The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot. —Audre Lorde, writer and civil rights activist
By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Identify the stages of the learning process
- Define learning styles, and identify your preferred learning style(s)
- Define multimodal learning
- Describe how you might apply your preferred learning strategies to classroom scenarios
Stages of the Learning Process
Consider experiences you’ve had with learning something new, such as learning to tie your shoes or drive a car. You probably began by showing interest in the process, and after some struggling it became second nature. These experiences were all part of the learning process, which can be described in the four stages:
- Unconscious incompetence: This will likely be the easiest learning stage—you don’t know what you don’t know yet. During this stage, a learner mainly shows interest in something or prepares for learning. For example, if you wanted to learn how to dance, you might watch a video, talk to an instructor, or sign up for a future class. Stage 1 might not take long.
- Conscious incompetence: This stage can be the most difficult for learners, because you begin to register how much you need to learn—you know what you don’t know. Think about the saying “It’s easier said than done.” In stage 1 the learner only has to discuss or show interest in a new experience, but in stage 2, he or she begins to apply new skills that contribute to reaching the learning goal. In the dance example above, you would now be learning basic dance steps. Successful completion of this stage relies on practice.
- Conscious competence: You are beginning to master some parts of the learning goal and are feeling some confidence about what you do know. For example, you might now be able to complete basic dance steps with few mistakes and without your instructor reminding you how to do them. Stage 3 requires skill repetition.
- Unconscious competence: This is the final stage in which learners have successfully practiced and repeated the process they learned so many times that they can do it almost without thinking. At this point in your dancing, you might be able to apply your dance skills to a freestyle dance routine that you create yourself. However, to feel you are a “master” of a particular skill by the time you reach stage 4, you still need to practice constantly and reevaluate which stage you are in so you can keep learning. For example, if you now felt confident in basic dance skills and could perform your own dance routine, perhaps you’d want to explore other kinds of dance, such as tango or swing. That would return you to stage 1 or 2, but you might progress through the stages more quickly this time on account of the dance skills you acquired earlier. 
Take a moment to watch the following video by Kristos called The Process of Learning. As you watch, consider how painful it can be—literally!—to learn something new, but also how much joy can be experienced after it’s learned. Note that the video has no audio.
Kyle was excited to take a beginning Spanish class to prepare for a semester abroad in Spain. Before his first vocabulary quiz, he reviewed his notes many times. Kyle took the quiz, but when he got the results, he was surprised to see that he had earned a B-, despite having studied so much.
Kyle’s professor suggested that he experiment with different ways of studying. For example, in addition to studying his written notes, he might listen to a tape of the vocabulary words, as well.
Identifying Learning Styles
Many of us, like Kyle, are accustomed to very traditional learning styles as a result of our experience as K–12 students. For instance, we can all remember listening to a teacher talk, and copying notes off the chalkboard. However, when it comes to learning, one size doesn’t fit all. People have different learning styles and preferences, and these can vary from subject to subject. For example, while Kyle might prefer listening to recordings to help him learn Spanish, he might prefer hands-on activities like labs to master the concepts in his biology course. But what are learning styles, and where does the idea come from?
Learning styles are also called learning modalities. Walter Burke Barbe and his colleagues proposed the following three learning modalities (often identified by the acronym VAK):
Examples of these modalities are shown in the table, below.
Neil Fleming’s VARK model expanded on the three modalities described above and added “Read/Write Learning” as a fourth.
The four sensory modalities in Fleming’s model are:
- Visual learning
- Auditory learning
- Read/write learning
- Kinesthetic learning
Fleming claimed that visual learners have a preference for seeing (visual aids that represent ideas using methods other than words, such as graphs, charts, diagrams, symbols, etc.). Auditory learners best learn through listening (lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.). Read/write learners have a preference for written words (readings, dictionaries, reference works, research, etc.) Tactile/kinesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience—moving, touching, and doing (active exploration of the world, science projects, experiments, etc.).
The VAK/VARK models can be a helpful way of thinking about different learning styles and preferences, but they are certainly not the last word on how people learn or prefer to learn. Many educators consider the distinctions useful, finding that students benefit from having access to a blend of learning approaches. Others find the idea of three or four “styles” to be distracting or limiting.
In the college setting, you’ll probably discover that instructors teach their course materials according to the method they think will be most effective for all students. Thus, regardless of your individual learning preference, you will probably be asked to engage in all types of learning. For instance, even though you consider yourself to be a “visual learner,” you will still probably have to write papers in some of your classes. Research suggests that it’s good for the brain to learn in new ways and that learning in different modalities can help learners become more well-rounded. Consider the following statistics on how much content students absorb through different learning methods:
- 10 percent of content they read
- 20 percent of content they hear
- 30 percent of content they visualize
- 50 percent of what they both visualize and hear
- 70 percent of what they say
- 90 percent of what they say and do
The range of these results underscores the importance of mixing up the ways in which you study and engage with learning materials.
Activity: Identifying Preferred Learning Styles
- Define learning styles, and recognize your preferred learning style(s)
- Now it’s time to consider your preferred learning style(s). Take the VARK Questionnaire here.
- Review the types of learning preferences.
- Identify three different classes and describe what types of activities you typically do in these classes. Which learning style(s) do these activities relate to?
- Describe what you think your preferred learning style(s) is/are. How do you know?
- Explain how you could apply your preferred learning style(s) to studying.
- What might your preferred learning style(s) tell you about your interests? Consider which subjects and eventual careers you might like.
- Follow your instructor’s guidelines for submitting your assignment.
Defining Multimodal Learning
While completing the learning-styles activity, you might have discovered that you prefer more than one learning style. Applying more than one learning style is known as multimodal learning. This strategy is useful not only for students who prefer to combine learning styles but also for those who may not know which learning style works best for them. It’s also a good way to mix things up and keep learning fun.
For example, consider how you might combine visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles to a biology class. For visual learning, you could create flash cards containing images of individual animals and the species name. For auditory learning, you could have a friend quiz you on the flash cards. For kinesthetic learning, you could move the flash cards around on a board to show a food web (food chain).
The following video will help you review the types of learning styles and see how they might relate to your study habits:
The next assignment can help you extend and apply what you’ve learned about multimodal learning to current classes and studying.
Activity: Applying Learning Styles to Class
- Define multimodal learning
- Apply your preferred learning styles to classroom scenarios
- Review the three main learning styles and the definition of multimodal learning.
- Identify a class you are currently taking that requires studying.
- Describe how you could study for this class using visual, auditory, and kinesthetic/tactile learning skills.
- Follow your instructor’s guidelines for submitting your activity.
- Mansaray, David. "The Four Stages of Learning: The Path to Becoming an Expert." DavidMansaray.com. 2011. Web. 10 Feb 2016. ↵