Theories of Learning

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe different theories of learning

Your Style of Learning

Many educators consider discussing learning styles useful when they are working with students. Have you learned about your learning style in the past? Chances are if you went to school in the United States, you most likely discussed your style of learning. What are we talking about when we talk about learning styles? Let’s start with what has traditionally been called the four sensory learning modalities:

  1. visual (seeing)
  2. auditory (hearing)
  3. read/write (textual preference)
  4. kinesthetic (experience)

These models, sometimes abbreviated as VARK, 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. In fact, as we learn more about how we learn, we now have a growing body of research that tells us learning styles are not supported by empirical evidence. In other words, even if you identify as having a style of learning, research tells us that learning styles do not help us learn new material.

What the Research Tells Us about Learning

There is research showing that when instructors adjust their teaching to account for learners’ preferred learning styles, it does not impact learning. [1] This means that there is no such thing as a visual learner. While some people might have a preference to learn visually, anyone can learn visually, just as anyone can learn auditorily or kinesthetically. In fact, if you learn about the same thing from many different sources explained in different ways, you will learn more than if you are only exposed to one single explanation or source. It is important to note that some learners may have disabilities that impede learning in certain modes (blindness impairs visual learning; deafness impairs auditory learning), in which case learners can focus on other modes of learning.

So What?

Let’s say you’re reading this, and you feel very passionately that you learn best by reading or listening. You may feel like you learn best when you listen to a podcast or when you watch a video. Perhaps you remember what you learned when you write a summary. Maybe your best work is when you’re engaging in a group activity.

Maybe you are learning that learning styles are a myth for the first time. Now what? You’re actually in the perfect course since we’re focusing on how we learn as students! Figuring out what works best for you as a learner is why you are taking this course. In college, you will discover that instructors teach their course materials according to the method they think will be most effective for all students. Is there a one-size-fits-all style of teaching and learning? No, so let’s now turn our attention to other popular ways of thinking about learning.

What Is Multimodal Learning?

You may encounter many references to learning styles in other classes, so it’s helpful to know about these theories. It is also widely thought that when you apply more than one learning style, you are engaged in what’s called multimodal learning. Given the research that we have uncovered about learning styles, we now know that this isn’t true. Why is this helpful to know? The multimodal learning strategy is useful not only for students who prefer to combine different ways of learning but also for those who may not know what works best for them.

Models of Strategic Learning

The word strategic suggests the execution of a carefully planned strategy with the intent of achieving a specific goal. The model of strategic learning, as outlined by Claire Weinstein, provides a comprehensive framework for developing appropriate strategies for learning given the unique conditions of each learner for any given learning experience.[2]

The model incorporates the learner’s skill, will, academic environment, and self-regulation. Let’s take a closer look at the definitions for these terms:

  • Skill refers to the learner’s content knowledge, self-awareness of strengths and weaknesses, and ability to employ effective skills such as goal-setting, active listening and reading, and note-taking.
  • Will refers to the learner’s state of mind. This state includes motivation, how you feel about learning (ranging from fear and anxiety to excitement and joy), beliefs about your abilities, and your level of commitment to personal goals.
  • Academic environment encompasses factors that are external to the individual learner, but still impact the learning process. Examples include access to academic support resources, the requirements of particular classes or assignments, teacher expectations, and the social context in which the learner lives.
  • Finally, self-regulation is how the learner recognizes and manages each of these factors. To be strategic about learning, you may exert self-control in the form of time-management, emotional control, seeking assistance, and/or monitoring progress; a learner who does so is more likely to be successful than one who fails to self-regulate.

In the strategic learning model, the learner is always at the center. Each learner is uniquely situated in terms of skill, will, and academic environment; it is also up to each learner to exercise self-regulation where possible to minimize or work around factors that interfere with learning and maximize those that support it.

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is an important element of self-regulation. It can be defined as the ability of individuals to recognize their own and other people’s emotions, discern between different feelings and label them appropriately, use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior, and manage and/or adjust emotions to adapt to environments or achieve one’s goal(s). Those with high levels of emotional intelligence are able to recognize and reflect on their own emotions and those of the people around them; they are also able to respond to those emotions in ways that minimize negative consequences and support the achievement of intended goals.

Successful Intelligence

While the model of strategic learning focuses on the interaction between individual knowledge, abilities, and environment, other theories place greater emphasis on rounding out one’s cognitive abilities to be able to approach and solve problems in different ways. In his theory of successful intelligence, for example, Robert Sternberg[3] proposes that to be successfully intelligent is to think well in three different ways: analytically, creatively, and practically.

  • Analytical thinking encompasses the ability to think abstractly and process information effectively. Analytical thinking emphasizes effectiveness in information processing.
  • Creative thinking includes the ability to formulate new ideas and combine seemingly unrelated facts or information. It emphasizes the ability to invent new solutions.
  • Practical thinking is the ability to adapt to changing environmental conditions to maximize one’s strengths and compensate for one’s weaknesses. It emphasizes intelligence in a practical sense.

Successful intelligence is most effective when it balances all three of its analytical, creative, and practical aspects. It is more important to know when and how to use these aspects of successful intelligence than just to have them. Successfully intelligent people don’t just have abilities; they reflect on when and how to use these abilities effectively.

Try It


multimodal learning: the strategy of employing more than one learning approach, which can be helpful for students who do not have any set ideas about a single approach that works best for them

  1. Kirschner, P. A. "Stop Propagating the Learning Styles Myth." Computers & Education, 2017, vol. 106, pp. 166–171.
  2. Weinstein, C.E., D. Dierking, J.Husman, L. Roska, and L. Powdrill. "Developmental education: Preparing successful college students. Monograph ser. #24." The Impact of a Course in Strategic Learning on the Long-Term Retention of College Students, edited by Jeanne L. Higbee and Patricia L. Dwinell. National Research Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition, 1998, pp. 85–96.
  3. Sternberg, R. J. Successful intelligence. New York, Plume, 1997.