Did you know that the different types of learning styles play a pivotal role in how individuals absorb and process information?
Everyone has a unique way of learning, and understanding these differences can significantly enhance educational experiences and outcomes. Appreciating such differences can help managers ensure their learning and development programmes are best suited to each employee.
Whether you’re an educator aiming to tailor your approach or simply curious about your own learning preferences, delving into these styles can provide valuable insights.
This guide explores the various learning styles, shedding light on their intricacies and how they shape our educational and training journeys.
Introduction to Learning Styles
Before diving into the different types of learning styles, it’s essential to establish a foundational understanding of what learning styles are. At its core, a learning style refers to the preference or predisposition an individual has toward receiving and processing information.
Different learning modalities were initially introduced in 1979 by Walter Burke Barbe and his colleagues at Northwestern University They gave their theory the acronym VAK, which stood for the following three styles:
- Visualising Modality – information is received from visual stimuli primarily, which may include diagrams or demonstrations.
- Auditory Modality – information primarily comes from spoken instruction or discussion.
- Kinaesthetic Modality – these individuals learn by doing, using in the form of a practical, physical activity (think sports, music, carpentry et cetera).
Although Barbe went on to use these modalities as the foundations for NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), a somewhat controversial system of influence, these three styles remain helpful, especially when a fourth modality was added to the mix by New Zealand educational theorist Neil Fleming:
- Reading & Writing Modality – these learners love internalising theory from written text, or from writing out what they have learned.
There are other paradigms for understanding learning styles, such as those proposed by Anthony Gregorc and Kathleen Butler, or Anthony Grasha and Sheryl Reichmann, but the VARK model, remains among the simplest and most widely accepted methods of defining educational difference.
The Importance of Recognising Varied Styles
Every learner is unique, bringing their personal experiences, cultural backgrounds, and cognitive patterns to bear on the topic at hand. Recognising these distinct learning styles is crucial for educators and trainers. By understanding and acknowledging these styles, L&D professionals can:
- Enhance student engagement, by creating courses that learners enjoy and find stimulating.
- Improve knowledge retention, through creating content that learners are predisposed to remember and find useful. Check out these 20 Employee Retention Strategies for some inspiration.
- Increase overall comprehension, by presenting information in ways that are easy to comprehend and build meaningfully into a comprehensive lesson.
On the other hand, a failure to recognise that some learn difficulty can result in the following failures:
- Avoidance – learners simply don’t show up, leave early, or give up.
- Resistance – learners are present but bored by what’s being taught.
- Confusion – learners try to engage but cannot follow the course.
- Frustration – annoyed by their inability to cope, learners begin to rebel.
- Misunderstanding – learners wrongly process information and fail.
- Forgetting – learners cannot retain the information they are given.
While these different failure modes might be more apparent in a room of schoolchildren, they all exist in adult learners too. Courses must be constructed to offer something to learners with widely different learning styles, either through offering alternatives, or mixing and matching educational styles.
Only by doing so can educators avoid leaving some learners behind.
How Learning Styles Influence Education
Learning styles can shape an educational journey in a range of ways. They can influence how learners prefer to study, the type of resources that resonate with them, and even their interaction within a classroom setting.
Elements that can be adapted to suit different styles might include:
- The type of environment (circle of chairs, lecture hall, laptop at home, desktop at work)
- The modality of teaching (lecture, tutorial, audiovisual, online)
- The degree of interpersonal interaction (individual, small group, classroom, lecture hall)
- The style of the teacher (didactic, conversational, demonstrative, virtual)
- The course content (text, speech, imagery, activities, audio, and video)
- The assessment method (online tests, in person tests, written exercises, course completion only)
All these aspects of a Learning & Development programme can be tailored to suit different learning styles. While it isn’t possible to please everybody all the time, it should be possible to provide something for everyone.
By recognising and leveraging these very different styles, educational methodologies can be developed for maximum inclusion and effectiveness.
Content and its Practical Application
There are of course some types of learning that require a particular kind of course content. It would be difficult to teach CPR, for instance, without some practical experience of performing chest compressions and rescue breaths. Text, speech, and audiovisual content alone won’t suffice.
