Why learning variety matters

One foundation of student-centered learning is variety—providing learners with multiple ways to learn.
With the advent of online and blended learning, instructors can present students with a wide range of learning options. These include video (mini-lectures, animations), audio, interactive games, narrative learning (case studies and scenarios), writing to learn exercises, simulations, flash cards, formative and summative assessments, discussion boards, adaptive learning, concept mapping, and in-class group work and discussions.

MindEdge Varied Learning

As we’ve noted in the past, not everyone processes information in the same way. Some learners find video presentations help them master challenging material—others prefer text, some are most comfortable with visual aids.
There are key five benefits to focusing on variety. Students tell us that it:

  • Stimulates their interest.
  • Encourages their participation.
  • Engages them through their preferred way of learning
  • Supports their sense of achievement
  • Allows them to demonstrate their mastery in varied ways

We’ve also noted in the past the importance of planning ahead during the content development process. Instructional designers should consider the sequence and pacing of the learning. They should look for opportunities to introduce new and different learning elements. The pay-off will come in the form of learning that engages, entertains, and informs.

Helpful resources

Elizabeth F. Barkley, Student Engagement Practices: A Handbook for College Faculty, Jossey-Bass, 2009.
Peter Brown, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Belknap Press, 2014.
Gerald F. Hess, “Value of Variety: An Organizing Principle to Enhance Teaching and Learning,” Elon University Law Review, June 10, 2010. (Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1796882)
James M. Lang, Small Teaching, Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Copyright © 2017 MindEdge, Inc.

Seven principles of student-centered learning

What are key principles for student-centered learning?

After many years of developing online learning, MindEdge has identified seven principles for improved student outcomes.

They are:

  • Place the student at the center of the learning experience.
  • Leverage existing knowledge and skills.
  • Respect the learner’s time.
  • Employ diagnostic assessments to ascertain gaps in knowledge.
  • Offer varied learning experiences.
  • Provide needed scaffolding and practice for learners.
  • Measure progress and mastery of learning objectives.

Student-centered instruction focuses on supporting and empowering the student in mastering the skills and knowledge in a given field of study. This requires shifting from the traditional “sage on the stage” approach for instructors to one built around coaching and advising. Students who are engaged, learn. Students who are challenged by interesting learning experiences, learn.


Today’s students often have prior subject knowledge. Whenever possible, educators should capitalize on this foundation, valuing and extending what students bring to the classroom (traditional and virtual).

A well-constructed learning experience lets students know what is expected of them, and focuses assignments and assessments on the learning objectives outlined at the start of the course. Time is precious—avoid the extraneous or off-topic. Let students learn at their own pace.

Assessing prior student knowledge, and identifying gaps, is a valuable exercise for learners and instructors. This can be accomplished through simple diagnostic assessments at the beginning of the learning experience. It helps determine what should be emphasized, and what can be given a more cursory review.

Variety matters: it keeps learners engaged. The jury is still out on whether “learning styles” represents a valid way to categorize how we learn, but offering numerous ways for students to learn—including video, audio, infographics, interactives, assessments, games—appeals to many learners.

Not everyone “gets it” immediately, so it’s important to offer deeper levels of instruction for students who may struggle with new concepts. Whole-Part-Whole learning and adaptive learning are ways to integrate scaffolding and support into instruction.

At every phase of learning, assessing student progress is key. Asking students to demonstrate their mastery of material by synthesizing answers to higher-order questions is one helpful method of measurement.

These principles can be applied in all forms of learning (classroom, blended, online), and can provide a useful framework for developing and designing effective learning experiences.

Copyright © 2016 MindEdge, Inc.

Teaching online

This MindEdge Learning infographic highlights the vital role played by the instructor in online learning.

In online learning, the instructor plays a vital role in the learning process.

Initially, the instructor must establish a welcoming environment for learners. The instructor constantly observes, monitors, and provides feedback on learners’ work, as well as coaches and critiques learners. He or she guides discussions and can leads online video and chat sessions.

