“The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot,” says Audre Lorde, writer and civil rights activist. Lourde’s quote promotes the idea that all learners have the capability to learn more, learn deeper, and learn faster. But how?
Find out about your preferred styles of learning and how they can be applied in different teaching and learning situations.
Consider experiences you’ve had with learning something new, such as learning to tie your shoes or drive a car. You probably began by showing interest in the process, and after some struggling it became second nature. These experiences were all part of the learning process, which can be described in the four stages:
|Kyle was excited to take a beginning Spanish class to prepare for a semester abroad in Spain. Before his first vocabulary quiz, he reviewed his notes many times. Kyle took the quiz, but when he got the results, he was surprised to see that he had earned a B-, despite having studied so much. Kyle’s professor suggested that he experiment with different ways of studying. For example, in addition to studying his written notes, he might listen to some audio of his vocabulary words—perhaps by looking up an online video created by a native Spanish speaker.|
Many of us, like Kyle, are accustomed to very traditional learning styles as a result of our experience as K–12 students. For instance, we can all remember listening to a teacher talk, and copying notes off the chalkboard. However, when it comes to learning, one size doesn’t fit all. People have different learning styles and preferences, and these can vary from subject to subject. For example, while Kyle might prefer listening to recordings to help him learn Spanish, he might prefer hands-on activities like labs to master the concepts in his biology course. But what are learning styles, and where does the idea come from?
Learning styles are also called learning modalities. Walter Burke Barbe and his colleagues proposed the following three learning modalities (often identified by the acronym VAK):
Examples of these modalities are shown in the table, below.
Neil Fleming’s VARK model expanded on the three modalities described above and added “Read/Write Learning” as a fourth.
The four sensory modalities in Fleming’s model are:
Fleming claimed that visual learners have a preference for seeing (visual aids that represent ideas using methods other than words, such as graphs, charts, diagrams, symbols, etc.). Auditory learners best learn through listening (lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.). Read/write learners have a preference for written words (readings, dictionaries, reference works, research, etc.) Tactile/kinesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience—moving, touching, and doing (active exploration of the world, science projects, experiments, etc.).
The VAK/VARK models can be a helpful way of thinking about different learning styles and preferences, but they are certainly not the last word on how people learn or prefer to learn. Many educators consider the distinctions useful, finding that students benefit from having access to a blend of learning approaches. Others find the idea of three or four “styles” to be distracting or limiting.
In the college setting, you’ll probably discover that instructors teach their course materials according to the method they think will be most effective for all students. Thus, regardless of your individual learning preference, you will probably be asked to engage in all types of learning. For instance, even though you consider yourself to be a “visual learner,” you will still probably have to write papers in some of your classes. Research suggests that it’s good for the brain to learn in new ways and that learning in different modalities can help learners become more well-rounded. Consider the following statistics on how much content students absorb through different learning methods:
The range of these results underscores the importance of mixing up the ways in which you study and engage with learning materials.
You might discover that you prefer more than one learning style. Applying more than one learning style is known as multimodal learning. This strategy is useful not only for students who prefer to combine learning styles but also for those who may not know which learning style works best for them. It’s also a good way to mix things up and keep learning fun.
For example, consider how you might combine visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles to a biology class. For visual learning, you could create flash cards containing images of individual animals and the species name. For auditory learning, you could have a friend quiz you on the flash cards. For kinesthetic learning, you could move the flash cards around on a board to show a food web (food chain).
The following video will help you review the types of learning styles and see how they might relate to your study habits:
Answer the question(s) below to see how well you understand the topics covered in the section. This short quiz does not count toward your grade, and you can retake it an unlimited number of times.
1. Mansaray, David. "The Four Stages of Learning: The Path to Becoming an Expert." DavidMansaray.com. 2011. Web. 10 Feb 2016.
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