There are fewer things more frustrating than unsuccessfully trying to help a student understand something. Whether you are a teacher in a classroom or a parent at home, the struggle is real.
Thankfully, there is a way to help improve your odds the next time you find yourself trying to assist with homework or teach a student a new skill. By doing some simple detective work, you can determine the way or ways a learner prefers to learn. These learning styles can provide the inspiration for differentiating your teaching approach to help different types of learners.
Learning Styles in the Current Educational Landscape
When learning styles first became all the rage in the education world, educators latched onto them as the surefire way to help every student learn. The process was simple: figure out a child’s learning style, match instruction to that learning style, and growth would just happen. Research soon proved that was not the case.
Not surprisingly, there has been plenty of pushback against the claims that learning styles are a sure bet when it comes to facilitating student understanding. As with everything in education, there is no panacea to make learning magically happen. However, that does not mean learning styles have no place in a teacher’s toolbox.
By recasting learning styles through a lens of student learning preferences, educators can ensure they are offering academic help and support in ways that significantly up the likelihood of student engagement and, in turn, growth.
Taking things a step further, this same understanding can lead to purposefully differentiated instruction practices. Mixing and matching teaching techniques aimed at different learning styles can give students the opportunity to turn diverse learning experiences into complex understandings.
What Are Learning Styles?
Depending on whom you ask, there are anywhere from three to eight major learning styles. The underlying concept stems from the work of Harvard Professor of Education Howard Gardner and his Multiple Intelligences Theory. In basic terms, Gardner’s research showed that human intelligence takes different forms and, as such, could be developed and expressed in different ways.
Educators latched onto this idea as a way to differentiate their approach to teaching students, and the concept of learning styles was born. Theoretically, by varying learning activities and opportunities, students of different learning styles would have opportunities to learn in ways that were most comfortable and productive.
For example, some people are visual learners and need to see examples or diagrams to comprehend new concepts. Others are auditory learners and need things explained verbally. Still others are kinesthetic learners and need concrete, hands-on experiences to learn new things effectively.
Identifying Learning Styles
There are numerous online tools and quizzes that can be used to assess someone’s learning style. If you choose to use one, opt for versions that are on the longer side. These types of quizzes tend to be more accurate simply due to the fact that they have more data to quantify.
Before trying a learning style quiz, be sure you know what learning styles it is actually evaluating. Some tests focus on four main areas (VARK – Visual, Auditory, Reading/Writing, and Kinesthetic) while others tend to focus more on multiple intelligences (which technically aren’t the same thing as learning styles).
It should be noted that, by their very nature, these surveys are imperfect tools. The results are by no means clinical nor do they always provide perfectly accurate results. Ultimately, their usefulness is tied to the accuracy and self-awareness of their participants.
Putting the Learning Styles to Use
So you’ve had your student or child complete a learning style quiz or two (…or three), now what?
Based on the results, you now have some information that will help you to explore the best ways to present ideas and concepts that account for learning styles.
Many of the best resources you will find are targeted at teachers; if you are a parent or tutor, don’t be afraid to check them out anyway. As it turns out, adjusting your approach to account for a variety of learning styles is not particularly complicated.
Here are some basic examples:
For Visual Learners…
- Sketch diagrams to demonstrate key concepts.
- Use graphic organizers (Venn diagrams, T-charts, graphs, etc.) to classify information.
- Provide handy references as lists or on Post-It notes.
- Find video clips or screencasts demonstrating the content.
- Keep a cup of highlighters and coloring implements handy to color-code information.
For Auditory Learners…
- Record explanations using a tape recorder or smart device so they can be reviewed multiple times.
- Rehearse material conversationally.
- Use text-to-speech software to aid with difficult reading material.
- Incorporate music into the learning experience.
For Linguistic Learners (Reading & Writing)…
- Turn on closed-captioning for video clips.
- Use speech-to-text software to create written versions of spoken or recorded explanations.
- Find articles and print resources from multiple sources and keep them organized for future reference.
- Encourage keeping an academic journal to help document new understandings and grapple with difficult ones.
For Kinesthetic Learners…
- Incorporate movement and physicality whenever appropriate.
