Learning Styles

Learning Objectives

  • Define learning styles and multimodal learning

Identifying Learning Styles

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 some audio of his vocabulary words—perhaps by looking up an online video created by a native Spanish speaker.

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):

  1. Visual
  2. Auditory
  3. Kinesthetic

Examples of these modalities are shown in the table, below.

Visual Kinesthetic Auditory
Picture Gestures Listening
Shape Body Movements Rhythms
Sculpture Object Manipulation Tone
Paintings Positioning Chants

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:

  1. Visual learning
  2. Auditory learning
  3. Read/write learning
  4. 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.

Defining Multimodal Learning

You might discover 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:

You can view the transcript for “Discover Your Learning Style and Optimize Your Self Study” here (opens in new window).