The instructor may hold virtual office hours to meet with learners and facilitate peer review sessions between learners. Some instructors occasionally give online mini-lectures in order to encourage the learners’ mastery of concepts.

When the instructor takes on the above roles, learners will benefit from online learning in multiple ways, including:

  • Sharpened technology skills
  • Empowered and self-directed learning
  • Improved critical thinking skills
  • Demonstrated mastery of concepts and competencies
  • Improved collaborative and team skills
  • Enhanced social skills

The instructor also reaps certain benefits from the online learning process, such as:

  • Engaged learners
  • Learners’ mastery of concepts and competencies
  • Improved course completion rates
  • Enhanced personal satisfaction with teaching
  • Sharpened technology skills
  • Accelerated professional growth

In an optimal online learning environment, both the learners and the instructors will benefit from a process that includes important involvement and engagement from the instructor.

Copyright © 2016 MindEdge, Inc.

Closing the 2 Sigma Learning Gap

We see a significant opportunity to use what we know about learning and the latest technology tools to dramatically improve student performance—to close the 2 Sigma Learning Gap.
This gap was identified by educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom. He and his fellow researchers found that the average student who was tutored one-to-one using “mastery learning techniques” performed two standard deviations (2 Sigma) better than students in a classroom. (Simply put, mastery learning techniques insist that students achieve mastery of knowledge and skills before proceeding to the next stage of learning.)
Bloom argued that one-on-one instruction would be “too costly for most societies to bear on a large scale,” and his proposed solution was to uncover those key variables in instruction that could be tweaked to improve student performance and then applied broadly.


The top six factors for improvement researchers uncovered (in rough order of importance) were the following:

  • Tutorial instruction
  • Reinforcement
  • Feedback-corrective
  • Cues and explanations
  • Student classroom participation
  • Student time on task

There has been a significant amount of experimentation and testing of these factors in the classroom and, increasingly, in online environments. In his initial paper, Bloom suggested that technology might be one way to scale mastery learning.

MindEdge’s approach

We design MindEdge Learning online courses and simulations to leverage technology to apply those six factors. We’ve integrated them into the five pedagogical tools best suited for adult learners. Those tools are:

  • Assessments
  • Gamification
  • Whole-Part-Whole Learning
  • Narrative Learning
  • Adaptive Learning

When we create courses, we look at how to best reach the learner employing these tools, with Bloom’s factors in mind.

Employing the learning tools

Assessments, for example, can be a vital tool in achieving Bloom’s mastery learning. Research shows that students who are continuously questioned about what they’ve learned perform better. Indeed, initial testing taps into the counterintuitive concept of “learning by failing.” Diagnostic assessments can personalize learning and help students focus on mastering challenging topics. Assessments address the Bloom factors of Reinforcement, Feedback-corrective and Cues and explanations.
Gamification—using game design elements in educational contexts–can engage and challenge the learner in different ways. Learning feels more personal when playing or competing, and educational research supports the value of “learning by playing.” Students who gravitate to a game environment are likely to spend more time engaging with the educational content. Gamification addresses the Bloom factors of Reinforcement, Feedback-corrective, and Student time on task.
Whole-Part-Whole Learning (WPWL) presents students with an overview of learning content (Whole), then guides them through the specific components of that knowledge or skill (Part), and then asks them to recreate that content (Whole). A pedagogical approach that has been adopted by adult educators, WPWL helps provide context and slows down the learning process. It addresses the Bloom factors of Reinforcement and Student classroom participation (in an online setting, the process of recreating the Whole can be structured to mimic classroom participation through instructor-led discussions or video conferences, or collaborative group work).
Narrative Learning (NL) engages students through case studies, scenarios, and simulations and asks them to apply their learning. We’ve found that students respond well to the real-world relevance of NL, and research suggests that humans are hard-wired to learn through story-telling. NL addresses the Bloom factors of Reinforcement, Student classroom participation, and Student time on task.
Adaptive Learning (AL) is the tool with the greatest promise for closing the 2 Sigma Learning Gap. It directly offers tutorial-like help that personalizes instruction and focuses on individual learning challenges. Students are helped through difficult topics by individualized scaffolding, varied content presentation, and iterative drills and problem solving. We’ve found AL works best in combination with the other teaching methods we employ—it’s best to offer learners a variety of approaches. AL addresses the Bloom factors of Tutorial instruction, Reinforcement, and Feedback-corrective.
The following chart summarizes the way MindEdge employs these tools and their impact on students and how they relate to Bloom’s six factors.

