About Learning Styles

A “complicated” idea

The idea of learning styles has become a somewhat contentious term used to describe the attitudes and behaviors, which ‘may’ determine an individual’s preferred way of learning. It is the ‘may’ that draws attention as it is often omitted and hence the concept becomes a deterministic approach to categorizing how learners engage with information, their peers, educators and opportunities to learn. Some researchers even argue that learning styles don’t exist, while others are strong defenders of the idea that we must consider learner’s preferences when developing instructional tools and materials.

Suffice to say, it is also an area where so many learning styles/preference models exist, that the marketplace is truly over-crowded (a citation search revealed over 150 articles espousing models), so where does one look to…? And how may we use them to our benefit?

If we merely take note of the range of styles and/or preferences available, we may begin to address a number of key issues that impact student interaction. The idea of learner malaise, lack of motivation, misinterpretation is not down to recalcitrant individuals alone. By adapting the way in which we teach and provide learning opportunities to reflect the potential ‘learning styles’ apparent in any cohort, we may begin to offer an open and engaging process that is directed to their (the learners) preferred style/method of interaction and engagement.

A traditional approach

Learning styles can be evaluated in several ways. One of the oldest methods is to consider a person’s modalities as visual, auditory, or tactile (kinesthetic). To say that someone’s learning style is visual means that they intake information meaningfully through the sense of sight. This includes reading, watching demonstrations, interpreting charts, maps, etc. The auditory learner intakes oral information in a meaningful manner through explanations, discussions, audio cassettes, and other methods of using sound. The tactile learner intakes information in a meaningful manner through the sense of touch or body movements. (Tactile modality is sometimes referred to as kinesthetic modality). Strategies a tactile learner may use include making models, writing flash cards, or using dramatizations. Most people learn through a combination of modalities, but generally, one modality is dominant. This could be thought of as being similar to “handedness.” Most people use both hands efficiently but have a preference for one or the other. It is wise to develop all modalities as much as possible, but learning occurs efficiently when you know your strengths and “play to them.”

Different theories and models

The following three tables elaborate on the details of learning styles theories and models (Rose, Honey & Mumford and Gardner) and the interpretation of the implied learning modality on the individual.

Rose 1985
Visual: Learners prefer to learn with visual reinforcement such as charts and diagrams
Auditory: Learners prefer to learn by listening
Kinaesthetic: Learners prefer to learn through, moving, doing and touching
Honey and Mumford 1996
Theoretical: Learners prefer to learn by reading and listening to the experts
Pragmatic: Learners like to be able to see the practical application of theory. They like to use deductive reasoning to focus on problems and they prefer situations where there is a single correct answer or solution
Reflective: Learners tend to be imaginative and emotional. They work well in group discussions
Activist: Learners are action-oriented. They learn by doing
Gardner 1993
Visual/Spatial Intelligence: Puzzle building, reading, writing, understanding charts and graphs, a good sense of direction, sketching, painting, creating visual metaphors and analogies (perhaps through the visual arts), manipulating images, constructing, fixing, designing practical objects, interpreting visual images.
Verbal/Linguistic Intelligence: Listening, speaking, writing, story-telling, explaining, teaching, using humor, understanding the syntax and meaning of words, remembering information, convincing someone of their point of view, analyzing language usage.
Logical/Mathematical Intelligence: Problem solving, classifying and categorizing information, working with abstract concepts to figure out the relationship of each to the other, handling long chains of reason to make local progressions, doing controlled experiments, questioning and wondering about natural events, performing complex mathematical calculations, working with geometric shapes.
Bodily/Kinaesthetic Intelligence: Dancing, physical co-ordination, sports, hands-on experimentation, using body language, crafts, acting, miming, using their hands to create or build, expressing emotions through the body.
Musical/Rhythmic Intelligence: Singing, whistling, playing musical instruments, recognizing tonal patterns, composing music, remembering melodies, understanding the structure and rhythm of music.
Interpersonal Intelligence: Seeing things from other perspectives (dual-perspective), listening, using empathy, understanding other people’s moods and feelings, counseling, co-operating with groups, noticing people’s moods, motivations and intentions, communicating both verbally and non-verbally, building trust, peaceful conflict resolution, establishing positive relations with other people.
Intrapersonal Intelligence: Recognising their own strengths and weaknesses, reflecting and analyzing themselves, awareness of their inner feelings, desires and dreams, evaluating their thinking patterns, reasoning with themselves, understanding their role in relationship to others.

[This article contains information published by Becoming a Better University Teacher by UCD Teaching and Learning, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.]