However, for most courses, it should be possible to lean heavily on the most preferred learning modalities.
Let’s break down those modalities a little more explicitly.
What Are the Primary Learning Styles?
As we’ve seen, different models categorise learning styles in different ways.
However, most educational professionals recognise four primary types of learning, as outlined below.
Visual learners thrive when information is presented in a visual manner. They benefit from diagrams, flowcharts, infographics, and other visual aids. For these learners, seeing information helps cement it in their memory. When they recall information, they’re likely visualising the charts or images associated with that topic.
Courses designed to aid these learners can use graphics, video content, photographs, and even physical objects (where there is an in-person course component).
Field studies or mentoring should be considered for these learners too. Such avenues provide an opportunity to see lessons in action, and to discuss experiences with other learners. When taking online courses, they should include infographics, visual examples, and audiovisual content in preference to blocks of text.
Auditory learners excel when they can listen. They might prefer lectures, discussions, or audiobooks over reading. When studying, they might read aloud or discuss topics with peers. Such learners are often more sociable than those who prefer to watch or read course content.
These learners often have a knack for picking up nuances in tone and sound, making them particularly sensitive to the auditory aspects of their environment. Courses that involve some psychology, such as sales, customer support or conflict resolution can use audio elements such as recorded phone calls to demonstrate various lessons.
Field trips can be useful for these learners, or the employment of guest speakers who can describe their own experiences. With purely online courses, audio or video files featuring domain experts can be very helpful.
Kinaesthetic learners learn best through movement and tactile experiences. They benefit from hands-on activities, physical engagement, and real-world application of knowledge.
It would be very difficult to design a purely online course for such learners, without at least incorporating a practical task or assignment. This is one of the groups for whom field trips are not only useful, but essential, so long as they offer a chance to actively participate.
A good example might be showing learners how to use a 3D printer. Kinaesthetic learners are more likely to engage if they are given the task of designing and creating their own 3D object using the technology.
Such learners might struggle to sit still during lectures, but they shine in workshops or labs where they can physically engage with the material.
As the name suggests, reading/writing learners have a strong affinity for the written word. They prefer reading texts and writing notes. They excel at absorbing information from books, articles, and written reports, and they often express themselves best through writing.
While it may seem easy to create online content for such learners, it may be difficult to engage their attention at lectures or in workshops. Providing handouts or asking learners to do a little preparatory reading might give them the confidence that they’ll be able to make up for anything they miss by reading.
Online courses aimed at such learners still must adhere to good practice for written text, making it accessible, easy to read, using short paragraphs and lots of white space to break up blocks of text.
Also known as interpersonal learners, these individuals process information more effectively through group discussion or collaboration.
Workshops and team exercises work well for this group, but they need not be entirely neglected in an online course either. Learning forums can provide online communities where social learners can share notes, tips, links, and resources. A parasocial approach can also be applied using podcasts and video clips where charismatic hosts discuss relevant topics and invite feedback.
Social learners might also possess a visual, aural, or verbal learning style, and they tend to contribute to a group dynamic by specialising in this secondary learning method and offering their findings to the group.
Think about escape rooms, where one individual tends to focus on interpreting the written instructions and sharing them with the group. Such participants are exhibiting both social and reading styles of learning with this behaviour.
Delving into the Psychology of Learning Styles
It can be helpful to understand a little of the different psychological processes that contribute to learning styles. The causal process is a two-way street:
A learner’s preferred learning style can have a positive or negative psychological effect, depending on how well the course suits them.
In addition, an individual’s learning style is shaped by their psychology, by how they have become hardwired over time.
How Different Styles Impact Cognitive Processes
The different types of learning styles recognised by psychologists have varying impacts on cognitive processes. These can lead to differences in brain development over time.
However, there is some controversy around whether learners really do have different brains, different psychologies, or simply different preferences.
One 2016 Thai study reported by Sapien Labs did appear to show a marked brain difference between acknowledged visual and reading-oriented learners. However, research confirming these findings has been rather thin on the ground.
