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What Are the Different Learning Styles?

Posted by Hannah Muniz | Apr 29, 2020 1:00:00 PM

General Education

 

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You’ve more than likely been asked what your learning style is at some point in your life. Are you a visual learner, an auditory learner, or a tactile learner? But the truth is, there’s much, much more to learning styles than these three basic categories.

In this article, we’ll explain the learning styles definition, where these theories come from, and whether they’re real. We’ll also give you a five-minute learning style quiz and some tips for how to make the most of your own learning style. Let’s dive in!

 

What Are Learning Styles?

What are learning styles exactly? Basically, learning styles are theories that are used to account for differences in people’s abilities to learn. These theories claim that people naturally differ in how they most efficiently absorb, understand, and retain information.

While many experts have attempted to categorize these unique learning styles, what categories to use remains a hotly debated topic.

As you probably guessed, this concept of different learning styles is commonly applied to the field of education, wherein teachers and other educational experts use these theories to help students identify their individual learning styles so they can be successful in their learning.

In the 20th century, many different learning styles were proposed by leading educational theorists, teachers, and psychologists. Here are three of the most popular learning style models today.

 

VARK Model

Introduced in a 1992 study by educational experts Neil Fleming and Colleen Mills, the VARK model is arguably the most well known and popular learning style model in use today. Fleming and Mills proposed the idea that there are four different learning styles, with each making up one letter in the VARK acronym: Visual, Aural, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic.

Here’s how the two experts define each modality in their study:

  • Visual: "Preference for graphical and symbolic ways of representing information"
  • Aural: "Preference for 'heard' information"
  • Read/Write: "Preferences for information printed as words"
  • Kinesthetic: "Preference related to the use of experience and practice (simulated or real)"

You can also be multimodal, which means that you have multiple learning styles.

Many people today will mention visual, aural (often called "auditory"), and kinesthetic (or "tactile") learning styles, leaving out the fourth reading and writing style.

One of the simplest learning style models, VARK is both easy to remember and easy to use.

 

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Theory of Multiple Intelligences

The Theory of Multiple Intelligences, which was put forth by developmental psychologist Howard Gardener in 1983, has gained a lot of steam in recent years, with many online articles and quizzes using Gardner’s proposed learning styles.

Through his cognitive research, Gardner came up with seven different learning styles:

  • Verbal-linguistic intelligence (words and language)
  • Logical-mathematical intelligence (numbers and reasoning)
  • Spatial-visual intelligence (images and abstract pictures)
  • Bodily-kinesthetic intelligence (physical and hands-on)
  • Musical intelligence (rhythmic and auditory)
  • Interpersonal intelligence (group-minded and sensitive to others' feelings)
  • Intrapersonal intelligence (self-reflective and solitary)

Since 1983, Gardner has added on other possible learning styles, bringing the total to nine:

  • Naturalist intelligence (nature-oriented)
  • Existential intelligence (ability to tackle deep philosophical questions)

Gardner asserts that everyone has a distinct blend of these intelligences and is not limited to just one.

 

Experiential Learning Theory

American educational theorist David Kolb first described his experiential learning theory in a 1984 book titled Experiential Learning.

This model consists of four different learning styles, each of which are defined by a combination of preferences for how we think about a task (concrete experience vs abstract conceptualization) and how we approach it (active experimentation vs reflective observation):

  Active Experimentation (Doing) Reflective Observation (Watching)
Concrete Experience (Feeling) Accommodating Diverging
Abstract Conceptualization (Thinking) Converging Assimilating

 

Here’s what each of the four learning styles means:

  • Accommodating: Prefers hands-on tasks and relying on one’s intuition
  • Diverging: Looks at things from many perspectives and is very sensitive
  • Converging: Finds solutions for practical problems and is highly technical
  • Assimilating: Desires logical, practical information and is very philosophical

body_mythical_unicornAre learning styles just a myth?

 

Are Learning Styles Real? Myth vs Fact

All this talk about learning styles has probably made you wonder whether we can confidently claim that learning styles are in fact real.

Here's the reality: whereas some experts see a lot of benefit in categorizing ways of learning, other experts view it as pointless, unhelpful, or even wholly inaccurate.

For instance, problems with the VARK model include convincing students they have only one major learning style when in reality they likely have multiple ways of processing information.

