Learning styles are a hot topic. But are you sure you’re using them correctly?
You’ve heard of learning styles, right? As one of the most popular learning theories of the past few decades, most adults have not only heard of learning styles, they may even have opinions on what suits them best. Study guides based on learning style are common discussion topics, and most instructors have either gone out of their way to earnestly present learning material according to a specific style, or else have fielding learner complaints that a lesson wasn’t created with their learning style in mind.
Unfortunately, despite its broad adaption, there’s little evidence to show that learning styles exist at all. A recent article in The Atlantic (“The Myth of Learning Styles”) described the theory, but also discussed how learners rarely study according to their self-described learning style, and those that do don’t achieve better outcomes.
That said, while the learning style theory—that individual students might have a style that helps them learn better—may be complete bunk, presenting material in a variety of ways does have a lot of merit. Accordingly, I’ve reframed some of the most common learning styles as ways teachers can present content. How might you use these in your course?
As might be expected, visual content presents information graphically. For instance, an infographic or a video might be used to organize ideas or concepts in ways that emphasize the relationship of some items of information to others. Visual content can also include videos, images, or even gifs.
Hands-on experience is an invaluable learning tool, even for highly theoretical subjects. Can you imagine learning calculus without ever having to solve an equation? Or learning to turn a bowl without ever operating a lathe? Offering learners a chance to gain practical experience is essential for mastery of any subject.
Sound offers a highly flexible learning tool that includes everything from audio lectures to music to rhythm and rhyming patterns. You can see this method at work in many mnemonic devices that are designed to play with alliteration, acronyms, and rhyming to make information more memorable.
Verbal course content is what students might produce themselves in the form of presentations or scripted speeches. This content is especially important for courses that have a high focus on verbal function, such as a public speaking course, or a language program. Offer your learners opportunities to create short presentations, and encourage them to practice sounding out new words, instead of just reading them silently.
Logical course material is intended to offer theoretical concepts or frameworks that learners can use to make sense of the big picture. (In fact, the learning style theory is one such framework.) Logically-oriented material focuses on structure, and can often be repurposed into a compelling infographic—which is just one example of how learning styles work well together.
Learning with others not only builds engagement, it helps learners stay accountable, especially in an online course. Offering your learners social learning opportunities under these circumstances can be difficult, but they are possible. Focus on growing your forums, and offer opportunities for mentorship and tandem learning.
Some concepts take a while to absorb, and learners need opportunities to pace their learning so that they don’t gloss over key concepts. Online education already suffers from learners who feel overly isolated, but nevertheless, if everything in your course is focused on engagement, you could consider introducing a few solo projects that learners can invest more time in.
The Big Mistake: People need all styles to learn.
Everyone has personal preferences. Some people are more extroverted, others may need real-life examples for a concept to sink in, while others still may handle theoretical material just fine. But just because a person learns one item of information according to a certain style doesn’t mean they can only learn through that style, or that that style is their best learning tool.
It’s also important not to conflate preferential learning styles with diagnosable learning disabilities. Someone who is dyslexic doesn’t have an aural learning style, they have a reading disorder that hinders them from being able to process textual information rapidly. Similar can be said of learners with visual or auditory impairments. They will need to access your content through a variety of different methods, not because they prefer one style over another, but because they are unable to consume certain kinds of content.
This is important because most of us process information best when we encounter it in a variety of ways—social and solitary and physical and logical. What this means for the practical implementation of your course is that you shouldn’t try to optimize material for one kind of learning style over another, but rather, you should present course materials in a range of learning styles so that all learners can engage with it on multiple fronts.
And don’t forget ways to blend learning styles together. Auditory and visual learning styles aren’t mutually exclusive, and the more learners work with these different content types, the broader their learning toolkit will become.