Learning Styles

Understanding Different Learning Styles That Students Use Is Essential For Planning Successful Learning Programmes.

Understanding different learning styles that students use is very important to be able to help students learn in the most effective ways.

In his book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ Stephen Covey suggests that in order to be successful we should understand how other people think and act before we try to make ourselves understood.
As educators we should heed this advice and make sure we understand how our students learn and what their needs are before developing our teaching programmes. If we don’t take account of different learning styles we run the risk of investing time and energy into programmes that are not effective because they don’t help students access the learning successfully.

The last 30 years have seen a lot of research into different learning styles. Most teachers now know that learning styles are a factor in successful learning. In the simplest terms, learning styles are simply the different ways that students set about the task of learning.

In more complex terms, some experts define different learning styles as the preferred processes students use when they learn, and some believe that, unlike intelligence, students’ particular learning styles are fixed. In other words, students will find it easier to learn in their preferred learning style, and will find learning easier if the conditions are present to allow them to use their learning style.

The most widespread outcome of research into different learning styles

Whatever the debate [and there is one], the most widespread outcome of research into students’ different learning styles is that many teachers are now aware of the concept of visual learning, auditory learning and kinesthetic learning, often known as VAK. These concepts come from research from Neuro Linguistic Programming [NLP], and maintain that all human beings are born with a marked preference for organising experience by means of one of these key senses or ‘modalities’. Visual learners tend to find learning more successful when they can use media such as graphs, pictures, and diagrams to help them make sense of the information they want to learn. They find it helpful to have visual representations of the information they need to process.

Actually there is another kind of visual learner who are known as verbal learners and for them it is helpful when information is presented in ways designed to help them understand information quickly so features such as lists and flow charts help this kind of learner, who focus mainly on understanding through words.

Auditory learners are more at ease in learning activities that focus on processing information through the words they hear rather than other stimuli that may be present. So auditory learners access learning easily in verbal lectures and discussions, by talking things through, with a partner or perhaps in a group and listening to what others have to say.

Kinesthetic learners need opportunites to handle objects, perform physical experiments, and they learn by trying. They like to work in groups to solve problems using a hands-on approach, that allows them to actively explore the physical world around them. They often have difficulty sitting still for long periods and can easily be distracted if they have to concentrate for long periods of time in passive learning and often feel frustrated when they are forced into this learning mode.

VAK remains an important feature of any consideration of learning styles, even though some teachers have not fully appreciated its place in a far-reaching matrix of learning capacity and have used it as a kind of ‘froth’ to spice up lessons through fairly superficial activities, or have gone to the other extreme by believing that VAK is all there is to understanding different learning styles, and have devoted all their focus to these three tendencies.

One positive outcome from the attention given to VAK is a better understanding of how teachers can take some simple measures to make learning more inclusive.

For example, we are more aware now of the need to make learning much more explicit for visual learners, especially when it comes to more academic learning, by providing a wider and more sophisticated range of visual clues or ‘signposts’ to help visual learners find a pathway through the learning.

Auditory learners have often found academic learning more accessible because they tend to be able to recall more easily information that tends to be delivered through spoken language, such as in lectures.

Kinesthetic learners probably represent slightly more than a third of the average class of students and yet, historically, classroom instruction has been delivered in ways that are least suited to this group of learners. It’s no surprise that many of the discipline problems in a classroom involve so called kinesthetic learners who get too few opportunites to learn in kinesthetic mode.

Even more important is the evidence from research into the ways the brain functions, that movement per se seems to help learning, for all types of learner, and so the more we can incorporate movement into programmes for all learners, the more successful the learning programmes will be.

Other aspects of different learning styles

Research into different learning styles has centred on more than VAK with its focus on sensory modalities.

Professor Howard Gardner has carried out extensive and generally well known research on how intelligence influences learning styles, outlined in his Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Professor Gardner proposes that intelligence is not a single entity, but rather a collection of natural competencies or potential competencies.

Strictly speaking Gardner’s competencies do not represent specific learning styles, although many teachers use them in this way. It may be better to think of these multiple intelligences as reference points that teachers can use to help students who are not naturally drawn to language and logic [two major ingredients in formal education] to find other ways to access language and logic by using their other natural intelligences.

Many educators now take account of the findings from some significant studies based on the ways individuals process information. One of the major thinkers in this field is David Kolb, whose experiential learning theory is based on a learning cycle made up of four dimensions which can apply to all learners.

