Exploring Different Learning Styles: How to Find the Best Approach
(9 minutes read)
Learning is a very personal journey. Everyone is different, meaning that every student will encounter their own hurdles, their own preferences, and their own relationship with education as a whole. Picture this: a teacher welcomes her new class at the beginning of the school year. If she’s fortunate, she’ll have an idea of each child’s strengths and challenges through a handover from their previous teacher, indicating general ability levels determined via assessment scores.
As the first maths lesson of the day begins, she notices little Gordon’s eyes start to glaze over, yet she continues to finish her modelling before handing out differentiated worksheets. Gordon fails to understand the instructions, then shuts down completely, visibly frustrated. However, as indicated by previous assessment scores, Gordon should have found this task a breeze. The fact is: his learning style wasn’t accounted for. So, what do we mean by ‘learning style’?
Learning styles: a nebulous issue
Let’s start from the beginning. Learning styles refer to the way that individuals prefer to absorb, process, and retain new information. While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to learning, understanding your own personal learning style can help you to find more effective ways to study and improve your overall academic performance.
Some common learning styles include visual, kinaesthetic, reading/writing, and social learning, however, the strands of styles are even more nebulous. Here, we'll explore each of these styles - and more - in detail, and discuss strategies for catering to these different approaches to learning. So, firstly, let’s define some primary learning styles.
Visual learners prefer to learn through seeing and observing. They may benefit from using diagrams, charts, and other visual aids to help them understand new concepts. When studying, visual learners may find it helpful to create their own visual representations of the material, such as mind maps or concept maps. These learners may also benefit from using visual resources like videos and online simulations to supplement their learning.
Kinaesthetic learners, also known as hands-on learners, prefer to learn through physical activity and exploration. These learners may benefit from interactive activities, such as experiments, role-playing, and simulations, to help them understand new concepts. Kinaesthetic learners may find it helpful to take notes by writing or drawing rather than simply listening to a lecture. They may also benefit from using physical manipulatives, such as blocks or flashcards, to help them grasp new ideas.
Reading/writing learners prefer to learn through reading and writing. They may benefit from taking extensive notes, outlining the material, and reviewing their notes regularly. These learners could find it helpful to write summaries or study guides to help them organise and remember new information. They may also benefit from reading the material out loud or discussing it with others.
Social learners prefer to learn through interaction and collaboration with others. They may benefit from group study sessions, discussion groups, and other collaborative learning activities. These learners may find it helpful to teach the material to their peers or to work on projects with others. They also benefit from participating in class discussions and asking questions of the instructor or other students.
Auditory learners are individuals who learn best through listening and speaking. They tend to prefer lectures, discussions, and verbal instructions, and may struggle with visual or hands-on learning methods. One of the most notable characteristics of auditory learners is their reliance on verbal communication.
They often prefer to learn through conversations, lectures, or discussions, as these methods allow them to process information through hearing and speaking. Auditory learners may also benefit from listening to audio recordings or podcasts, as they can replay and review the information as needed.
Accommodating multisensory learners
While these are some of the primary learning styles, it’s important to realise that learning needs are diverse, stretching beyond these categories. Educators will often find themselves standing before a class filled with multisensory learners. It’s understandable to feel a sense of intimidation here, as accommodating for these students will come with its fair share of challenges.
Understandably, these students often have different learning styles and need to process information in a variety of ways. However, with the right strategies, it’s entirely possible to create an inclusive and effective learning environment that accounts for every student.
How educators can support multisensory learners
Multisensory learners often benefit from a variety of teaching methods, including lectures, hands-on activities, and visual aids. It’s advisable to use a mix of these methods to engage students with different learning styles and help them process information in multiple ways.
The importance of visual aids
Visual aids, such as charts, diagrams, and videos, can be helpful for multisensory learners who need to see information in order to understand it. Educators who use these to supplement their teaching style will prevent students from slipping through the cracks during their instructions and tasks, as the content’s input will cover more bases for a range of learning styles. Cementing its impact, plenty of research exists indicating the importance of using visual aids throughout the learning process.
Hands-on activities, such as experiments and robotics, can be especially helpful for multisensory learners who need to experience and manipulate information in order to fully understand it. These activities allow students to engage with the material they are learning in a meaningful and interactive way, which can greatly enhance their understanding and retention of the subject matter. In fact, when approached correctly, research suggests those who are able to physically manipulate the course of their learning journey gain better learning outcomes overall.
Encourage verbal processing
Some multisensory learners may benefit from verbal processing, where they talk through a problem or concept with a teacher or peer. Students who discuss and explain what they’re learning, using their own words, gain a closer connection to the content as a whole. With encouragement, students can express their ideas and opinions from a personal perspective.
This is particularly important for younger students, who may not have fully developed their writing skills, but still have important ideas to contribute to class discussions and activities. By encouraging verbal processing, teachers can help students to build their confidence and feel more included in the learning process.
