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Acad Med. 2005 Mar;80(3):266-78.

Learning and cognitive styles in web-based learning: theory, evidence, and application.

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Baldwin 4-A, Division of General Internal Medicine, Mayo Clinic College of Medicine, 200 First Street SW, Rochester, MN 55905, USA.


Cognitive and learning styles (CLS) have long been investigated as a basis to adapt instruction and enhance learning. Web-based learning (WBL) can reach large, heterogenous audiences, and adaptation to CLS may increase its effectiveness. Adaptation is only useful if some learners (with a defined trait) do better with one method and other learners (with a complementary trait) do better with another method (aptitude-treatment interaction). A comprehensive search of health professions education literature found 12 articles on CLS in computer-assisted learning and WBL. Because so few reports were found, research from non-medical education was also included. Among all the reports, four CLS predominated. Each CLS construct was used to predict relationships between CLS and WBL. Evidence was then reviewed to support or refute these predictions. The wholist-analytic construct shows consistent aptitude-treatment interactions consonant with predictions (wholists need structure, a broad-before-deep approach, and social interaction, while analytics need less structure and a deep-before-broad approach). Limited evidence for the active-reflective construct suggests aptitude-treatment interaction, with active learners doing better with interactive learning and reflective learners doing better with methods to promote reflection. As predicted, no consistent interaction between the concrete-abstract construct and computer format was found, but one study suggests that there is interaction with instructional method. Contrary to predictions, no interaction was found for the verbal-imager construct. Teachers developing WBL activities should consider assessing and adapting to accommodate learners defined by the wholist-analytic and active-reflective constructs. Other adaptations should be considered experimental. Further WBL research could clarify the feasibility and effectiveness of assessing and adapting to CLS.

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