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One of the biggest challenges educators face is creating a learning environment that offers opportunities for every type of student to succeed. Students learn in different ways and at different paces, which can make it difficult to engage and teach them effectively, especially as an instructor with large class sizes across multiple subject areas. 

It’s important to create a curriculum that is inclusive, which is to say that it is culturally responsive; that it helps students develop a sense of belonging; that it honors and engages LGBTQIA+ students. But what about multi-sensory learning styles? Does that affect how a student absorbs, remembers, and utilizes information? 

In this post, we dive into the history, definitions of, and debates around different established learning style theories. We’ll explore how best to understand the seven most well-known styles and if an educator so chooses, offer tips on how to teach each type of student in the classroom. And we’ll keep in mind that whether or not learning styles are an integrated component of every classroom, there is value in knowing what they are, their implications, limitations, and possible benefits.   

What is the history of learning styles? 

In as early as 334 BC, Aristotle is known to have observed that “each child possessed specific talents and skills” (Reiff, 1992), recognizing individual differences amongst children and their way of expressing knowledge and know-how. From there, countless psychologists, educators, and scientists have wondered and debated if there is an ideal, effective way for individuals to learn. 

In the 1920s, Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst C.G. Jung published Psychological Types, a book that delved into the four functions of consciousness (sensation/intuition and thinking/feeling) and how they can be modified by attitude (extraversion and introversion). Jung’s work greatly influenced Americans Katharine Cook Briggs and her daughter, Isabel Briggs Myers, who interpreted and integrated Jung’s theories into their own research, ultimately resulting in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test in 1956.    

The MBTI, while largely different from Jung’s philosophies, is based on the four principal psychological functions–introversion/extraversion, sensing/intuition, thinking/feeling, judging/perceiving–and determining which in each category is said to be an individuals’ “preferred” quality. According to Myers & Myers, the indicator was meant to be a more accessible framework of cognitive functions for the general public, initially crafted by Myers and Briggs during World War II as a way for women entering the industrial workforce to better identify the specific jobs that would be the “most comfortable and effective” for them (1980). As quoted on the MBTI site: "When people differ, a knowledge of type lessens friction and eases strain. In addition it reveals the value of differences. No one has to be good at everything” (Isabel Briggs Myers). And while the MBTI wasn’t and isn’t formally considered a “learning styles” assessment, many bridge the concept of a “personality type” to a deeper understanding of the preferred ways one collects and processes information, finds motivation, and expresses interest in particular topics. 

Years later, Psychologist David Kolb outlined his theory of learning styles. He “believed that our individual learning styles emerge due to our genetics, life experiences, and the demands of our current environment” (Cherry, 2022). In 1984, Kolb developed the Experiential Learning Theory (ELT), a learning style inventory based on a learner’s internal cognitive processes, based on the assumption that people learn by doing or from direct experience.

The Experiential Learning Cycle

Kolb’s experiential learning style theory is typically represented by a four-stage learning cycle in which the learner “touches all the bases”.

According to Kolb: 

“First, immediate and concrete experiences serve as a basis for observation. Next, the individual reflects on these observations and begins to build a general theory of what this information might mean. In the next step, the learner forms abstract concepts and generalizations based on their hypothesis. Finally, the learner tests the implications of these concepts in new situations. After this step, the process once again cycles back to the first stage of the experiential process” (Cherry, 2022).

Kolb’s framework remains one of the most highly referenced learning style theories to date, influencing the development of many of the commonly referenced learning styles talked about in classrooms. 

And while it may feel like a large leap to go from Kolb’s “abstract conceptualization” stage to an image of an “auditory, visual, kinesthetic, etc.” learner, consider this: perhaps “learning style theories” are a framework to move an individual from the abstract to the concrete by way of a chosen modality. For example, an auditory learner might read about rhythm and melody in a textbook (abstract), but then participate in active experimentation by listening to music or playing an instrument in order to move towards a concrete experience and deeper learning. 

And while this theory has, indeed, influenced how many approach learning, some worry: are these categories too general or oversimplified? Is there science or evidence backing these claims? In the next section, we dive into the disconnect that exists around this topic as many seek to understand complex neuro concepts in meaningful ways.  

Is there controversy around learning styles?

There is an ongoing debate around the value of learning styles and how these established frameworks benefit or actually harm the education world. The MBTI, for instance, only scratches the surface of an individual’s potential, possibly limiting a student’s growth mindset by creating a box that tells them how they might think, learn, and feel.  For many psychologists, scientists, and even educators, the popularity of the “learning styles” assessments falls into the category of “neuromyths” that have gained momentum in classrooms around the world. 

Paul Howard-Jones, a researcher at the Centre for Mind and Brain in Educational and Social Contexts at Bristol University in the United Kingdom, has cautioned that neuromyths, aka the “misconception generated by a misunderstanding, a misreading, or a misquoting of facts scientifically established by brain research to make a case for use of brain research in education or other contexts” are more pervasive in the educational field than we might think—and that these neuromyths may work against educational achievement. 

For one, Cindy May, from Scientific American, suggests that “the popularity of the learning styles mythology may stem in part from the appeal of finding out what ‘type of person’ you are, along with the desire to be treated as an individual within the education system.” She cites a review of scientific literature on learning styles that offered very little evidence to outwardly support the concept that learning outcomes are increased with instructional techniques aligned with individuals’ learning styles. 

