How Understanding Learning Styles Can Make You a Better Learner

Have you ever thought about how you learn?

Back in school, your parents may have thought ‘study group’ was just an excuse to hang out with your friends. In some cases, they’d be right. But some of us really are “social learners“.

From school to college and work, have you maintained the same learning routine throughout the years? Do you do it because it works for you? Or because you’re used to it?

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Here’s how to figure out your learning style to make you more effective.

Key takeaways

  • Spatial learning is how effective we are when others are present (solitary or social)
  • Visual: remembers faces better than names
  • Aural: remembers names better than faces
  • Kinesthetic: needs to learn by doing
  • Verbal: prefers written and spoken word
  • Logical: looks for patterns and systems
  • Your learning style changes depending on what you’re learning

VARK learning styles

No, it’s not the bark of a robot dog. VARK is a questionnaire created by former school inspector Neil Fleming, who discovered differences in the ways children liked information presented to them. 

He split the types of learners into four categories:

VARK Learner Preferred formats
Visual Pictures, videos, diagrams
Auditory Podcasts, music, lectures
Reading/Writing Taking notes, creating lists, reading books
Kinesthetic Hands-on activities, experiments

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If you’ve heard of VAK learning, it’s the same as above without reading/writing. Here’s a video describing the different learning styles VARK identifies:

Fleming felt that by pinpointing individual learning styles, educators could alter teaching methods to reach every child.

Like many studies, the VARK model has been vastly questioned by educators and critics alike. Because labelling someone with one specific learning style could become a hindrance.

It makes sense. If you have a weakness in a particular learning process, wouldn’t it make sense to strengthen it?

Multiple intelligences vs. learning styles

Howard Gardner’s theory of ‘multiple intelligences’ is often confused with forms of learning styles.

Gardner himself denies a link, but even he can’t argue the similarities. His theory suggests that the traditional psychological science of intelligence is too limited. People have different kinds of “intelligences” split into eight categories. 

These are:

  1. Visual-spatial
  2. Linguistic-verbal
  3. Interpersonal
  4. Intrapersonal
  5. Logical-mathematical
  6. Musical
  7. Bodily-kinesthetic
  8. Naturalistic

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Explained by the NIU:

“Gardner himself asserts that educators should not follow one specific theory or educational innovation when designing instruction but instead employ customized goals and values appropriate to teaching, subject-matter, and student learning needs.”

However, much like the VARK method, Howard’s theory has also had its fair share of criticism for being too broad.

What are the different types of learning styles?

While there are many answers to this question, all of them are right. Learning styles can be demonstrated by the following question: If you were to ask someone for directions, would you prefer to have a map drawn or be told where to go?

Obviously, this is a simplified example, but you get the point.

We’ve taken the most common learning modalities and broken them down into three groups:

  1. Sensory
  2. Informational
  3. Spatial

As you’ll see, there are similarities to the above ‘multiple intelligences’. 

Learning styles infographic: spacial (solitary and social), sensory (visual, aural, kinesthetic) and informational (verbal, logical).

Sensory styles

Sensory learning refers to the three leading sensory receivers: sight, sound and movement. 

These sensory styles are best demonstrated in high school instructional methods. Did you learn best from:

  • Reading textbooks
  • Listening to the teacher talking
  • Participating in experiments during science class

  • Visual

Visual learning involves using graphic aids to remember and retain information. The learner needs to see the material to process it mentally through multimedia such as; graphs, charts, diagrams, videos, photographs, etc. 

These types of learners will usually remember someone’s face rather than their name. 

Things like colour-coding notes, using diagrams and pictures to remember text, and clear-cut to-do lists are all attributes of a visual learner.

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  • Aural

Aural learners are the types of people who remember names but not faces. 

They’ll probably have difficulty concentrating in noisy environments and prefer learning from listening-based exercises like lectures and discussions. 

Most actors and public speakers are auditory learners as they rely on memorizing through speech.

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  • Kinesthetic

If you know someone who learns by doing, they’re probably one of many tactile learners out there. This hands-on learning method involves carrying out an activity—like riding a bike. 

For non-physical subjects, kinesthetic learners benefit from gamification, and linking general movement to information (such as using flashcards). 

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Informational styles

Informational styles refer to metacognition. This means “thinking about one’s thinking”. This learning style doesn’t depend on the senses or social surroundings. So, what does it involve?

  • Verbal

Verbal learners have a preference for both written and spoken words (which means they can also be writing learners).

For these linguistic lovers, verbal instruction is vital. Talking themselves through procedures, using rhymes, mnemonics, and recordings for repetition are essentials in their learning style inventory. 

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Those in politics or journalism tend to be verbal learners. They love reading and writing and find it easy to express themselves.

  • Logical

Logical learners thrive using order and steps to explore patterns. They love sequential tasks and process information systematically.

They will excel at anything with numbers and a focus on facts (rather than text-heavy lessons). Highly organised, they enjoy strategy-based games, and have a love of rules and procedures.

Fun fact: did you know it’s the left side of the brain that deals with logical/analytical thinking?

