessary to increase the number of examples, to make the representation of these examples more manipulative rather than symbolic, or to increase the amount and kind of attention-focusing learner guidance. However, these modifications are all elaboration of the fundamental components of an instructional strategy appropriate for, and consistent with, the teaching of a concept. The modification of the strategy to accommodate for a students domain preference is secondary to the fundamental content-by-strategy consistency required for effective instruction.

Ruth Clark (1998) suggests four different instructional architectures (receptive, directive, guided discovery, and exploratory) that I would call instructional style. She suggests that there is an interaction among student characteristics and instructional architecture. For example she suggests that a directive instructional style is more appropriate for novice learners while a guided-discovery instructional style may be more appropriate for more experienced learners, and an exploratory instructional style is best for expert learners. Consistent with learning style, Jonassen and Grabowski (1993) cite studies that show that cognitive-constricted learners do better with a directive style while cognitive-flexible learners do better with a guided discovery or exploratory style. Surely this suggests that learner style requires adjustment in instructional strategy? The answer is yes and no. Like different domains each of these instructional styles include all of the types of learning outcomes, that is, each of these styles can be used to teach concepts, procedures, and processes. Within each style the essential components of a consistent strategy must be present. A concept requires a definition, examples, non-examples, and practice in identifying unencountered instances. In a receptive style the definition and contrasted examples and non-examples must be present or the learner will not effectively and efficiently acquire the concept. The receptive style is often an incomplete, and therefore inconsistent, style since it often does not include appropriate practice. In the directive instructional style the definition, examples, and non-examples are presented directly to the student and the then the student is given appropriate practice. In a guided-discovery instructional style the learner may have more freedom in exploring a situation to find the appropriate examples and non-examples. However, in a guided-discovery instructional product if there are not contrasted non-examples available, or if the student does not have the opportunity to practice identifying instances of the concept, there will be a decrement in learning. In exploratory situations learning is often not effective since many students are not skilled in finding the necessary components of the appropriate instructional strategy. They may fail to find appropriate examples or they may fail to engage in appropriate practice, thereby causing a decrement in their learning. When a given instructional architecture results in ineffective learning it is not the architecture that is inappropriate for the learning style of an individual student, but rather that the particular implementation of that architecture failed to include all of the instructional strategy components required to teach a given instructional outcome.

Each of these architectures may be set in individual or collaborative learning environments. Field-dependent learners do better in group-oriented or collaborative situations. Field-independent learners do much better in individualized learning situations than do field-dependent learners. However, whether a student is field-independent or field-dependent or whether the learning environment is individual or collaborative, a given instructional goal still requires all of the strategy components that are consistent with this goal for the learning to be effective.

The design of an instructional strategy includes a number of important instructional decisions including selecting content segments, sequencing these segments, selecting appropriate instructional transactions, sequencing these individual transactions, and configuring a given transaction for a given architecture and for a given student. As a student engages each of the instructional transactions in an instructional environment these transactions can be arranged so as to adapt in real time, during the instruction, to the individual learning needs of each student. Each of these various instructional decisions are subject to aptitude (learning style)-by-treatment (strategy) interactions.

Hold it you are thinking, arenít you now saying that learning style does make a difference? And I confess that I am now admitting that there are learning-style-by-strategy interactions. However, within each of these decisions the content-by-strategy interaction is primary and the learning-style-by-strategy interaction is secondary. In other words, the adjustment in strategy necessitated by different learning styles takes place within the framework of the fundamental requirements of an instructional strategy that is appropriate for and consistent with a given instructional outcome.

Let me very briefly illustrate some of these learning-style-by-strategy interactions. These are representative interactions are not complete by any means. (See Jonassen and Grabowski, 1993 for a more complete elaboration of these and other aptitude-by-strategy and aptitude-by-content interactions).

Content sequence. Cognitive-restricted and serialist learners learn better from content arranged in a logical sequence and prefer to learn each topic in order. Cognitive-flexible or holist learners learn better when they are able to select which topic to study next and to review each topic to get a whole picture before studying each topic in detail. Note however, that when the detail study comes each type of learner must engage in the instructional strategy that is appropriate for and consistent with the instructional goal.

Transaction Sequence. Holist learners prefer an inductive-sequence where they are presented examples and demonstrations first prior to figuring out a definition or seeing the steps listed. Serialist learners prefer a deductive-sequence where they see the definition or list of steps first prior to seeing examples or a demonstration. Nevertheless, research has shown that both the inductive and deductive sequence of transaction components must still contain all the components of the appropriate and consistent strategy or there will be a decrement in learning.

