Learning Styles: Are They Helpful?

Visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles

By Pat Bowden, published November 28, 2017.

Have you ever taken a quiz to find out your favoured learning style? Plenty of quizzes are available.  There are also many books and other resources to help you make the most of your preferred learning style.

The idea behind this is to tailor your own learning to take advantage of your learning strengths. What happens, though, if you concentrate so much on some aspects that you neglect others that are already weak? Are you setting yourself up to miss out on some experiences? Would you do better to concentrate on developing your weak areas so they can add to your learning strategies?

Different People Learn in Different Ways

Learning styles can be divided into different groups, depending on the opinion of the author. There are three generally recognised styles: visual (using the eyes), auditory (using the ears) and kinesthetic (using the body). Some resources break them down into more groups such as visual (seeing), aural (hearing), verbal (words), physical (movement), logical (reasoning), social (learning with others) and solitary (learning alone). One such resource is learning-styles-online.com where you can read about learning styles. You can also take a quiz to discover your own learning style.

Several years ago I answered one of those quizzes and found that my preferred learning style is a mixture of visual and kinesthetic. The auditory segment was much lower. No surprises there, I’ve thought for years that my auditory learning was not up to par. Whenever I determined to listen out for something coming up soon on the radio, I’d later realise that the discussion was half way through or, worse still, finished and I hadn’t heard a word of it. I had become distracted and tuned out from listening.

On the other hand, I found while working my way through multiple MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that I could remember a reasonable amount of the lecture videos. If my auditory learning was so terrible, how could listening to a video be helpful?

Using More Senses to Promote Learning

Barbara Oakley discusses this in Coursera’s Mindshift MOOC Video 2-9 “Integrate All Your Senses into Learning”. She concludes that rather than concentrating on particular learning styles, we learn better by using many senses while learning. For example, watching and listening to a video can lead to quicker learning than listening to a podcast. If we add the action of taking notes, feeling the paper and the pencil in our hand as we form the letters, our learning will be enhanced even further.

And there lies the key. I’ve discovered that I can sometimes remember things I have heard, as long as I pay attention and listen carefully, along with taking notes. If I then revise the material soon after, it is easier to remember. If visual cues are added (as in a video), my auditory learning is enhanced more. When I can’t watch the teacher, take notes, or look at related words or pictures, my mind wanders and I forget to listen.

What Can Happen in the Brain

There is plenty of evidence showing that allowing (or forcing) the brain to switch between the two modes of thinking (focussed and diffuse modes), promotes learning. Many students use the Pomodoro Technique, invented by Francesco Cirillo in the 1980s. By concentrating hard for 25 minutes, then relaxing for five minutes, the brain is forced to toggle between the focussed and the diffuse modes. In the focussed mode, new neural paths are made as the work is learned. When the brain goes into the diffuse mode, these new paths are connected to paths already in the brain from previous learning. The brain makes sense of the new work and starts relating it to knowledge already stored in the memory. As the brain makes these connections, it becomes easier to recall larger chunks of connected information.

According to Dr Craig Heller, various studies show that during sleep, neurons in our brain actually grow and develop some of the connections with other neurons. Other unimportant connections can be degraded during sleep. This might explain why we may remember something more easily if we were actively thinking about it immediately before sleeping.

Other learning Tools

According to the edX course The Science of Learning: What Every Teacher Should Know, students learn more quickly if they can relate new material to existing knowledge. Other effective learning tools discussed in this MOOC as well as Coursera’s Learning How to Learn are retrieval practice (recalling and explaining in your own words), spaced practice (revising a particular topic on consecutive days at first, then gradually spacing out the time between sessions), and interleaving (spending shorter periods of time on different topics, rather than studying one topic for a long time before going onto the next topic).

You may also find Helpful Strategies for Test Success useful.

Some Other Resources

Podcast: Gayle Allen interviews Barbara Oakley
Adult learning Australia: https://ala.asn.au/learning-styles/
The Learning Scientists: http://www.learningscientists.org/
Book: Deep Work by Cal Newport

A Final Thought

We could be making things harder for ourselves by focussing only on our preferred learning style. A much better approach is to use a wide range of stimuli to help our brain learn more easily.