Take individual needs into account
If a student has a specific need, such as a learning disability or attention deficit disorder, it may be necessary to offer accommodations to help them succeed. These could include extra time on assignments, the use of assistive technology, or modified materials. Also, in this case, working closely with parents and other educators can be an effective way to better understand the specific learning needs of your students.
Through this collaboration, educators are able to gain valuable insight into the individual needs of every student. Certain barriers will arise, particularly with students who encounter learning difficulties, which contribute toward their universal style of learning. It’s important to remain pragmatic and realistic in these situations, allowing students the opportunity to overcome potential barriers and be able to access the learning content with confidence.
Being patient, understanding, and adaptive
Teaching multisensory learners can be challenging, but the importance of being patient and flexible cannot be understated. It may take longer for them to fully grasp a concept, and they may need additional support and reinforcement. One of the key benefits of being adaptive in teaching is that it allows educators to tailor their instruction to the individual needs of their students. Leading on from the previous point, each student with a learning disability is unique, with their own strengths, challenges, and learning styles.
By being adaptive, teachers can identify the specific needs of each student and create personalised learning experiences that address those needs. This can be particularly important for students with learning disabilities, as traditional teaching approaches may not always be the most effective option. Again, research has reinforced the importance of being inclusive and adaptive for students with learning disabilities, as this flexibility will lend itself toward the overall progression of any learner.
Approaching learning styles remotely
In recent years, the world of education has experienced a shift. Despite being accelerated by the pandemic, remote education has been showing signs of evolving for a while. This has meant that educators have needed to conjure various techniques that cater for a range of learning styles in a virtual space. Fortunately, one of the benefits of virtual learning is the ability to use a wide range of teaching methods to meet the needs of different learners.
This can include using videos, podcasts, online presentations, and interactive activities to engage visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learners. It can also be helpful to provide written materials such as handouts, notes, or quizzes for students who prefer to read and write, accessible through a Learning Management System (LMS). Particularly with the assistance of an LMS, content can also be approached synchronously or asynchronously, allowing students autonomy over their own learning and, naturally, their specific learning style.
Overcoming hurdles in the remote space
Understandably, accounting for learning styles remotely can be challenging. For example, virtual learning may sometimes feel isolating for students, leading educators to encourage ample opportunities for collaboration. This can be done through online discussion forums, group projects, or virtual office hours. Stimulating collaboration and discussion can help students feel more connected to their classmates, their learning experience, and allows the communicative exploration of different learning styles.
One of the biggest challenges of teaching remotely is the lack of face-to-face interaction between student and teacher. This can make it difficult for educators to gauge how well their students are comprehending the material and to adapt their teaching methods to meet the needs of different learning styles. However, through the use of interactive tools, such as virtual breakout rooms, face-to-face interaction can be facilitated, allowing students to collaborate and engage with the material in a more interactive way.
Using the STEAM approach
Innovation and interactivity are key pieces of the puzzle when exploring learning styles. A way to cater for this is through the use of STEAM kits. When STEAM kits are brought out in the classroom, students are able to engage with science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematical concepts in an explorative, interactive way. These kits often come with a variety of materials and activities that allow students to experiment with different ideas, encouraging creativity and problem-solving skills.
One great thing about STEAM kits is that they can be used to teach a wide range of subjects and age groups. For younger students, kits might include simple building materials such as cardboard and craft sticks, allowing them to construct basic structures or machines. Older students might have access to more advanced materials like motors and sensors, allowing them to build more complex projects and explore more advanced concepts. Essentially, a wide range of learning styles can be accounted for.
STEAM kits also allow students to learn through hands-on, experiential learning. Rather than simply reading about scientific principles or engineering concepts, students can actively engage with these ideas through building and testing their own projects. This can be a much more effective way of learning, as it allows students to connect what they are learning to real-world experiences. In fact, research suggests that, with some guidance, the implementation of STEAM kits in early education can have positive results on teachers and students alike.
STEAM kits allow personalised learning
Another advantage of using STEAM kits in the classroom is that they can be customised to fit the needs and interests of individual students. For example, if a student is particularly interested in robotics, the teacher can incorporate robotics-themed activities or projects into the lesson plan. This can help keep students engaged and motivated, as they are able to explore topics that are of particular interest to them, catered toward their individual learning style.
There are also many virtual resources and communities that teachers can tap into when using STEAM kits in the classroom. Online forums are available, allowing teachers to share lesson plans, activity ideas, and other resources related to STEAM education. These resources can be a great way for teachers to stay up-to-date on the latest trends and best practices in STEAM education, and to find new and creative ways to develop the various learning styles of their students.
Learning is an explorative process
Ultimately, learning should encourage discovery. Discovery of different subjects, of different materials and, importantly, of different learning styles. When a student understands their own personal learning style, they have access to a powerful tool that assists in the improvement of their academic performance, and their relationship with learning itself.
If students are able to exploratively determine their preferred method of learning, using strategies that cater to their style, information is more likely to be absorbed and retained. It’s important to remember, however, that no one learning style is better than another, and it’s often helpful to incorporate a variety of approaches. By simply being open to different learning styles, with guidance from effective teaching practice, then academic success can be nurtured.