According to an article in The Atlantic, one study found that students didn’t actually perform any better on tests when studying using their designated learning style (which was found through the official VARK questionnaire).

The issue with this specific criticism, however, is that the VARK model does allow for multimodality, meaning that you can (and likely do) have more than one learning style. This was the result I myself got when I took the VARK questionnaire (specifically, mine was a mix of Visual and Read/Write).

Still, other criticisms of learning styles are difficult to refute.

Another study mentioned in this same article "found no relationship between the study subjects' learning-style preference (visual or auditory) and their performance on reading- or listening-comprehension tests." In other words, your preferred learning style might not actually be your best and most effective way of learning.

One particularly convincing criticism states that there are often universally better ways to teach something, regardless of your preferred way of learning. In an article for Rasmussen’s College Life Blog, learning specialist Barbara Hong remarks, "If you want to teach someone the location of Singapore, the best way to show them is a map. Not because they are visual learners but because that's the best way to teach it."

The same goes for showing someone the taste of salt, Hong goes on: having them actually taste it will by far be the most effective way to get them to learn its taste, rather than explaining it to them, showing them pictures, or having them read about it.

So what does all of this mean for the fate of learning styles, then?

There’s no doubt that learning styles are limited—any time you try to categorize humans, you’re bound to come across problems. We’re all unique individuals, after all!

But they can still be useful to know, at the very least so you can get a rough idea of what your learning preferences are and what study techniques might work well for you.

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PrepScholar's 5-Minute Learning Style Quiz

This learning style quiz uses the VARK model, which, again, comprises four types of learning styles:
  • Visual
  • Aural
  • Read/Write
  • Kinesthetic

Check each statement that sounds like you, and leave blank any statements that do not sound like you. This quiz has 20 statements and takes about five minutes to complete.

If you'd prefer to print the quiz, you can download it here.

 

Statement

Agree?

1. I like to use PowerPoint presentations when giving speeches.

 

2. I prefer listening to audiobooks over reading books.

 

3. When something breaks, I always try to fix it myself, often by taking it apart.

 

4. When learning how to play a board game, I typically read the instructions first.

 

5. I tend to take lots of notes when listening to lectures and presentations.

 

6. When learning a new language, my favorite part is listening to how others speak.

 

7. When trying to find a particular place, I prefer to look at a map.

 

8. I like books that have lots of illustrations or photographs in them.

 

9. When being taught how to do something, I like to follow along and try it myself.

 

10. I use a calendar or planner to keep my activities organized.

 

11. When studying for a test, I prefer to have someone read questions aloud to me.

 

12. The best way for me to learn how to spell a word is to write it out repeatedly.

 

13. When giving directions to someone, I usually just take them there myself.

 

14. If asked to imagine a kitten, I would think about how it feels to pet one.

 

15. Writing out a list helps me keep track of what I need to do.

 

16. If I had to choose a favorite math subject, it would probably be geometry.

 

17. I’ve always done well in science lab classes.

 

18. I enjoy writing stories in my spare time.

 

19. I am more likely to remember someone’s name than their face.

 

20. I often have podcasts, videos, or music playing in the background.

 

 

Now, count up how many points you earned in each VARK category by giving yourself 1 point for every statement you put a check next to.

The following chart shows which statements (#1-20) correspond to which learning styles. The max number of points you can earn for a category is 5.

 

Visual (V)

Aural (A)

Read/Write (R)

Kinesthetic (K)

1

2

4

3

7

6

5

9

8

11

12

13

10

19

15

14

16

20

18

17

Points: ___

Points: ___

Points: ___

Points: ___

 

The category you received the highest number of points in (up to 5) is your primary learning style, and the category you received the second-highest number of points in is your secondary learning style.

For example, I got 5 points in Read/Write (because I put checks next to all Read/Write statements) and 4 points in Visual; this means that my primary style is R, and my (very close) secondary style is V.

If you have two or more learning styles tied for the highest number of points, then congratsyou are officially multimodal! This means that you have a roughly equal preference for at least two learning styles.

 

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How to Make the Most of Your Learning Style: 3 Tips

Knowing your general learning style can benefit you in a few key ways. Here’s how to make the most of the VARK learning style you got from the quiz above.

 

#1: Identify Possible Study Hacks You Can Try

Whether you’re a visual, aural, read/write, or kinesthetic learner, it’s a good idea to think about what kinds of study techniques you can (and should!) use to make your learning more efficient.