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Spatial styles

Spatial styles refer to how well we learn when others are present. Do you prefer being in a quiet room alone, or does a bustling group setting help you retain information?

  • Social

From school to higher education and work—group discussions and assignments always feature. 

Those that thrive by bouncing ideas off others and listening to their responses are known as interpersonal learners. 

Preferring to study in a class setting and enjoying role-play are common indicators of social learners. They also love one-to-one tuition and testing others when studying.

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  • Solitary

Maybe there was someone in your class who sighed when given group handouts as they always wanted to work alone. This student’s learning style may have seemed odd in a group setting, but it’s a common one. Heck, it could have been you.

These intrapersonal learners need a quiet environment to work in and are highly self-motivated. They might find bustling environments off-putting and prefer their own space in which to work.

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Does everyone have different learning styles?

After reading through the above, you’ve probably realized one of two things:

  1. Wait a sec, I’m a few of those learning styles
  2. Nope, none of them sound like me.

If it’s number two, you’re a rascal.

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We’re probably all number one. Which means our learning style blends are also unique.

You could be a logical learner who likes to figure out patterns with other people. Or an aural learner who needs to go through the motions to absorb information.

You may have a dominant style of learning that works for you, or it could be something you’ve just repeated so often, you think it’s your preferred style.

Does everyone believe in different learning styles?

Although we can all relate to the styles above in some way, there have been many critiques over the years (when they are applied to teaching).

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A literature review by Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, Bjork came to the conclusion:

“We have learning style preferences, but there is no strong evidence to show that we perform better when this preference is matched or worse when there is a misalignment.”

Another review concluded that catering to the unique learning styles of students: 

“…is not only ineffective but may actually be harmful to learners”.

We hear what they’re saying, but hear us out.

In terms of personal learning, couldn’t experimenting with different learning styles help to keep things fun? Science supports the idea that we learn better when experiencing fun, positive emotions. And how we learn can affect memory retention and even promote self-motivated learning (listen up, social learners.)

It’s also been proven that our brains are 68% more active when we’re having fun.

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So, how can we identify our learning strengths and weaknesses, and what should we do once we know? More importantly, how can we have fun while doing it?

How to improve your personal learning style

Winston Churchill once said:

“Personally, I’m always ready to learn, although I do not always like being taught.”

With the rise of eLearning, teaching is no longer about sitting in a classroom listening to one person speak for an hour. It’s about teaching yourself by reading, watching, and getting involved in a variety of content.

While self-development seems like an exciting concept, let’s face it, the process can be a bit dull. This is because it takes time and patience to do so.

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Depending on the topic, how it’s presented and how you break it down can make it easier (or more difficult) to digest. Either way, you can begin by making an assessment of your learning in general, then tweak it for more specific topics.

Here’s how to diagnose (and improve) your preferred learning style:

  1. Assess your current learning style
  2. Identify your strengths
  3. Work on your weaknesses

Assess your current learning style

This part should be easy as you’ll have identified your preferences in the above sections. For example, you may think you prefer:

  • Visual aids
  • Verbally learning
  • Working in a group

As previously mentioned, rather than sticking to what you think you know, try and consider your learning in various scenarios. How would your learning differ if you were training to be a firefighter or prepping for a math quiz?

Identify your strengths

Once you’ve whittled down the way you work, the types of learning and conditions you like to work in will be clear. If you’re a visual learner who likes working in a group, some of your strengths will be the ability to:

  • Instinctively follow directions
  • Easily visualize objects
  • Quickly notice tiny similarities/differences between things or people
  • Listen to others and take feedback onboard
  • Bounce ideas off others to improve them

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In this case, you would benefit from regularly learning in a group setting and making sure there were plenty of visual stimuli. To ensure your learning is always effective, it’s best to replicate the scenarios in which you work best, whenever you can.

Work on your weaknesses

Using the outline above (visual, verbal, social), it’s then easy to pick out the learning styles that aren’t used as often.

Rather than jumping into text or diagrams, visual learners could try listening to an article instead. Many blogs now have audio conversion options on the page. If not, there are many text-to-speech tools available.

To improve your logical thinking, you could: 

  1. Spend time on creative hobbies.
  2. Practice questioning things you typically accept as fact
  3. Socialise with others and build new relationships
  4. Learn a new skill
  5. Try to anticipate the outcome of your decisions

Or if you feel you rely on the input of others too often when learning, it might be time to start going it alone.

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It’s important to actively try out other learning styles. Because you could find specific ways of working that produce better, more enjoyable results.

Conclusion

There is a lot of evidence out there that suggests learning styles are a myth. However, there are many personal experiences that support them. You may know that you never retain aural information, but have a brilliant visual recollection.

You can’t deny the benefits of learning and having fun as you do. But it seems how you learn could depend on what exactly you’re learning.

Because of that, try discover as much new content as you can. Articles, podcasts, videos, webinars and more to see which you’re able to retain most easily and how.

Did you know, researchers also found that by engaging in difficult-but-doable activities, we’re more likely to be happier? Well, that settles it.

What’s one thing you’ve recently learned that’s stuck with you? Share your knowledge in the comments.