Learning Styles

People learn in different ways.   When an individual’s learning style is identified, that has implications for the best ways in which to present and process information. There are many ways of analysing learning styles - this paper will concentrate on the most popular, focusing on the VAK analysis.
[See also the section on Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences]

Points Arising from Research

  • A teacher’s own learning style may influence how he/she teaches and this may not be readily compatible with some pupils’ learning styles.
  • Teaching is most effective when it matches the pupils’ learning style preferences.
  • Estimates vary as to the proportion of the population with particular learning style preferences, but one estimate has the kinaesthetic style as the most common.
  • Gender has an important bearing on learning styles: for example, boys are more likely to have a kinaesthetic preference.
  • Cultural and environmental factors can influence an individual’s learning preferences.
  • Identifying learning styles can be of particular importance in catering for pupils with learning difficulties.
  • For lifelong learning, it is important that pupils come to understand what their learning preferences are and learn strategies for exploiting this.

Key Elements of Learning Styles

How the brain works

  • The two hemispheres of the brain work in different ways, though normally both sides are involved almost all the time.
  • The left (“logical”) side is dominant in sequencing, processing mathematical information, using language, processing unrelated factual information etc.
  • The right (“gestalt”) side is dominant in responding to music, appreciating spatial relationships, understanding forms and patterns, being creative etc.
  • In boys the right brain tends to be dominant; in girls the left brain.
  • The educational system has traditionally favoured left brain activities such as reading, writing and listening.
  • Teachers are typically likely to be left brain dominant and this may affect the way they teach.
  • Classroom activities should be devised to cater satisfactorily for both left and right brain thinkers.
  • Some activities develop the use of both sides of the brain.

Kolb’s theory

  • The work of Kolb and others produced the classification of learners into four groups: ACTIVISTS, REFLECTORS, THEORISTS and PRAGMATISTS
  • Activists like practical work such as labs, field work, observation exercises and using visual source material for information etc
  • Reflectors like to learn by watching others, by taking time to consider observations of their own experience etc
  • Theorists like lectures, reading papers on topics, considering analogies etc
  • Pragmatists like simulations, case studies, homework etc
  • Thus the four types might approach the learning of a software programme in different ways:
    • Activists might just start using it and feel their way into it
    • Reflectors might have a go at using it and then take time to think about what they have just done
    • Theorists might begin by reading the manual
    • Pragmatists might start using the programme, but make frequent references to the Help files. 
  • The four types of learning can be seen as cyclical stages through which a learner can progress (Watch>>>Think>>>Feel>>>Do), as well as categorising specific kinds of learning experience.

McCarthy’s 4MAT analysis

  • This developed the notion of a cycle through which the learner progresses in a classroom topic or block of work.  It made use of left/right brain science
  • Learners are classified as Innovative, Analytical, Common Sense, or Dynamic.
  • The cycle of learning is as follows: concrete experience>>>reflective observation>>>abstract conceptualisation>>>active experimentation
  • Teachers can build activities to provide pupils with a sequence of activities which allows for this sort of progress.

VAK (developed from Neuro-Linguistic Programming research, or NLP)

The most popular analysis identifies three learning styles: Visual, Auditory and Kinaesthetic (sometimes the “a” is missed out of “kinaesthetic”).  Sometimes Kinaesthetic is said to include “Tactile” learning and sometimes this is added as a separate learning style.  Some analysts add Read/write to make VARK and some subdivide the Visual and Auditory categories into verbal- and non-verbal.

  • Any individual will operate in all three “modalities”, but with a preference for one or two.
  • Visual learners are likely to prefer mind-maps, diagrams, picturesque language, flow charts, use of colour, white space on the page etc.
  • Auditory learners are likely to prefer discussion, explaining things to others, using a tape recorder, teaching linked to anecdotes/jokes etc.
  • Kinaesthetic learners are likely to prefer group work, using models/objects in describing things, walking around while learning, hands-on activities, books with strong plot etc.
  • Teachers should be aware of their own VAK preferences.
  • Pupils should be made aware of their individual preferences:
    • Physiological cues can help identify type
    • Linguistic cues can also be used
    • Self-test materials can be used 
  • Since boys are likely to be kinaesthetic learners and since they have been catered for least in the traditional curriculum, and since boys tend to under-perform, it may be worth concentrating on the K area.
  • Parents can be made aware of pupils’ learning preferences.
  • Pupils should be encouraged to develop strategies for independent use, related to their learning styles, thus promoting lifelong learning.

Reflection and Discussion

How do you actively involve children in planning their own learning?

How do you ensure that learning extends children’s learning styles?

In what ways do you support children to reflect on their own learning?

To what extent does your teaching provide a range of activities in the VAK sense?

Do any of the other theories (and there are plenty more to research) strike any chords?

What opportunities do you see to enhance the range of types of activity in your classroom?

  Some Activities Relating To the Issue of Learning Styles

Key element Objective Action

Some examples and suggestions

How the brain works  Classroom activities should be devised to cater satisfactorily for both left and right brain thinkers. In preparing a block of work, try to devise activities for both left and right brain thinkers.  Mike Hughes (for example) gives suggestions as to how some activities can connect the two sides of the brain.
Kolb’s theory Activists, Reflectors, Theorists and Pragmatists Consider whether your teaching provides active participation (for activists), is intellectually satisfying (for theorists), is practical (for pragmatists), is leisurely (for reflectors).
4MAT Teachers can build activities to provide pupils with a sequence of activities which allows for this sort of progress. Using one block of work, consider the structure of activities.  Can McCarthy’s cycle be of use here?  Accelerated Learning in the Classroom gives consideration to developing this model of teaching.
VAK Pupils should be made aware of their individual preferences: Carry out a survey (there are plenty online and in books - Accelerated Learning in the Classroom for example) and discuss with the class.  Does your teaching match with the preferences in your class.  What about a whole department/school survey?  What about a staff survey?  Have pupils draw up a list of strategies which would be appropriate for their own preferences.
Kinaesthetic learners are likely to prefer…. Can you find opportunities to include more physical activity in your lessons?  Maths teachers can have pupils with bits of equations on cards at the front of the class, moving around to put the cards in the right order.  Chemistry teachers can have pupils mime a chemical reaction.  In History scenes can be acted out…..

Selected References 

Further Reading

Smith, A (1996) Accelerated Learning in the Classroom, Network Educational Press. ISBN: 1 85539 034 5

Smith’s easily read books give very good introductions to the theories about learning styles, along with very concrete suggestions as to how this information might influence classroom practice.

Smith, A (1999) Accelerated Learning in Practice ,Network Educational Press. ISBN:  1 85539 048 5

Hughes, M  (1999)  Closing the Learning Gap.ISBN: 1855390515
Gives accessible explanation of theories, with very practical suggestions re classroom practice.