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Applying Multiple Intelligence Theory to Adult Online Instructional Design

by Jan Watrous-McCabe

July 25, 2005


by Jan Watrous-McCabe

July 25, 2005

"By creating learning activities that appeal to a variety of intelligences, the online instructional designer may create more effective instruction by ensuring learners are able to understand the content in a way that is meaningful to them."

How smart are you? Sometimes people answer this question by providing their Intelligence Quotient (IQ). IQ scores have wide acceptance as a valid measure of intelligence. The problem is that IQ reflects only a narrow range of what psychologists and other experts consider “intelligence.”

Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI) expands the definition of intelligence. Gardner considers that intelligence is more usefully defined as “...the ability to solve problems or to fashion products, that are valued in one or more cultural or community settings.” This view of intelligence recognizes the importance of experience and culture not only in what we know, but also in how we learn.

Specifically, Gardner identifies eight distinct intelligences in MI theory: musical, bodily-kinesthetic, logical-mathematical, verbal-linguistic, visual-spatial, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist. In this article, I explore these various intelligences and suggest how instructional design based on application of MI theory may ensure optimal learning outcomes.

It is important to note there is no “right answer” in exploring learning theories. In the literature in instructional design for online learning, there are numerous theories. All of them explore the types of interactions that are most effective in assisting the learner in achieving desired outcomes.

These theories include cognitive theory, behaviorism, constructivism, and situated cognition, along with many others. (See Margaret Driscoll’s book in the References at the end of this article for a complete discussion.) Each of these theories provides insights into how we learn and how we can provide instructional tools that will assist the learner in acquiring and applying new information.

Multiple intelligences defined

Remember, everyone has all eight intelligences in some combination based on individual experience and cultural expectations. To put the definitions and examples in this section into perspective, begin by defining your own MI profile. There are many profile tools available on the Internet, and you may want to try a self-scoring profile hosted by the Birmingham City Council. Find the profile at (Editor's Note: As of January 25, 2010, this article appears to have been removed from the Web.). Keep in mind that a MI profile is a snapshot in time. Your profile, like the profiles of your learners, may changes over time. Here are Gardner’s definitions for each of the intelligences and some examples of the types of professions that relate to each.

Musical intelligence

Thinks in terms of music — rhythms and pattern provide a basis of understanding (tapping a pencil on desk in rhythm when concentrating for example).

Examples of professions that demonstrate a high level of strength in musical intelligence:

Composers, musicians, conductors.

Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence

Uses body action to solve a problem, understand, or learn (for example a surgeon who practices tying sutures to gain proficiency or a dancer who expresses ideas through movement).

Examples of professions that demonstrate a high level of strength in bodily-kinesthetic intelligence

Athletes, surgeons, dancers, physical therapists.

Logical-mathematical intelligence

Uses logic or numbers to understand information (thinks in terms of logical order, for example uses flowcharts to make sense of information).

Examples of professions that demonstrate a high level of strength in logical-mathematical intelligence

CPA, bank teller, math teacher, researcher

Verbal-linguistic intelligence

Uses language, either verbally or in written form, to understand (takes many notes in meetings, needs to read information to understand).

Examples of professions that demonstrate a high level of strength in verbal-linguistic intelligence

Writer, poet, public speaker, translator.

Visual-spatial intelligence

Has a well-developed sense of space and navigational ability (able to visualize a flat drawing in three dimensions — one of those individuals who always knows what direction they are traveling).

Examples of professions that demonstrate a high level of strength in visual-spatial intelligence

Architect, artist, pilot.

Interpersonal intelligence

Learns through interaction with others (able to “read people” and sense what others are thinking or feeling).

Examples of professions that demonstrate a high level of strength in interpersonal intelligence

Sales, politicians, teachers/trainers.

Intrapersonal intelligence

Very introspective, and has a good grasp of what will or will not work (spends time thinking about how new information affects them, very self-reflective).

Examples of professions that demonstrate a high level of strength in intrapersonal intelligence

Philosopher, university professor, minister.

Naturalist intelligence

Closely connected to nature (enjoys gardening, collections, very ecologically oriented).

Examples of professions that demonstrate a high level of strength in naturalist intelligence

Biologist, botanist, oceanographer.

Applying theory to practice: Activities for each intelligence

Theory becomes more understandable when applied to practice. E-Learning designs often include many of the multiple intelligence-based activities. These activities are not especially unique. However, applying an MI perspective to activities ensures that learners have the chance to optimize their experience based on their individual MI strengths.

A broad range of technologies supports e-Learning interactions. Web conferencing, online chats, blogs, discussion boards, interactive games, and Internet resources are among the online options available to instructional designers. The challenge is in using the available tools creatively to innovate a variety of activities. There is always the danger of designers using only the kinds of activities that worked well in their own learning experience, that they have found to be entertaining or creative, or that they feel comfortable in creating.

Consider whether an activity involves the learner in the course as it assists the learner to acquire the knowledge and skills dictated by the course objectives. Incorporating a variety of activities that support multiple intelligences will enhance learning outcomes by ensuring that all learners will find some elements in the instruction that assist them to better understand and apply the concepts being presented.

