It wouldn’t come as a shock for most teachers to hear that the way students learn things differs from child to child. Some may absorb more from a hands-on experiment while others only need to see a diagram. These divergent ways of understanding a concept are called learning styles, and they’re both useful in the classroom and controversial.
Learn more about what defines a learning style, which one fits you best, and how to use them in teaching.
What are Learning Styles?
Learning styles are simply the method of instructions that a person best learns information. There are four main learning styles that are generally agreed upon: visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic. The grouping of these four categories is referred to as VARK in education theory. There are many other theories about dozens of learning styles and their uses in the classroom as well.
Students with visual learning styles absorb information best through visual tools such as images, maps, or diagrams. These students may benefit from graphic organizers to relay typically text-heavy information into a visual format. Online education resource Teach.com notes that using visual aids for other media–highlighting text in different colors or using symbols to replace ideas–can help visual learners.
Someone with a strong visual learning style may have difficulty with subjects taught in other formats. For example, a visual learner may struggle with a lecture or audio lesson where there is no visual material at all. This is where teaching tools such as a blank graphic organizer can be useful to help a student transform one teaching style into the learning style they best understand.
Other VARK learning styles have similar benefits and flaws in the classroom as visual learning does. Auditory learners do well with lectures, audio instructions, and can likely benefit from audiobooks. Text may be difficult for auditory learners, but reading outloud to one’s self may help and is an example of an easy way to implement a new learning style to overcome this common classroom issue.
Reading and writing learning styles, sometimes called “verbal,” benefit most from writing notes or reading material. Outlines, charts, and other visual word maps may help reading/writing learners during visual or audio presentations.
Kinesthetic, sometimes called “tactile,” learners prefer the use of 3D aids and hands-on learning. Teach.com notes the benefits of problem solving puzzles to help for kinesthetic learners understand new concepts. Experiments are especially good teaching tools for kinesthetic learners.
Although many educators use the VARK learning styles in their lesson plans, others argue that there is no role for the theory in the classroom. Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching argues that there is no evidence that “matching activities to one’s learning style improves learning” and that the popularity of the approach despite a lack of research is “disturbing.” However, the CFT did note that focusing on learning styles may be beneficial because it provides a more effective means of teaching a particular subject than another VARK category.
Discovering How You Learn Best
Although there is disagreement about what the role learning styles should play in the classroom, it is beneficial to be able to identify the way you or a student learns best.
Aside from simple observation, teachers can use online resources to determine what learning style best fits individual students. For example, the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency’s online test at EducationPlanner.org asks 20 questions to show you what type of learner you are, then gives you actionable tips to make learning a little easier for yourself. The test may tell visual learners that they should use more flashcards and avoid busy study areas.
Matching your learning style with the way you study something may help increase how easily or quickly you understand and absorb the material. However, many people are not strictly one type of learner, and many can learn through other styles as well. Like the Vanderbilt’s CFT explained, there may simply be better ways to teach certain subjects using one learning style rather than another regardless of what you like best. For example, learning about a chemical reaction may be clearest for all learners through an experiment although the teaching technique is defined as kinesthetic.
Aside from the traditional teaching tools, such as graphic organizers and reading outloud, technology presents a number of opportunities for people with different learning styles to adapt materials to the optimal media. Tablets, netbooks, and other mobile technology give students access to programs and apps in the classroom that fit their learning styles. These devices allow students (and teachers) to learn through the exact methods they want and need.
Bringing Learning Styles to the Classroom
In addition to having video, audio, readings, word processors, and drawing software all at the fingertips, tech devices allow students to express in their desired media as well. On a blog, teacher Kristi Meeuwse pointed to the example of having students share their vacation stories on a tablet. Some students made text-heavy photo essays where they combined their pictures with descriptions where others drew their experience in a purely visual media. Both methods teach storytelling and narrative, but through varied learning styles.
There are a variety of ways for educators to address different learning styles and bring these ideas into the classroom. The University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth lists dozens of teaching ideas for how educators can teach with learning styles in mind. For example, a teacher can use pictures and cartoons for visual learners while teaching a concept. Asking for students to read outloud or verbally summarize can deliver useful auditory learning help. Role playing a historical scene or playing a game can add a kinesthetic element to the subject being taught.
Some teachers choose to overlap several learning styles for the same material to ensure different learners are taking in the material together and students are learning the same subjects in multiple ways.
Specific learning styles and lesson plans focused on teaching with different styles have become a popular option for students with ADHD, autism, and other learning disabilities.