Here are examples of study/learning hacks for each of the four VARK learning styles:

Visual

  • Use charts, graphs, and diagrams when taking notes or presenting
  • Use colorful sticky notes to mark important passages in texts
  • Organize your binder or notebook with dividers
  • Color code (e.g., use different colored pens for different topics)
  • Practice reading/drawing maps
  • Watch videos, documentaries, and demonstrations
  • Study for a test using flashcards

Aural

  • Record lectures with a tablet, smartphone, or other audio recorder
  • Look for audiobooks or have someone read aloud to you
  • Listen to podcasts
  • Use music and rhythm to help you remember key terms
  • Repeat words, phrases, and notes aloud when studying for a test
  • Ask your teacher questions so they can explain the answers to you
  • Actively participate in group discussions
  • Find quiet places to study, with few auditory distractions
  • Read your essays aloud to listen for any errors or inconsistencies

Read/Write

  • Take notes often by hand
  • Use highlighters to mark important passages in texts
  • Give yourself quiet time to focus on reading
  • Write out words or terms repeatedly to help you memorize them
  • Use bullet point lists often
  • Keep track of any handouts, outlines, or pamphlets you receive

Kinesthetic

  • Try out what you’ve learned, either at school or at home
  • Stay alert while listening in class—take notes, draw diagrams, and repeat important terms to yourself
  • Actively participate in group discussions
  • Offer to be a volunteer for a class presentation or demonstration
  • Tutor other students
  • Take regular breaks while studying
  • Use a fidget spinner or stress ball to keep your body occupied

 

 

#2: Strengthen Your Weaknesses

Another benefit of knowing your learning style is knowing what your weaknesses might be. In other words, you’ll see the learning styles you do not have—and can then work on strengthening those so you’re able to learn more efficiently using a variety of methods.

For example, maybe after taking a learning style quiz, you found that you didn't check that many kinesthetic learner questions. You might therefore choose to work on strengthening that skill for any future homework assignments or projects so that you’re not solely relying on a single (that is, your primary) learning style.

To improve your weaker learning styles, refer to the chart above to look for study techniques you could try out.

 

#3: Go With What Feels Right—Even If It’s Not Your Learning Style

Don’t ever let the knowledge of what learning style you have limit how you choose to approach a specific test, topic, or task.

For example, even if you normally consider yourself a visual learner, you don’t need to strictly stick to learning in this manner, especially if a situation arises in which you might readily prefer to use a different learning style.

Similarly, don't stick to one learning style if it's not really getting you anywhere. Even if you usually learn well by listening, you might have a hard time following a tricky topic in a lecture. In this case, it’s perfectly normal to fall back on another learning style, such as taking more notes than usual or drawing some diagrams to help you visualize the information being presented to you.

In the end, always learn in whatever way feels right to you at the time and for that particular task.

 

Key Takeaways: What Learning Styles Mean for You

Learning styles are theories that define ways in which people gather and process new information. Some of the most famous learning style models proposed by experts in the 20th century include Fleming and Mills’ VARK model, Gardener’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, and Kolb’s experiential learning theory.

Not everyone believes that learning styles are useful, though. One study found that students don’t perform any better on tests when using their designated learning styles, while some experts argue that there are universally acceptable ways to approach certain ideas without confining students to a single learning style.

Regardless of how effective learning styles actually are, knowing your general learning style can still have some benefits in terms of how you approach school and new information. To make the most of your own learning style, you can identify study techniques that are most likely to work well for you and focus on strengthening any of your weaker learning styles. 

What's most important, though, is to always go with your gut. Whatever learning style you feel will help you the most in a certain situationwhether or not it’s your "designated" stylewill likely work best for you.

 

What’s Next?

If you're in high school, chances are you've got a good amount of homework each day. Read our expert guide to get tips on the best ways to beat procrastination and get motivated.

Exams can be stressful, but as long as you know how to prepare, you'll be ready to ace them. We give you tons of tips for getting ready for any test, whether it's the SAT/ACT, an AP exam, or a final. You can also read this general guide to studying for more test-taking and homework advice.

Planning to take the SAT or ACT soon? Make sure you have an SAT goal score/ACT goal score.

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Hannah Muniz
About the Author

Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.



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