Understanding a cognitive learner’s differentiation can be instructive in devising methods tailored to different learners, but it’s worth remembering that people are complex. Learning is affected by many variables as we’ve seen, including the nature of the learning environment, educator, and course content.
While it is true that visual learners might have a more developed occipital lobe (the visual processing centre of the brain), while auditory learners might have a more active temporal lobe, this need not preclude each group from learning to appreciate other methods of learning too.
The Brain and Learning Preferences
If we take learning styles as preferences, rather than hard or fast rules, we can still devise content that appeals to those preferences
The brain is an intricate network, and its wiring may in part determine our learning preferences. Certainly, neurological studies have shown that different areas of the brain are activated depending on the type of learning style employed.
For instance, brain regions associated with movement and spatial understanding may be more activated by content designed to appeal to learners with kinaesthetic preferences. The implication is that if a course is to have maximal impact for a range of different learners, it should attempt to provide content that stimulates:
- The occipital lobe, with visual stimuli or text
- The temporal lobe, with auditory content
- The frontal lobe, stimulated by physical activity.
In this way, a wide range of brain activities will be activated, and likewise a wide range of learners will be engaged.
Understanding and Catering to Various Learning Styles
The Importance of Flexibility in Training Methods
Given such diverse learning styles, adopting a one-size-fits-all approach can be detrimental. It is crucial for educators to be flexible and adaptive in their methodologies.
By doing so, they can ensure that all learners, irrespective of their preferred learning style, have an equal opportunity to grasp and internalise information.
Here are three different ways to adopt a flexible multi-style approach:
- It may be possible to create different learning strategies, dependent on different learning preferences, by offering a choice, for instance, between a written paper and a practical exercise.
- A selection of training materials can be provided as an optional resource, including audiovisual clips, written materials, and quizzes.
- Before a course is designed or selected, it may be possible to run an assessment of preferred learning styles, to devise a maximally engaging course. A questionnaire could be used to assess preferences and expectations. This would reduce the need for trial and error, and for creating many different iterations of course content.
Enhancing Learning Experiences by Style
Understanding the different types of learning style is the first step towards fitting content to a learner group. However, if timescales and budgets don’t allow for bespoke course creation, then an alternative approach can be taken to maximise engagement.
This approach seeks to create a varied course which, while it won’t be perfectly suited to any one type of learner, is optimised to appeal to as many as possible by offering a range of different content methodologies.
A mixed approach could include visual aids, group discussions, hands-on activities, and reading assignments to cater to all four primary styles. An online course might include a forum for social sharing, audiovisual content, text, and interactive exercises.
What is vital is that each type of learning content is as rich and engaging as possible – text is well-written, images are vivid, forums are vibrant, and practical exercises or field trips are satisfying.
By mixing and matching learning styles, educators acknowledge the differences between different learners. They engage the largest number of learners and leave as few behind as possible.
Learning Should Be Egalitarian
In the quest to enhance learning outcomes and experiences, understanding the learning styles is paramount. It allows course creators to maximise engagement, retention and understanding, while making their courses as accessible as possible.
Recognising and catering to these styles doesn’t just benefit the learners but also elevates the process itself. It makes courses more thorough, effective, and fun to teach. Remember that educators too can become disengaged if they are presenting the same uniform and inflexible courses, year after year.
Therefore, regular learner and educator feedback is vital to the process of engaging different types of learners, particularly as new types of content are developed such as virtual or augmented reality, which can engage a range of brain processes simultaneously, or the simulated conversations offered by AI. The educational effects of such innovations are in their infancy but could prove transformative.
Whatever methods we adopt, by embracing the diverse ways in which individuals process information, we move closer to creating holistic, inclusive, and effective learning environments (and hitting those all-important engagement KPIs).
Exploring the vast spectrum of learning styles is crucial in recognising how individuals process and assimilate information, tailoring educational experiences to enhance outcomes significantly.
By understanding and appreciating these diverse ways of learning, managers can ensure that their development programmes are optimally aligned with each learner’s unique preferences.
If you’re looking to elevate your training programmes and better cater to the diverse learning styles within your team or classroom, enquire or contact us today.