This does not mean that the instructional designer needs to create eight different activities for each learning objective! It does mean that the instructional designer needs to provide a variety of activities. Each learner will then have a better opportunity to meet the needs of his or her intelligence profile.

What follows are some examples of, and ideas for, online activities that best support each of the intelligences.

Musical activities

Activities that appeal to the musical intelligence rely on the use of sound and rhythm. Adding music, or adding an option of spoken text, to an e-Learning activity will support this intelligence. Sounds used to reinforce correct performance, background music that provides a mood conducive to the subject matter, introductory music to set the theme of the learning, and deliberately using the inherent rhythm of language assists the musical learner.

Bodily-kinesthetic activities

Activities that appeal to the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence include activities that enable physical interaction with learning materials. Drag-and-drop exercises (see Figure 1), matching activities, and games that challenge hand-eye coordination appeal to this intelligence. Online simulations provide an additional way to engage the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence by providing the ability for the learner to interact with the activity in an exploratory fashion. Virtual labs also provide a rich environment for the bodily-kinesthetic learner by providing a realtime environment in which actions by the learner result in immediate reinforcement through feedback on the results of the action.


Figure 1 Drag-and-drop exercises support the bodily-kinesthetic intelligence.


Logical-mathematical activities

Activities that appeal to the logical-mathematical intelligence include the use of Venn diagrams, charts, graphics or tables that encourage analysis of information in a logical manner. Sequencing information such as providing process steps, or logical ordering of information also supports this intelligence. (See Figure 2.)


Figure 2 Flow charts and diagrams assist the logical-mathematical learner.


Verbal-linguistic activities

Activities for this intelligence emphasize the use of language. Activities that engage the verbal-linguistic intelligence may include crossword puzzles, online discussion boards, email, or online chats, as well as scenarios (see Figure 3). Providing Internet links to articles or attachments that provide additional written explanation of materials are also effective in appealing to this intelligence.


Figure 3 Scenarios appeal to the verbal-linguistic intelligence.


Visual-spatial activities

Activities that appeal to the visual-spatial intelligence include graphics and visual organizers such as flow charts, mind maps, and fishbone diagrams, as well as pictorial explanations of a concept. (See Figure 4.) Embedding text with visual diagrams will enhance the visual-spatial learner’s ability to grasp concepts presented. Games that involve interesting shapes and colors will serve to involve this intelligence and foster greater involvement with the content presented.


Figure 4 Mind maps provide visual-spatial learners with interactive graphic information.


Interpersonal activities

Numerous online tools provide the ability to take advantage of the interpersonal intelligence. Establishing forums or online communities that support instruction enable the interpersonal learner to share thoughts and ideas with other learners. Online chats, Web conferencing, email, and discussion boards provide the opportunity for the interpersonal learner to establish relationships that assist in adding context to the learning process. Group collaboration is also an excellent tool to encourage learners to exchange ideas and build relationships to foster learning.

Intrapersonal activities

The Intrapersonal intelligence emphasizes the internal aspects of learning, self-esteem and “thinking about thinking” (See the book by Campbell, Campbell & Dickenson listed in the References at the end of this article for more details.) Encouraging contemplative thought through discussion questions that encourage reflection on the concepts included in the instruction is one way in which to appeal to this intelligence. Providing positive feedback in instruction also serves to build self-esteem by reassuring the intrapersonal learner that they understand and are appropriately applying the concepts. The interpersonal intelligence will also benefit from the ability to select areas of the instruction to explore, and the use of supplemental learning materials to explore their thinking further.

Naturalist activities

Activities that appeal to the naturalist intelligence provide the ability to organize or categorize information. Examples of effective online activities include providing the ability to categorize information by similar characteristics or selecting items that do or do not fit into a category. (See Figure 5.) Graphical representation of classifications with visual branching diagrams helps the naturalist learner better grasp concepts presented.


Figure 5 Categorizing “what is” and “what isn’t” a restraint appeals to the naturalist intelligence.


Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences provides a unique view of how people learn. Rather than a single general intelligence, MI theory exposes eight unique intelligences that all people share. People have a unique combination of intelligences based upon their own culture and experience. By creating learning activities that appeal to a variety of intelligences, the online instructional designer may create more effective instruction by ensuring learners are able to understand the content in a way that is meaningful to them. That means they are more likely to become engaged in the learning activity and the course completion rate will increase, as will the ability to apply learning directly to the job. The activities and techniques reviewed are not unique to MI theory; these tools are widely used by all online instructional designers. The difference lies in the studied selection of interventions that will ensure that learners will benefit from instruction by supporting all intelligences in online course design.


Campbell, L., Campbell, B., & Dickinson, D. (2004). Teaching and learning through multiple intelligences (Third ed.). Boston: Allyn & Bacon, Inc.

Driscoll, M. P. (2000). Psychology of learning for instruction (2nd ed.).

Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon. Gardner, H. (1993). Multiple intelligences: The theory in practice. New York: HarperCollins, Inc.

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