Transaction Configuration. Instruction is characterized by the representation of the content information included and by the addition of information, directions, and learner guidance that enhances the students ability to acquire the information presented. It is in the area of learner guidance where learning-style-by-strategy interactions may also play a significant role. Visual learners learn best when information is presented in graphic form. Verbal learners prefer textual presentations or lectures. Haptic learners prefer information they can manipulate. Nevertheless research has shown that visual, verbal or haptic learners must still have all the components of an appropriate and consistent instructional strategy even though these components may have different forms of representation.

In learning a concept all learners need to see examples and non-examples. However, holist learners tend to have a problem with undergeneralization, they need to see more divergent examples to promote generalization. Serialist learners tend to have a problem with overgeneralization, they need to see more matched example non-example pairs to facilitate their ability to discriminate among examples and non-examples. Both of these types of learners need examples and non-examples as these are essential components of a concept instruction strategy. However, each type of learner requires a different emphasis in the relationships among these instances.

Why then my strong statements in the press? There are those who argue a relativistic philosophy that as society changes so do our learning mechanisms. They argue that different cultures acquire knowledge and skill via different learning mechanisms. They argue that learners with different styles require fundamentally different instructional strategies. They often suggest that instructional style is of fundamental importance. This argument undermines the basic fundamental content-by-strategy relationships that have been shown to be so important in learning.

We subscribe to the premise that principles of instruction are like other scientific principles. We have previously stated that: "Instructional Science is concerned with the discovery of the natural principles involved in instructional strategies; instructional design is the use of these scientific principles to invent instructional design procedures and tools." To assume that learning mechanisms evolve in decades is contrary to all we know about human evolution and change.

We have argued that learning style does make a difference, but not in the fundamental components required by a given instructional strategy appropriate for and consistent with a particular instructional outcome. Learning style may require a fine tuning in the implementation of the fundamental components of instructional strategy, but learning styles are irrelevant for the selection of the strategy components appropriate for and consistent with a given learning outcome.

All of these arguments for content-strategy-interactions and those for aptitude-strategy-interactions all would suggest that learners have not changed very much over time. While what is learned is very different, while the tools for promoting learning are very different nevertheless the learning mechanisms are very much the same.

We conclude with the following more accurate statement:

Learning style is irrelevant in selecting the fundamental components of instructional strategy appropriate for and consistent with a given learning outcome. However, learning style should be considered in selecting instructional style and implementing the components a given instructional strategy.

Finally, let me pose an important additional question: If learning styles (individual differences) do make a difference in learning efficiency, effectiveness and appeal, how do we want to adapt our implementation of instructional strategies? Jonassen and Grabowski (1993) suggest four models: (1) preferential-match, capitalizing on learner strengths or preferences; (2) remediation-match, eliminating deficiencies in learner traits; (3) compensatory-match, supplanting skills or learner traits; and (4) challenging-skills. The first plays to a student's strengths but preserves their learning weaknesses. The second attempts to strengthen a learner's weaknesses but results in less efficient instruction. The third models a deficient learning skill that may help the learner acquire this skill or it may make learning easy and thus preserve learning weakness. The fourth requires the learner to adapt to the instruction rather than having the instruction adapt to the learner. Strong arguments can be made for each of these models of adaptation, but then this is another paper.

I look forward to your comments.



Clark, Ruth (1998). Building Expertise: Cognitive Methods for Training and Performance Improvement. Washington D.C.: International Society for Performance Improvement.

Gagné, Robert M. (1985). The Conditions of Learning: and Theory of Instruction. 4th Edition. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Jonassen, David H. & Grabowski, Barbara L. (1993). Handbook of Individual Difference, Learning, and Instruction. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Merrill, M. David, Drake, Leston, Lacy, Mark J., Pratt, Jean A. & ID2 Research Group (1996). Reclaiming Instructional Design. Educational Technology, 36(5), 5-7.

Merrill, M. David (1998). Instructional strategies that teach. CBT Solutions, November/December, 1-11.

Zempke, Ron (1998). Wake Up! (And Reclaim Instructional Design). Training, 35(6), 36-42.


About moderator

M. David Merrill
Professor of Instructional Technology
Utah State University
Logan, Utah 84322-2830
Home page:

Copyright message
Copyright 1998 by the International Forum of Educational Technology & Society (IFETS). The authors and the forum jointly retain the copyright of the article. Permission to make digital or hard copies of part or all of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear the full citation on the first page. Copyrights for components of this work owned by others than IFETS must be honoured. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, to republish, to post on servers, or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee. Request permissions from the authors of the article or

Back to discussions schedule Page Back to Main Page