Learning styles – categories of preferred methods of learning: auditory, visual and kinaesthetic.
Learning styles is a type of differentiated instruction that categorises students not by ability levels but into one or more categories of ‘preferred’ ways of learning. This means that two students at opposite ends of the performance spectrum, can and often have the same preferred learning style. The concept of learning styles has been a hot topic in education circles since Walter Burke Barbe and his colleagues published the VAK learning styles several decades ago.i While there are many different learning style models, VAK is by far the most well-known. VAK is an acronym for Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic/tactile, and it is the dominant learning style model used by teachers.
VAK serves as a reminder that students respond to content, resources and activities in different ways – it is a differentiation tool.
The main premise behind learning styles is that not everyone learns in the same way: some may prefer to watch a video or look at diagrams and images (visual learners), others may prefer to learn in a social context by listening and interacting with others (auditory learners), and finally other students will prefer to touch, feel and ‘do’ something (kinaesthetic/tactile learners). With the plethora of social media and online technologies, there is an argument that people tend to be more visual learners due to sheer exposure to visual media compared to the past.
Hint: Why is it that the same people who hated history at school will often sit and watch endless hours of YouTube videos about the exact same subject? Could it be learning styles? The concept of learning styles has spread like wildfire in recent decades probably due to VAK’s simplicity and the increased popularity of terms like differentiated instruction and student-centred pedagogy.
While teachers continue to refer to learning styles, research continues to show that learning styles do not always stack up.ii Students who claim to be visual learners do not remember visual images any more than students who claim to be tactile learners or auditory learners. Learning styles are no more than a preference; there is no academic benefit (at least no measurable one) to be gained from designing programs around learning styles even if it were possible to accurately determine a person’s ‘true’ learning style. Notwithstanding these findings, teachers continue to talk about and use learning styles as part of their practice. Why do teachers persist with models such as VAK when research shows that they are effectively no more than a fairy tale?
The answer is quite simple and not surprising. VAK serves as a reminder that students respond to content, resources and activities in different ways – it is a differentiation tool. In other words, it is a simple and effective way of adding variety to classroom activities. When planning a lesson, a simple trick is to incorporate one visual, one auditory and one kinaesthetic activity. This adds spice and vitality to the lesson; if one activity fails to get the message across, the next one might. Some students will easily learn by watching a short video clip while others will need a second activity – say a discussion – for the concept to sink in. In a sense (and what the researchers have missed) is that VAK is a useful planning tool that helps teachers to cover all their bases. This is how learning styles are used in the modern classroom – to add variety.
Hint: there are 2 aspects to learning styles: firstly, a person’s preference (‘I’m a visual learner’) and secondly, the actual learning style that works best (if any) when tested These two may be different.
While research may disagree, people do seem to gravitate toward learning in ways that makes sense to them – maybe because of experience, interest, personality or beliefs. For example, some people are good at fixing things. They learn to fix almost anything by getting their hands dirty and tinkering; successful strategies such as trial and error, investigation and building on existing knowledge work a treat for them. Other people are social creatures – they gravitate toward ‘people industries’ such as the caring professions. They prefer conversations, social interaction, mentoring and seeking advice from their peers to learn. These people are more often than not extroverts. Finally, visual learners prefer to acquire knowledge and skills by watching online lectures, documentaries, expert models and video clips. When reading a textbook or researching, they go straight to the images, diagrams and graphs, believing them to be the most concise and accurate summary of key information.
Here is a brief description of the 3 main learning styles:
Hint: there is no doubt that students prefer to learn in different ways. However, trying to categorise these preferences into neat boxes is fraught with problems. For starters, almost all activities involve at least 2 learning styles (for example, watching and listening to a video clip).
Whether one learning style is more effective than another is irrelevant in many ways. A more effective way to lift performance is to increase on-task learning, conscientiousness and self-belief. When students have high intrinsic motivation and a willingness to learn, teaching becomes much easier. Even if there is no evidence that learning styles are effective from a performance perspective, there is no doubt that people prefer to learn in certain ways. Therefore, why not make life easier and give students what they want? There is no reason to force a person who loves reading to watch documentaries all day. Why not let them read as often as possible, resulting in fewer behavioural issues for the teacher to manage, higher motivation, higher recall and more learning, all with less stress.
When students have high intrinsic motivation and a willingness to learn, teaching becomes much easier.
Almost all teaching strategies employ at least 2 of the 3 learning styles simultaneously. In these cases, one learning style will be more prominent than the other. Using all 3 at the same time is not as common but it does happen in practical activities such as when students watch, listen and copy the teacher. Effective teaching involves using a mixture of learning styles for example:
Adam Green is an advisor to government, a registered teacher, an instructional designer and an author. He is completing a Doctor of Education and was previously head of department for one of the country’s largest SAER (students at educational risk) schools. Adam is managing director of Fast Track Training Australia, an accredited training provider for thousands of teacher aides every year.
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