Lauren McGrath, Director of the Learning Exceptionalities and Related Neuropsychology (L.E.a.R.N.) lab at the University of Denver, offers a more empathetic approach to why learning styles have gained such popularity: “It’s important to emphasize that these myths have become so popular because teachers have such a sincere interest in understanding how their students learn–something we know is inherently complex.” She goes on to say that “it’s important that we come up with trainings that work to directly dispel these myths so teachers can focus on solid, evidence-based recommendations for their classroom.”

So, is there a world where learning style assessments bring value to instructors and students alike? Perhaps if instructors coupled them with solid, evidence-based recommendations (as McGrath mentioned above), sound data insights, purposeful curricular goals, and thoughtful feedback loops, these assessments can be the part of a bigger picture that results in successful outcomes for students. 

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Why is it important to recognize learning styles?

Even though there is controversy and debate, it's still important to recognize that people do learn in different ways. And as educators, regardless of whether we believe that these exist or are accurate, it is important to incorporate different ways of communicating information. Differentiation has always been a priority for educators, grade level and subject area notwithstanding, because at a foundational level, we know that when students receive information in a variety of ways, they are more apt to learn.

Accordingly, we’ll dive into the seven most well-known learning styles in the Western world and how they may be effectively utilized in the classroom in the next section.  

What are the seven different learning styles?

There are a variety of learning styles that have been defined, discussed, and applied to education settings; however, the following seven have risen to the top as the most well-known and commonly classified learning styles. They are: visual, kinesthetic, aural (auditory), social, solitary, verbal, and logical. So, how are these learners defined? And how do they learn best? Below is a description of each type of learner and their preferred modality for absorbing new information: 

  • Visual learners learn best by seeing information. They prefer visual aids such as diagrams, charts, videos, and images. To help visual learners understand concepts, educators can use visual aids to explain abstract concepts and help them see relationships between ideas.
  • Auditory learners learn best by hearing information. They prefer lectures, discussions, and other activities that involve verbal communication. To help auditory learners understand concepts, educators can use lectures, group discussions, and oral presentations to teach information.
  • Kinesthetic learners learn best by doing. They prefer hands-on activities and experiments that involve movement and touch. To help kinesthetic learners understand concepts, educators can use experiential learning activities such as role-playing, experiments, and simulations.
  • Reading/writing learners learn best by reading and writing information. They prefer textbooks, written instructions, and taking notes. To help reading/writing learners understand concepts, educators can use written materials such as textbooks, handouts, and study guides.
  • Social learners learn best in group settings. They enjoy working with others and thrive in collaborative environments. Social learners benefit from group discussions, peer teaching, and cooperative learning activities. Educators can encourage social learners by assigning group projects and activities, providing opportunities for class discussions, and creating a classroom environment that encourages interaction and teamwork.
  • Solitary learners learn best when working alone. They prefer to work independently and are self-motivated. Solitary learners benefit from self-directed activities, individual projects, and reflective activities. Educators can encourage solitary learners by allowing them to work independently, providing opportunities for self-reflection, and creating a quiet and peaceful learning environment.
  • Verbal learners learn best through spoken and written language. They enjoy discussions, debates, and reading and writing activities. Verbal learners benefit from lectures, group discussions, and written assignments. Educators can encourage verbal learners by providing opportunities for class discussions, debates, and presentations.
  • Logical learners learn best through logic, reasoning, and analysis. They enjoy solving problems and prefer structured activities. Logical learners benefit from math, science, and logic-based activities. Educators can encourage logical learners by providing opportunities for problem-solving, critical thinking, and structured activities.

Tips for teaching students with different learning styles

For educators who choose to employ learning style assessments and/or for those that simply want to offer a wider spectrum of activities that appeal to a diverse group of learners, the following tips may be helpful in planning and executing lessons:

  • Recognize and understand different learning styles. By recognizing and understanding the different learning styles of your students, you can better cater to their needs and preferences.
  • Use a variety of teaching methods. Use a variety of teaching methods and activities to cater to different learning styles. For example, use visual aids for visual learners, group discussions for auditory learners, hands-on activities for kinesthetic learners, and written materials for reading/writing learners.
  • Allow for flexibility. Allow for flexibility in your teaching methods to accommodate the different learning styles of your students. For example, allow students to work independently or in groups, use different forms of assessments, and offer different types of assignments.
  • When/if applicable, encourage students to identify their learning style. Encourage students to identify their learning style and use that knowledge to help them study and learn more effectively.

Again, by infusing a lesson with multimodal learning opportunities, educators can give their students the best chance to absorb new information in a meaningful way. 

In conclusion: Different learning styles and how to understand them

There are undoubtedly both limitations and benefits to incorporating learning style assessments into curriculum planning and classroom instruction. On the one hand, instructors risk boxing students in, for instead of encouraging introspection and a growth-mindset, learning style assessments may force students into one category and limit their openness to learning. 

On the other hand, there can be value in taking the time to reflect on how we all learn, think, and absorb information. Polly Husmann, a professor at Indiana University who studies how factors outside the classroom can affect learning, puts it this way: “I think it’s important that we refocus the conversation on how people learn–it’s not about trying to put people on boxes but to look at how people learn more broadly than a few broad categories,” she says. “When we can frame the discussion more about learning in general, instead of these specific styles, it opens teachers up to new possibilities, where they can try many different things to help their students succeed.”

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