Pedagogical tool Approach Impact on students Bloom factors
Assessments (formative/
Students respond to low-stakes questions throughout the learning process.
  • Personalizes
  • Frames the learning
  • ‘Learn by failing’
  • Reinforcement
  • Feedback-corrective
  • Cues and explanations
Gamification Students learn through games and interactive exercises.
  • Personalizes
  • Engages
  • ‘Learn by playing’
  • Reinforcement
  • Cues and explanations
  • Student time on task
Whole-Part-Whole Learning (WPWL) Students are presented with an overview of learning content (Whole), then guided through the specific components of that knowledge or skill (Part), and then asked to recreate that content (Whole).
  • Frames the learning
  • Develops cognitive skills
  • ‘Learn by reconstructing’
  • Reinforcement
  • Cues and explanations
  • Student classroom participation (modified)
Narrative Learning (NL) Students are engaged through case studies, scenarios, and simulations and asked to apply their learning.
  • Makes the learning relevant
  • Taps into narrative structure (conflict/
  • ‘Learn by story’
  • Reinforcement
  • Feedback-corrective
  • Student classroom participation (modified)
Adaptive Learning (AL) Students are helped through difficult topics by individualized scaffolding, varied content presentation, and iterative drills and problem solving.
  • Personalizes
  • Targets common instructional pain points
  • ‘Learn by focus’
  • Tutorial instruction
  • Reinforcement
  • Feedback-corrective


Closing the gap

Initial meta-research studies have suggested that online learning matches or exceeds traditional classroom instruction, although certainly not by 2 Sigma levels. We’re confident that when the pedagogical tools are applied correctly, more significant improvements in student performance are possible. MindEdge Learning’s academic partners have seen completion rates and test scores improve in course with these tools.
Our experience with adaptive learning in several difficult undergraduate courses (Composition, and Critical Thinking) suggests that students welcome the personalized tutorial-like focus (with 95% of students finding the AL segments helpful). As part of our commitment to data-driven analysis, MindEdge Learning continues to explore ways to better capture the effects of different approaches on student performance–and closing the 2 Sigma Learning Gap.

Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge Learning. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, at Babson College, and at Boston University.


2 Sigma Learning Gap: See: Benjamin Bloom. (1984). “The 2 Sigma Problem: The Search for Methods of Group Instruction as Effective as One-to-One Tutoring,” Educational Researcher, 13:6(4-16).
Assessments: ‘Learn by failing.’ See: Henry L. Roediger and Bridgid Finn, “Getting It Wrong: Surprising Tips on How to Learn, ” Scientific American, October 20, 2009.
Gamification: ‘Learn by playing.’ See: Juho Hamari, Jonna Koivisto, and Harri Sarsa. “Does gamification work?–a literature review of empirical studies on gamification.” In System Sciences (HICSS), 2014 47th Hawaii International Conference on, pp. 3025-3034. IEEE, 2014.
Whole-Part-Whole Learning: ‘Learn by reconstructing.’ See: R. A. Swanson and B. D. Law, “Whole-Part-Whole Learning Model.” Performance Improvement Quarterly, 2010: 6: 43–53.
Narrative Learning: ‘Learn by story.’ See: M.C. Clark, “Narrative learning: Its contours and its possibilities.” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education, 2010: 3–11.
Adaptive Learning: ‘Learn by focus.’ See: Jefferson Flanders, “Exploring the Iceberg: Why selective adaptive learning meets the needs of students.” EdTech Digest, June 10, 2014.

