7 Major Learning Styles and the 1 Big Mistake Everyone Makes

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?

1. Visual

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.

2. Physical

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.

3. Aural

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.

4. Verbal

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.

5. Logical

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.

6. Social

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.

7. Solitary

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.

Author

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

48 Responses

  1. It would be helpful (and responsible) for you to name the sources that helped you come to this idea. Since your 7 styles identically match Howard Gardner’s original “Multiple Intelligences” (he has since added 2 more), I’m assuming he is your main source. You have named them in an easily accessible way, which is a good creative addition. There is no shame in building on others’ work, as long as you credit the source.
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Jo – You are indeed correct, I should have included the sources. James Garnder and also learning-styles-online.com.

    2. I’m more of a visual person when it comes to learning because I can comprehend all of the information more effectively and efficiently.

  2. You did a good job of filtering learning styles down to only 7. With all of the definitions of learning styles in the education world today, what is the basis of your selection?

    Leigh Zeitz

  3. Great summary. As simple as this sounds it’s difficult to communicate this to others when “the lecture” is what people assume is the best tool for teaching.

  4. Hi,

    Are there really learning styles? I’ve seen a lot of dialog arguing against learning styles. I think what you describe is more akin to Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences theory (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theory_of_multiple_intelligences). I listened to a podcast the other day, I don’t recall its author, but he argued they were more strategies for teaching than styles for learning. I like mixing it up, strategies/presentations, depending on my T-Pop and subject matter.

    urbie

  5. Actually, the idea of learning styles as you have characterized here has never been demonstrated to be accurate. The best thing that IDs can do with respect to learning styles is to ignore the idea. Designing for different styles does absolutely nothing for students. Instead, IDs should design learning experiences that encourage the appropriate blend of surface and deep approaches, social interaction and relevant problem-solving. Check out ‘Visible Learning for Teachers’ by John Hattie.

    1. The students and teachers who have benefited from learning style information would probably disagree with you. As both a veteran classroom teacher and a homeschool parent, I have experienced firsthand the benefits of determining a student’s learning style. It is logical and makes sense. Besides that, I know my own learning style, and I can guarantee that I learn better when I use the methods for that style.

      In a classroom one typically uses multiple techniques and materials to address the various learning styles. In this way you hope to reach everyone, since it is not possible to learn the specifics of each student’s learning style. In a small-group or one-on-one situation you are often able to determine individual learning styles and therefore tailor lessons to each student.

      One must also consider the teacher’s learning/teaching style. Try to teach from someone else’s lesson plans and you will see what I mean. 🙂

      My personal opinion is that if someone does not agree with this approach then they should probably ignore it, unless they would like to do some research and investigation and learn more. But I see little to be gained from condemning something one has no personal experience with, especially if it benefits others.

  6. Hi Justin

    I thought we were all moving along from Learning Styles as there is no real evidence to support them.
    internettime.com/2013/04/learning-styles-ha-ha-ha-ha/

    But I think you are right in saying we need to use a variety of methods to engage the learner – just not sure defining individual styles is required. After all you do say ‘In reality, we all probably fall into each category…’

    Best wishes
    Julian

  7. Why Is the Research on Learning Styles Still Being Dismissed by Some Learning Leaders and Practitioners?
    By Guy W. Wallace / November 2011

    elearnmag.acm.org/featured.cfm?aid=2070611

  8. I believe you’re missing an “h” in the word “rhythms” as used in the following sentence in this article:

    Aural: People who prefer using sound (obviously), rhythms, music, recordings, clever rhymes, and so on.

    Thanks and have a great day!

  9. Hi Justin
    The world is changing with the advance of neuroscience and neuropsychology. You and your readers may be interested in this article titled the myth of learning styles. As leaders in the profession our responsibility is to use the best methods to help individuals learn – even if this takes people out of thier comfort zone! thinkneuroscience.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/the-myth-of-learning-styles/

  10. I agree there are different learning styles. I’m definitely a visual, social learner.

    I struggle with what to do with the information. Any course I develop is meant for a large audience. Therefore, by definition, my learners will include people from multiple learning styles. How do I use the concept of learning styles to make my course better when learners of all styles will use it?