- When possible, find ways for students to put the learning into practice in a practical context rather than focusing on the abstract.
- Provide a mix of different creative tools and supplies on hand to use in demonstrations and modeling.
- Promote engagement through the use of note-taking strategies when information is presented visually or audibly.
The Push Back Against Learning Styles
Recently, there have been studies and articles published that point out that students may not, in fact learn any better or worse when they are asked to complete learning tasks that are tailored to their preferred learning style. However, nearly all of these studies concede that people certainly still have learning preferences when it comes to how they feel most comfortable engaging with content.
A common misconception about learning styles is that they are a direct pathway to learning; just because a lesson is presented in a student’s preferred learning style, does not mean they will automatically learn. As with everything in education, nothing is that simple.
Furthermore, actual learning goals do not always fit nicely within a student’s preferred learning style. Educators must take into account that growth requires a mix of approaches and instructional methods to be effective.
Using Learning Styles to Differentiate Instruction
Rather than using learning styles to target specific students with specific instruction, they can be utilized successfully as a way to differentiate teaching approaches.
This makes sense; certain learning goals are naturally tied to certain types of activities. For instance, students learning to read will inevitably need to know how to process information visually and develop linguistic comprehension. Learning how to debate is naturally an interpersonal activity and requires both active listening and the creation of rhetorical argument. It doesn’t matter if a student prefers these particular learning styles or not. Mastery requires a blended approach.
Trying to teach complex skills within the confines of a single learning style would be nearly impossible. Instead, teachers can provide a variety of approaches that expose students to the most relevant learning style niches for a particular objective. The more differentiated the approach, however, the more likely a student would be able to find some tasks along the way that are particularly well suited to their learning tastes.
Take for example, learning to play guitar. Students learning to play guitar will have to eventually pick up a guitar and play it – kinesthetic learner or not. That being said, guitar students could benefit from other activities targeted at a variety of learning styles.
Video lessons and chord charts would be effective visual learning opportunities. Providing .mp3 files with lesson examples and accompaniments would help learners who appreciate auditory learning experiences. Independent practice time would provide intrapersonal experiences just as time with a tutor would provide interpersonal ones.
Along these same lines, teachers and tutors can diversify the opportunities available to students when it comes to learning academic content. While students very well may have learning preferences, they inevitably need to develop competencies across multiple learning styles to be successful. By exposing students to content and assessment styles across the gamut of learning styles and Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, students have the chance to build deeper learning connections.
So, rather than thinking of learning styles as prescriptive tools, use them as a way to evaluate how differentiated your learning opportunities truly are.
Some questions to consider include:
- Do your learning activities allow students to interact with new information in a variety of different ways?
- Are students given opportunities to engage with content in ways they feel most comfortable?
- Are students challenged to interact with learning activities that combine multiple learning styles?
- Do students have choices of different product formats when it comes to how they complete formative assessments?
Blending a variety of different learning styles into your pedagogy gives students opportunities to both learn in ways that are comfortable as well as hone their skills in other areas.
For a parent or teacher trying to help a struggling child, how researchers choose to debate the semantics of “learning styles” versus “learning preferences” moving forward is largely irrelevant; the pendulum of education is forever swinging. Regardless, finding any way to help a struggling child engage with and understand a key concept is always worth the effort. Including a wide array of stylistic teaching approaches will ensure that students have pathways to growth filled with a combination of both comfort and challenge.
Sheldon Soper is a ten year veteran of the teaching profession and currently serves as a junior high school teacher in southern New Jersey and as a writer for The Knowledge Roundtable, a free tutoring marketplace. His primary focus is building reading, writing, and research skills in his students. He holds two degrees from Rutgers University: a B.A. in History as well as a M.Ed. in Elementary Education. He holds teaching certifications in English Language Arts, Social Studies, and Elementary Education. He has also worked as a tutor for grades ranging from second through high school in a wide variety of subjects including reading, writing, calculus, chemistry, algebra, and test prep. His core educational beliefs stem from the notion that all students can be successful; it is the role of educators to help facilitate growth by differentiating and scaffolding student learning on a personal level.