Copyright © 2015 Jefferson Flanders

Bloom’s Taxonomy and learning

One common framework employed in designing instruction is Bloom’s Taxonomy, a pedagogical tool that helps trainers and educators organize learning activities by the type of thought they ask of students.

A committee of educators chaired by Benjamin Samuel Bloom, an educational psychologist, proposed this systemic approach, published in Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives in 1956.

Bloom’s Taxonomy had helped provide a common language for educators. The model has three distinct learning domains: Cognitive, Affective, and Psychomotor. Within each domain, learning falls into various levels. It is generally true that mastery of higher levels of learning (such as synthesizing ideas to make something new) requires mastery of knowledge and abilities at the lower levels (such as comprehending the writing of others and being able to recall specific facts at will).

The Cognitive Domain

Learning in the Cognitive domain involves the development of skills of knowledge, comprehension, and critical thinking. Most online learning courses have the bulk of their objectives in the cognitive domain. There are six levels within the Cognitive domain (listed below in order of least demanding to most demanding):

  • Knowledge (Remembering). Requires the indication of memory of materials previously encountered.
  • Comprehension (Understanding). Requires demonstrating an understanding of those facts by sorting, comparing, and describing them, and by reducing them to more essential ideas and facts.
  • Application (Applying). Requires the use of knowledge in a new and different way.
  • Analysis (Analyzing). Requires the examination of information, the reduction of ideas and facts to more fundamental ones, or the identification of causes.
  • Evaluation (Evaluating). Requires that one present and defend judgments based on the information that has been learned.
  • Synthesis (Creating). Requires compilation of information in different ways.

The classic pyramid of Bloom’s Cognitive domain shows the six levels with the least complex level at the bottom and most complex level at the top.

The progression of the hierarchy in this pyramid diagram has received some criticism over the years. One point of disagreement is whether evaluation or synthesis is the highest level of learning. Bloom’s original hierarchy set evaluation as the highest level, though recent education scholars now believe synthesis/creation to be at the highest level. Other critics argue that while the first three stages of the hierarchy do occur in progression, the final three are actually parallel to one another. In addition, it has been suggested that the categories should actually be identified in verb form since performance words tend to be verbs as well.

Applying Bloom’s Taxonomy to Learning

By focusing on the way learners process information and establishing six levels of cognitive learning, Bloom’s Taxonomy helps instructors to move students beyond simple knowledge, or fact-gathering, to more challenging orders of thinking, such as understanding, applying, analyzing, and synthesizing.

Based on a given level of cognitive learning, the system can be used to help:

  • define learning objectives for a course or program
  • formulate questions and assignments
  • establish assessments, essay topics, etc.
  • evaluate student discussions

Bloom’s Taxonomy can be a helpful guide in assessing the way material will be presented and taught and how a given pedagogical approach matches up with any learning outcomes that have been established.

Engaging Learners at all Levels

While much effort has been put into discussing the most accurate order of performance skills, it’s best to not slavishly adhere to methods that require students to master lower level thinking before engaging in higher-level thinking. It often seems that as we learn, we employ skills at multiple levels simultaneously, or a student may skip from the first to the fifth step when learning some new information.

The fact that lower-level skills (such as recall) seem easier to teach and easier to test for has, in the past, led to poorly-constructed educational resources that bore the learner with constant drilling before helping the learner to engage in more thought-provoking and interesting applications of these skills. Scaffolding can help learners master less complex skills even while engaging them in real-world tasks.

Copyright © 2014 MindEdge, Inc.