The idea that everyone has a unique type of learning style has been an accepted part of educational theory for decades. Every person is different, so the existence of different kinds of learners seems to make sense. But recent studies have suggested that knowing your child’s learning style isn’t as important as giving children every opportunity to learn. Some studies even suggest that learning styles as we know them are just a myth. Are learning styles just a myth? Recent studies show they may not be as valid as previously believed. First, let’s consider what a learning style is.
What is a learning style?
A learning style is generally defined as an individual’s preferred way of learning. Learning styles have little or nothing to do with learning ability. Just because your child may prefer to learn one way does not mean that he or she cannot learn another way.
Types of learning styles
Neil Fleming popularized the idea of learning styles in 1987 with his VARK classification model. There have been many classification systems since, but Fleming’s system remains the most widely used. Fleming’s VARK system is sometimes reduced from 4 types of learning styles to 3 primary types of learning styles: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. The fourth type is read/write.
In the years since Fleming popularized his model, others have tweaked it and expanded to include 7 learning styles. This model is most popular today.
1. Visual learning style
According to learning styles theorists, visual learners need to see pictures. Visual learners need plenty of pictures, graphic organizers, maps, and so on to help them grasp new information. You might learn visually if you gravitate towards infographics and infographic videos to learn information rather than lectures or books.
2. Auditory learning style
Auditory learners (or Aural learners) learn best by listening to someone (through a lecture, audiobook, video with sound, etc.). To remember information, these learners often repeat it out loud, set it to music, or perhaps even make up a short poem about it. You might learn aurally if you prefer pneumonic devices for memory work and find lectures useful and informative.
3. Kinesthetic learning style
Kinesthetic learners are tactile learners. They need to touch, and they need to move. Hands-on activities and experiments are great for learners of this type. You might learn kinesthetically if you feel more confident with information or processes after you’ve done them yourself. You may have said that you need to try it yourself, not have things explained to you.
4. Read-Write learning style
The read-write learning style is part of the VARK model. By definition, read-write learners do best by reading information or copying it down. They learn by reading lots of books and taking a lot of notes. You might learn compositionally if you memorize by re-copying information down several times and consistently take notes to ensure that you remember information.
5. Verbal learning style
Verbal learners focus on words. They learn best by repeating information aloud and writing it down. You might learn verbally if you need to vocalize information. Like auditory learners, you might prefer pneumonic devices for memorization, and like read-write learners, you’ll rely on notes for studying.
6. Logical learning style
Logical learners focus on logic. They learn best by asking questions to try to understand the material. You might learn logically if you were always the student that constantly asked questions during the lesson. You need to know why the world is the way it is to truly understand it.
7. Social learning style
Social learners (or interpersonal learner) like to be around people. They learn best when they are learning in a group rather than on their own. You might learn socially if you find value in study groups and group discussions.
8. Solitary learning style
Unlike the social learner, the solitary learner (or intrapersonal learner) learns best when they are by themselves. You might learn intrapersonally if you study alone and find it difficult to learn in group settings. Depending on other learning styles that might apply to you, you may also prefer pre-recorded lectures or independent reading activities that don’t involve interaction or collaboration.
What is the most common learning style?
Most people self-identify as visual learners, but according to the VARK, within the sample of the population who took the VARK self-assessment in 2020 (about a quarter million people), the kinesthetic learning type is slightly more prevalent than the others. However, many people who taken the self-assessment are multi-modal, which means they have two or more learning styles.
Can you have multiple learning styles?
Many have multiple learning styles—no one fits neatly into a single category. For example, one of my daughters seems to fit three different learning styles. She does great with hands-on activities and moves almost constantly, but she also learns well when she can see pictures, when someone asks her questions out loud, or when information is set to music. She would be categorized as a visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learner.
Do learning styles change over time?
Yes, often a child’s learning style will change over time. Most young children need a lot of hands-on learning, but as they mature and their brains develop, they may do better with another learning style.
Validity of learning styles
Although learning styles get a lot of attention from educators, there is little evidence that they exist in the way that they’re typically described. Inarguably, a child with no learning impairments may learn well from a hands-on activity, but the same child may also learn just as well from a lecture, video, or textbook. A research study led by Dr. Shaylene Nancekivell brings up concerns that the expectation for educators to teach children exclusively from certain approaches may not adequately prepare them for future learning. It will be helpful for you to use learning styles as options for tailoring your child’s education to their needs and preferences. It may be damaging to look exclusively for one learning style over others.
The importance of learning styles
In the classroom
The best way to accommodate different learning styles in your classroom is to use a multisensory approach (sometimes called a multimodal approach). As the name implies, a multisensory approach incorporates multiple senses into the learning process. Children taught with a multisensory approach retain information better because they have more opportunities to connect with what they are absorbing.
For example, if you were teaching an introductory lesson on nouns to first-graders, you would want to get multiple senses involved. You would probably read the definition of a noun (auditory) and show pictures of different people, places, and things (visual). You could even send your students on a “noun hunt” around your classroom (kinesthetic) and have them write down examples of nouns (read/write). Involving all those senses will make the lesson more memorable.
In your homeschool
Homeschooling is all about being able to give your child the individual instruction that he or she needs to excel. But in reality, it’s really hard to “know” your child’s learning style, and it’s not really important that you do. Your energy will be better spent by paying attention to how well your child is learning. When your child struggles to grasp a concept, try a different approach. But instead of trying to tailor all your teaching to a specific learning style (and exhausting yourself in the process), consider using a multisensory approach instead.
Using a multisensory curriculum
The multisensory approach to learning is one of the strengths of the BJU Press homeschool curriculum. It isn’t designed for only one type of learner—it’s a curriculum for all types of learners. As a homeschool mom, I’ve taught four (very different!) children with the BJU Press curriculum, and it has fit each of their unique learning styles.
For example, when one of my daughters was using the K5 Math digital learning program from BJU Press. The first lesson was about identifying a circle. The teacher showed examples of circles (visual learning), described what a circle looked like (auditory learning), and invited students to finger-trace circles (kinesthetic learning).
Multisensory teaching is particularly helpful when teaching reading to young children. Since young children still think on a very concrete level, getting multiple senses involved will help them better understand what they are reading.
For example, a few years ago, when I was teaching Reading 2 to one of my daughters, I noticed that she was struggling with a particular selection titled “Philip and His Pets” because she had no experience with some of the types of pets mentioned in the story. So we went to the pet store and observed all those animals. It was an extremely helpful experience that increased both her understanding of the story and her appreciation of it.
Academic performance and learning styles
Even though most educators believe that a child will do better in school if the instruction is tailored to his or her learning style, there is no evidence that this is actually the case. In every research study (and there have been a lot of them!), students who received instruction that matched their learning styles did no better than students who did not have instruction tailored to them. Derek Muller has illustrated this phenomenon beautifully in his Veritasium video on the myth of learning styles.
Instead of trying to figure out how your children learn in order to label their learning style, focus instead on teaching them to love learning no matter how it happens. We should teach our children that they can learn by listening to a lecture, reading a book, watching a documentary, experimenting, or just by talking with others. The more they love learning, the more success they will have however and wherever that learning takes place.