The idea of individualised learning styles became popular in the 1970s and has greatly influenced the education industry. Today, there are a number of theories on the subject – each proposing the existence of a different number of learning styles and the necessity to cater for them in the classroom. Despite the fact that research in this arena is still relatively young, these theories have gone a long way in explaining why not all learners thrive in the traditional classroom environment where the same methods of teaching have been used for decades. This way of thinking about education is progressive and has proved useful for educators across the board.
The most widely accepted theory is Neil Fleming’s VARK model, that expanded on the popular VAK model proposed by Walter Burke Barbe and his colleagues. This theory presents four learning styles, based on sensory modalities, namely: Visual, Auditory, Read/Write and Kinesthetic styles of learning:
Learners who are visually orientated, learn by observing rather than having something explained to them verbally. These kinds of learners typically have vivid imaginations and may have photographic memories that serve as invaluable tools in the learning and studying process. These learners may have an inherent interest in visual art, illustrations in books and information that is displayed visually on computers and television screens. Their visual orientation does not mean that they are deficient in other areas, it simply means that they are able to retain information better when it is presented through visual means. These learners often doodle while listening and may like to write instructions down before carrying them out.
Listening is the key learning method of auditory learners who use their often advanced listening skills to take in and retain information. These learners need content to be explained orally and when studying, often find it useful to talk to themselves and repeat information out loud. Being given written instructions may be a challenge. Auditory learners are often naturally drawn to sound in various forms, whether it be ambient noises that other people may not hear, or music. They enjoy talking and discussing information and may have an aptitude for following verbal directions. Often, when you talk to an auditory learner, it may appear that he/she is not listening attentively, but due to their innate ability to retain auditory information, they may be inclined to multi-task and concentrate on a number of different sound stimuli at once.
These types of learners are often referred to as verbal or linguistic learners and may demonstrate an aptitude for expressing themselves both in writing and verbally. They may have a love for reading and writing and may have a natural ability to study by creating study notes, to-do lists and by consulting textbooks and guides. These learners retain information that they read and may enjoy wordplay like tongue twisters, rhymes and limericks. These can then be used as learning tools in the classroom. They may demonstrate an ability to translate abstract concepts into words, essays and stories.
The best kind of learning is hands-on, for kinesthetic learners. These kinds of learners retain information best by doing, and enjoy having a tactile component to the learning experience. Children who are natural dancers or who are more inclined to movement than other forms of play like watching TV or reading, may be kinesthetic learners. They may use their hands when they talk or touch the people they are talking to. They usually have very sharp hand-eye co-ordination and may be good at sports. Unfortunately, they often struggle in an ordered classroom environment and can be misdiagnosed as ADHD or restless children because learning by observing or listening simply does not work well for them.
There are up to 7 learning styles, but the VARK model is one of the most widely accepted theories on the subject. Apart from observation, there are a number of online tests that can be used to roughly determine what a learner’s learning style is. It may be useful to conduct a test of this nature with your class at the beginning of every year. The outcome will determine a number of factors, including how you position your desks and what kind of lessons you use to teach certain concepts. These tests can be conducted by the teacher or by parents. At a certain age, learners will be able to conduct these tests themselves. Some of the most recommended online tests include:
- Edutopia’s Multiple Intelligences Assessment allows learners to answer a 24 question questionnaire adapted from a survey created by Branton Shearer of M.I. Research and Consulting.
- School Family’s 12 question Learning Styles Quiz is a questionnaire that can be completed with or without a teacher or parent depending on the child’s age group.
- Parenting’s learning styles quiz is a questionnaire that can be completed by parents, and presents ways of helping children with homework according to their learning styles, as well as possible career choices.
Where to from here?
Teachers, if you’re wondering how to practically apply your knowledge of your learners’ needs in the classroom, here are a few tips on how to accommodate different learning styles.
Teaching Strategies for Visual Learners:
- Seat your visual learners near the front of the classroom where they can see what is being presented more clearly
- When explaining a concept, use visual aids like graphs, illustrations and flow charts
- Teach visual learners how to make mind maps – these prove extremely useful when studying
- Encourage them to take notes while you are teaching and do not see doodling as a form of distraction – it can be a useful learning tool
- Use colour coding to distinguish between different concepts as you are teaching them
Teaching Strategies for Auditory Learners:
- Speak up when teaching and animate your presentation to avoid it sounding monotone
- Call on auditory learners to answer questions and repeat back information that has just been presented
- Teach them how to record themselves reading content and play it back while studying
- Encourage discussion groups around the content
- Teach them how to memorise information by creating rhymes and songs
Teach Strategies for Read/Write Learners:
- Call on learners to answer questions or read portions of the prescribed textbook out loud in class
- Allow these learners to study or learn by themselves rather than forcing them to learn in groups or engage in discussions
- Encourage note taking while you are teaching
- Use bullet point lists when teaching or explaining a complex concept
- Where graphs or visual aids are used to describe a concept, complement the lesson with written notes that explain the visual aids
Teaching Strategies for Kinesthetic Learners:
- Seat these learners near the back of the classroom, where their movements will not distract others
- Use role playing exercises to teach content and actively engage these learners
- Use your hands and body to teach and demonstrate concepts
- Encourage note taking while teaching
- Where possible, teach lessons outside or in nature where an active demonstration is possible
Trying to incorporate a range of learning strategies into the classroom simultaneously in order to cater for different learning styles, is a challenge. The key to getting it right is striking a healthy balance – using these tools collectively and selectively so that one’s teaching style is not skewed to suit one particular learning style above the rest. The days of applying a generalised method and expecting good results from all students, are over. More and more, educators are realising that the more personalised and tailored the teaching experience becomes, the more learners of all kinds can thrive.