  11. Learning styles are not supported by the current reseach, but they can still be helpful for students needing help with rote memorization. They generally point out the easiest ways that we can absorb basic (think flashcard) knowledge. Real learning requires that we build new information to the learners’ prior experience. We all have different ways to memorize the quickest, but only one way to learn.

  12. Gardner characteristics these as “intelligences” and my interpretation isn’t that these are learning styles so much as information processing styles. As long as the content that needs to be learned is presented in the format espoused by the intelligence, the learner can process/absorb it and learn from it. Everyone “learns” the same way. It’s neuroscience. But everyone doesn’t process information the same way.

  13. Learning styles, particularly Howard Gardner’s version of them, make sense intuitively, and have been very popular with K-12 educators. However, as others have mentioned here, there is no evidence that supports them. They are a wonderful idea, but people just don’t learn the way Howard Gardner describes. I think educators cling to them because they do encourage the development a variety of teaching methods that are more fun and engaging than the typical lecture-based approach to education.

    I would hope that we are perpetuating sound, evidence-based instructional theories as a field… and “Learning Styles” isn’t one of them. However, there is still some value in looking at the learning styles approach as we develop instructional materials. We do know that the introduction of novelty can create a spike in learner attention and, it seams to reason that would support learner retention. Dual encoding of information also helps reinforce concepts so a learner has more than one way to “access” the information on recall (see Ruth Clark’s work). So, while I wouldn’t say Learning Styles are a particularly good foundation for instructional materials development, understanding Gardner’s work can help us create learning experiences that have variety and texture.

    1. Taking someone learning style into consideration can only help the student learn better. We are not the same, we do not learn the same, we are not robots.

  14. Admittedly there are differences in how a student or teacher approaches content to be learned. For me the content to be mastered is the larger objective than the approach. If either is only committed to “learning my way” or “teaching my way” then dullness is sure to follow. Both students and teachers must learn the skills of FLEX to a secondary approach when the preferred is thwarted.

    The new emphases coming with the common core state standards for K-12 embraces multiple approaches to solving problems, especially in mathematics. For me the best learning/teaching style is FLEXIBILTY on the way to mastering CONTENT.

  15. These learning styles theories have been debunked for awhile, though youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=sIv9rz2NTUk

    and danielwillingham.com/learning-styles-faq.html

    1. Ruth Clark has it spot on….not learning styles, but learning preferences. When designing training, key is to determine if the learner is a novice, with no schema or experience in the subject, OR, does the learner have existing knowledge on which to add.

      I have read numerous articles or books (including Ms. Clark’s) pointing out no real scientific evidence supporting the learner’s style.

    1. everyone has a different yet unique learning style. i get distracted easily so i must
      pay close attention when anyone is talking to me or giving me really important directions.
      i also learn best when a person or people are patient and kind.

  16. Learning styles was the “method du jour” a few years ago, and while its still relevant, it simply doesn’t matter that much anymore. People certainly do have preferences, and learn better in certain ways, but we are an adaptable species & regardless of “preferences,” we can learn in a variety of ways. Client companies really do not have the resources to do a lot of analysis about the learning styles of their prospective audience, or worry about which style works for whom, and in my experience, don’t unless the audience is fairly homogenous. As an eLearning designer for many years, I have found that the best path is to build in a variety of activities that engage the audience in different ways and for different goals, rather than trying to tailor something specifically to one style or another.

  17. Barbara Soloman and Richard Felder created a questionnaire that helps folks identify their learning preferences. I agree with Karen that training needs to be designed with variety and not targeted to any one preference. This survey below has been used with school students and teachers report that students gain a better understanding of themselves after taking it. A common response is “Yes, I am like that!”. Maybe the concept of learning preferences is of more use to learners than it is to instructional designers.

    mylearningstyle.info

  18. Debunking the myth of Learning Styles
    http://elearningindustry.com/the-myth-of-learning-styles

    There is no convincing evidence to prove that when an instructor changes the presentation mode of his course to match the learning style of his students actually helps them learn.

    There is no “better” or “faster” learning as an outcome of implementing individual preferences into a course. It’s just a style that ultimately makes no difference in learning.

    Instructors should not just take under consideration the learning styles of their students, but also their background and interests.

