Not a Visual Learner, Just a Learner

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“I am a visual learner” proudly states one student. Another student replies, “I’m an auditory learner.” The process continues through the class as each student describes their “type” of learning style. There is something comfortable about classifying ourselves into a “type”. This happens socially starting in middle school where some students are “popular” and others might be “geeks”. It continues when we try to find a job and take vocational preference tests that describe what “type” we are and thereby which job setting is most appropriate for us.

The learning style approach taps into the same appeal of having a “type” of learning that provides us our optimal learning. The concept of learning styles has been very popular in education settings for the past few decades. It has led to curriculums that focus on providing information to students in their preferred mode of learning. When most students are asked about how they like to learn, most will indicate that they prefer information to be presented to them in a particular way.

However, there is little to no empirical support that instruction should be tailored to individual learning styles. This means that despite students preferring to have material presented in a particular way, there is no real benefit to overall learning. This should come as a relief to teachers and parents as they can now focus on the vast similarities in the way students learn rather than focusing on the small differences.

Even though an instructional match to a student’s learning style does not appear to be effective, there are a couple of techniques that can be used at home and school that will increase any child’s learning. The first technique is to mix up the way information is presented and reviewed. For example, a child could learn spelling words from a list. The next time the child reviews the words, the parent can change the order of the list. This change will force the child to pay closer attention and thereby learn the words better.

A second technique is to spread out the learning over a period of weeks rather than cramming it into a few days. This means reviewing concepts the child has learned in the past few weeks in addition to the new material. This time parents can throw in a few old spelling words in addition to the new ones. It is surprising to see how quickly the words from two weeks ago become forgotten if not reviewed over a longer period of time. The next time you hear someone mention learning styles, let them know that teaching is more effective focusing on student similarities in learning rather than their differences.

This article was published in the Richmond Register Health Beat Magazine in September 2011.

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