Basic Explanation of Learning Preferences

This group of students is employing several different learning methods at the same time: one student is writing, another is participating, another is watching, and another is listening to the results of the experiment.
This group of students is employing several different learning methods at the same time: one student is writing, another is participating, another is watching, and another is listening to the results of the experiment. | Source

Teachers and students alike can benefit from a better understanding of learning preferences, as it can significantly influence how one teaches or how one studies for classes.

Everybody's different.

I know, no mind-blowing information there, but did you know that learners are different too? And although everyone has a unique finger print, lucky for teachers there are only so many limited kinds of learning preferences.

Although educators differ on the exact types (and number of) learning styles, most learning styles can be grouped into four major categories. Neil Fleming's "VARK" system categorizes learning preferences in the following manner: visual learners, aural learners, reading/writing learner, and kinesthetic learners.

Understanding learning preferences also allows teachers to reach students in a way that most appeals to them. For example, if a teacher uses one primary teaching method (such as lecturing) it would be good to review material in another method (such as making students write a report) because it allows the student to better synthesizes information.

Sure, I'd noticed how my college roommates and I studied for tests differently, but I didn't really understand the concept of learning preferences (also known as learning styles) until later in my college career, when I was introduced the four major "schools" of learning styles.

Until recently I thought that some communication issues between me and a friend were just due to personality, but then I realize it wasn't so much personality as it was a difference in learning preferences. Understanding the differences between how people of other learning tendencies think has helped me to communicate with others as well.


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Here's a brief explanation of learning preferences:

Visual Study Helps

  • Look for books with pictures, graphs and charts.
  • Highlight, underline, or put markings next to important parts in books, or in your handwritten notes from class.
  • Make doodles, images or acronyms that that help you remember information.

Visual Learners

Visual learners do best when presented with pictorial representations of data, and tend to understand charts and graphs better than their peers do.

Although PowerPoint presentations fall into the visual category, videos do not count as a visual learning strategy since most videos are about reenactments or contain lots of verbalization. In the classroom setting, viisual learners may wish to sit at the front of the class where they can see the teacher (and visual aids) best.

When considering if one falls into the "visual" category of learning thing about how you might want to learn something new. For example, if you wanted to learn how to fold a paper airplane the visual learner would prefer to watch someone make an airplane the first time.

Aural Study Helps

  • Attend all scheduled classes.
  • Discuss what you learned in class with others.
  • Ask your instructor about taking audio recordings of lectures.

Aural Learners

Do you tend to talk to yourself when bored, or repeat things aloud a lot? If so, you may just be someone who prefers the aural learning style.

Aural learners retain information best by using their ears, or when they are stimulated aurally. This technique is most commonly used when teachers use the lecture technique in class, or when teachers encourage students to discuss content in small groups.

Those of the aural-learning persuasion does best when listening to other people talk about the material, or by even reviewing their notes aloud to themselves. These learners may even like to play a question and answer game to better learn material, or just might ask their friend to quiz them orally for comprehension.

Basically if there is any sort of speaking involved, the aural learner will want to be involved. An aural learner would want to hear instructions when wanting to learn a new task or skill. For example, an aural learner would prefer to listen to driving directions over other methods.

Reading/Writing Study Helps

  • Make lists and headings.
  • Read textbooks thoroughly and read other related books on the topic.

Reading/Writing Learners

As the name of this learning preference implies, students (and teachers) of this persuasion prefer read or write about new skills.

Although lectures involve listening, the reading/writing learners thrives on taking notes during the lecture, instead of just "absorbing" the content with their ears. These learners like to make lists, do extra reading on the subject, and thrive on projects that let them show their comprehension in the written word.

When a reading/writing preferring student takes on new information he will prefer to work with the written word. For example, when putting together furniture, the reading/writing preferring learner would want to read written instructions rather than viewing pictorial representations.

Kinesthetic Study Helps

  • Think of real-life examples.
  • Make collections, perform experiments, and view experiments or photographs.

Kinesthetic Learners

Kinesthetic learners enjoy by "doing" and participating in activities. Role-play situations, hands-on activities, science experiments and field trips are often the best way to engage these learners, since they enjoy learning by doing and experiencing.

Kinesthetic learners may become bored in the traditional classroom settings, and may require more breaks than the average student. They are uncomfortable in classrooms where they can't get up and move around, or where they can't actively participate.

Although it isn't practical to expect all classroom concepts to be taught in an experiential manner, teachers can help their kinesthetic-loving students learn better by giving real-life examples, and suggesting students put themselves in the shoes of those they are learning about.

Because kinesthetic learners learn best by doing, you may have to let your kinesthetic students struggle with activities themselves in order for them to have the most beneficial experience.

What's your preferred learning style?

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Mulit-Modal Learners

Despite a variety of learning preferences, mot everyone can be pigeon-holed into being only one style of learner. Many people learn better when presented with material via multiple learning methods, however most people have a stronger preference for one method over another.

Unless your teachers drones on-and-on in a lecture format (and practically reads the textbook aloud) most teachers tend to present material in more than one method anyway. For example, teachers often give real-life examples to help make a point. Teachers might also refer to a map on the board, give suggested extra reading, or perform a science experiment.

Teachers will do best for the students when they seek out new methods of presenting classroom concepts. Although a teacher may be hesitant to discuss the same thing in multiple ways, just consider it another form of review.

It is important to consider that although one clearly has a learning preference, it is beneficial to practice learning in other methods as well. Some educators caution students to strengthen other portions of their brain and learn in a non-preferred method.

Comparison of learning preferences by gender

Differences in learning style preferences among undergraduate physiology students; a total of 48 respondents.
Differences in learning style preferences among undergraduate physiology students; a total of 48 respondents. | Source

Conclusions

Teachers need not integrate all these types of learning preferences into their every day classroom for every topic, because let's face it, you can't teach the same thing in four different methods— they day just isn't long enough.

But teachers can offer review sessions using different methods, or bring in different elements of the classroom content in a different manner of thinking. Worried about your teaching style leaning too heavily on one learning method? Consider asking your students how they learn best, and then tailoring your teaching style to suit the needs of most students.

For more information on Fleming's learning styles visit VARK: A Guide to Learning Styles.

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