    Content is the parameter that should directly affect the mode of presentation and not the learning style of the students.

    It’s definitely more efficient to create a course based on the motivational characteristics of the students and not their learning styles, and always be ready to adjust the learning methods and techniques and engage multiple senses rather than just one.

    Perceptual learning has to do with senses and there is nothing restrictive about that. It doesn’t prove that someone is a specific type of learner. It merely suggests that people have preferred learning styles.

    Not all learning happens the same way and nor should teaching. What’s crucial is to decide which techniques are best for which learning outcomes and not about customizing a course based on learning styles.

    We mostly think of learning styles as de facto, without questioning their true value, purpose and relevance. And the truth is that according to recent research conducted by major US universities there is no correlation between learning styles and successful learning.

    Resources

    Paschler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D. and Bjork, R. (2010) Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9, pp. 105-119.
    Dembo, Myron H.; Howard, Keith. (2007) Advice about the Use of Learning Styles: A Major Myth in Education. Journal of College Reading and Learning.
    Dweck, C. (2006) Mindset: The new psychology of success, Random House, New York, NY.
    Roediger, H. L. and Karpicke, J. D. (2006) The power of testing memory: Basic research and implications for educational practice. Perspectives on Psychological Science 1, pp. 181-210.
    Kratzig, G.P. and Arbuthnott, K.D. (2006). Perceptual learning style and learning proficiency: A test of the hypothesis. Journal of Educational Psychology, 98, 238-246.

  19. Thanks you for article. I want to get close to you. I want again to know more about Learning Management Systems.
    Thanks

  20. I would appreciate your comment on this video:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=855Now8h5Rs&feature=player_embedded
    I seem to agree with the contents put forward. Furthermore I seem to think that the learning process is dependend on the functioning of the brain. Should we not rather understand this and then adapt our teaching so that these functions can take place – then focus on the recall of facts?
    I enjoyed your article and use the content to create positive learning environments in which learning can take place – the brain processes must then kick in!
    Tank you for sharing.

  21. Good afternoon Mr. Justin Ferriman, I am a student of Tablon National High School. Can I ask your permission in allowing me to borrow your studies about the 7 major learning styles, for our Practical Research 1 together with my colleagues? I’ll be expecting for your favorable response.

  22. Great contribution. Congratulations.
    It’s better if you explain the dominant learning styles for various subjects like maths, language, music, law… etc

  23. I think classrooms, both for children and adults, have gone a long way in terms of varying their approach to different learning styles. Gone are the days of “dittos” and overhead projectors. I think adapting lessons to integrate different approaches for different styles is the best way to go.

  24. We are not robots. I believe we all learn different. Even if we fall into more then one learning process/style. We have 12 children all of them different. Different personality, different ways of doing things, different learning methods. It’s very interesting. One things for sure everyone is different. Teachers need to realize this. But then again all teachers teach different as well. We need to realize this as a whole. Let’s use me as an example. Visual, Aural, Logical and Solitary are what helps me. So we all have individual styles. We are all unique. If I had to narrow it down though I would say Visual and Solitary explain me although holding a pen/pencil and writing things down help a huge amount. Now with that being said other things come into play such Auditory Processing Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder,etc. I found this piece quit interesting. I home school, teach Sunday school, bible study and teach children, youth and teens.Teaching can be a challenge with different generations as well. Traditional, X Generation and Millennials all learn different. So many things to take into account on this topic. Thank you so much for this information. Teaching a class to teachers this weekend on different teaching and learning methods/styles to try and reach those we are having issues reaching. A new thing for me since I don’t teach adults. But it remains to be seen how this will go.This is such great information to pass on. Be Blessed.

    1. I would also like to add teachers with high demands they have to try to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time. One thing I can not stand and also have an issue tolerating is a packet teacher. These teachers hand out packet and expect these children/classes to benefit from it. It bores some to tears and frustration. The approach shouldn’t be silent in the classroom. Whatever happened to the teacher actually doing board work? Let’s get everyone involved:)

  25. Teaching SPED especially the more severe the disability a particular mode of learning does matter a great deal. This might appear obvious, just thought I would throw that in. I’m basing my opinion about this solely on personal experience. I’ve taught mild to moderate and severe to profound for a little more than 30 years

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