According to Kolb we all start with what he calls ‘immediate or concrete experiences’ which we use as a basis for ‘observations and reflections’. We then incorporate these observations into ‘abstract concepts’ which we can ‘actively test’ and so create new experiences for ourselves.

Another respected researcher in this field is Anthony Gregorc, whose work attracts a lot of attention. He bases his learning styles theory on research into the functioning of the brain hemispheres. His learning styles framework suggests we all learn at different points along a continuum.

For Gregorc, learning starts with how we perceive information and he suggests we prefer to perceive information in an abstract way, using reason and intuition, or in a concrete way by using our senses directly. We then order that information for processing either in a sequential way, which means we prefer to sort things in a linear fashion, or our preference is to order information in a more chaotic,random way.
Brain based learning is a major field for research on learning styles.

It has developed signifcantly over the last two decades as a result of the research carried out by neuroscientists, who have been helped by scientific advances that have enabled the widespread use of brain scans, from which a lot of very reliable scientific evidence has emerged. This information has helped make clear how the human brain retains and processes information, in other words how human learning actually occurs.

So for example we now know that, among other things,

the brain can perform several activites at the same time
we store information in different parts of the brain and we can retrieve this information through ‘neural pathways’ and we can train ourselves to find these pathways easily
emotions play a big part in how successfully we learn
our brain is programmed to look for meaning
Brain based learning has a major role to play in developing the nature and quality of learning and teaching in the classroom.

Researchers have studied some other approaches to understanding learning styles although these are probably less well known to many teachers and have been adopted less widely.

One of the more accesible and, I think, useful approaches for use in the classroom is the model proposed by Dunn and Dunn who have carried out some significant research and claim that students’ learning styles are a combination of the ways students react at different levels such as environmental, sociological, physical, emotional and psychological.

There are some difficulties with using different learning styles in the classroom

One of the side effects of the research on learning styles is that it is easy for teachers to oversimplify the situation. The different learning styles students use are factors in a complex process, which may mislead us into simplistic solutions.

For example, some learners may have a particular learning preference, eg visual learning style, but in reality these learners, like all learners, have to and do use multiple learning styles. Teachers cannot structure all learning in one style for any one particular group of learners. Life beyond the classroom is not like that, and our aim is to help students learn effectively both in and out of the classroom.

Another potential difficulty is that teachers may label students as learners of a particular style , for example, ‘kinesthetic learners’, when it is more accurate to say that these are learners who often learn well in kinesthetic modes, but who can use other learning styles to access information with help and a sympathetic approach to other styles of learning. I have known some students who’ve created for themselves a potentially disabling profile by saying, ‘I’m a visual learner, I can’t learn this way.’ If we leave learners feeling this way we are not helping them succeed in the long term.

How can we use different learning styles in the classroom?

Teachers can use the findings from research into different learning styles to plan and implement imaginative classroom programmes that include a wide range of learning styles so that all students over time can access information in their preferred learning style, but at the same time can become familiar with other learning styles.

Learners need, perhaps, to develop other ‘learning muscles’ to make them stronger, in the same way as physical muscles in the body can be developed to enhance performance. Many learners already can and do access information naturally through multiple learning styles, and offering a wide variety of learning learning modes enhances learning for these students.

The way forward with different learning styles in the classroom.

learning is a complex matrix – it may be best for teachers to think of learning styles as a toolkit to provide effective learning experiences, taking account of the wider picture shown by learning styles research, not simply to focus on VAK; this is not quite a ‘pick’n mix’ approach but teachers can systematically use features that different learning styles offer to provide a rich and varied curriculum to all learners.
all learners need to see how valuable it is to use all modes of learning: the real secret to learning is to know the most effective way to learn in any given circumstances, and the most valued people in the world beyond school will be those who can learn in a range of different ways
we need to show students how to use learning styles, which means we need to talk explicitly about learning, we need to give them a language to explain how people learn and to describe the contribution different learning styles make
the term ‘learning styles’ may be the wrong word to use, it may be more useful to think of learning strengths or learning modes, that are available to everyone to develop
we can explain to students the need to go beyond relying on learning simply happening by itself: learners need to be proactive and make it happen so we need to help them develop the personal qualities as well as the skills required for successful learning, such as resilience, resourcefulness, reflectiveness, responsiveness, remembering, that researchers such as Alastair Smith and Guy Claxton have highlighted as important qualities that successful learners display
teachers also need to make it happen; we can’t take for granted that understanding will automatically follow insruction; understanding really only happens when students construct meaning for themselves; understanding and applying all the knowledge we now have about how people learn gives a better chance to enable more learners to do this more of the time and is the only logical step forward.

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