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Learner Preferences

Continuing on from our previous session about who learners are, in this session we will look at learner preferences.

From time to time, you may hear teachers talking about learner styles or different types of learners. This was a popular idea in education because the suggestion that all learners simply have different gifts is much more attractive as a proposition than some learners are stupid. However, there has been little evidence to support theories that learners fit into a particular category and that all learners don’t benefit from a range of mixed mode instruction.

One thing we can note though is that technology is changing education, especially informal education. Youtube has become a great source of learning material, probably because of its combination of the visual and aural and ability to interact with youtubers.

Your Experience

Imagine that someone gives you a new gadget. You have never seen anything quite like it before. You are of course excited (if you’re a technophobe – imagine you’re not).

You now have several choices. Which would you go for?

  1. Read the instruction manual first.
  2. Ask someone how it works.
  3. Start playing with it and see how it works.
  4. Look for someone else with the same device and watch what they do.

Regardless of which choice you take (and they are all potentially valid options – depending on the actual context), you have just shown a learning preference.

If you are already (or have been) working as a teacher, think about your students. If you haven’t worked as a teacher before, think about your family and friends. Can you think of one person who would choose each option? What makes you think they would choose that option?

Analytic vs Holistic

One comparison we can do of our students’ learning preferences is whether they are analytic or holistic learners. Analytic learners, as you might guess, like to break down tasks and learning into component parts. Holisitic learners on the other hand tend to focus more on their mood in approaching tasks.

If you want to find out which you are, answer the following questions:

  1. When cooking, do you prefer to follow a recipe or improvise?
  2. When brushing your teeth, do you squeeze the toothpaste tube from the end (and roll up the tube) or from the middle?
  3. When shopping, do you make a list or do you head straight for the shop and choose what you need while you are there?
If you chose the first option for each question you are an analytic learner. You are a holistic learner if you chose the second option each time. If you chose inconsistently this is perfectly normal – learner preferences are more of a spectrum than a dichotomy. 

VAK/VARK Analysis

Originally developed in the 1920s, VAK analysis is one of the best known analyses of learner styles. VAK stands for visual, auditory/aural and kinaesthetic. In the 1980s, read/write was added to make VARK.

While this analysis is no longer considered sound, we can perhaps use the four styles as a checklist for providing multi-modal instruction in English lessons. For example:

Visual: We can provide students with gesture and mime when giving instructions, show videos and pictures to demonstrate language points, use timelines to illustrate grammatical tense.

Aural: We can provide explanation or verbal instructions, play sound effects or background music, play recordings or video.

Read/write: We can back up learning with written explanations, provide texts to read and reinforce new words and phrases by writing them on the board.

Kinaesthetic: We can get students up and moving around the classroom, use games that require movement and get students to respond physically instead of verbally.

The key to remember is that we are no longer identifying students as being one style and hitting them with instruction just in that style. Instead we are using a mix of these with all of our students.

Multiple Intelligence Theory

Another theory you may have heard of is Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence Theory. The basic principle is that there are somewhere north of 8 different intelligences that people might have a mix of. For example, some people might be logically intelligent and be good at traditional academic topics like maths, while others may be musically intelligent or linguistically intelligent.

There are a number of problems with this, perhaps the biggest being that there is no universal definition of intelligence. It is therefore difficult to isolate the individual intelligences that are claimed. Musical intelligence, for example, is difficult to distinguish from musical talent. Meanwhile linguistic intelligence probably depends to some extent on the logical intelligence that makes someone good at mathematics. Meanwhile interpersonal and intrapersonal intelligence are really just another way of saying someone is extroverted or introverted, and these can be subject to variation.

Ultimately, multiple intelligence theory seems to have had its moment in the spotlight. What we can still say though is that people are differently inclined towards different things, and if you have an interest in an area you are more likely to get better at.  

Finding Out Your Students' Learning Preferences

There are two ways to find out your students’ learning styles:

  1. Ask them.
  2. Observe them in the classroom.

Ask them

Of course, your students are unlikely to be able to discuss some of the ideas about learning preferences that we have discussed here. However, you can ask students what they prefer out of several choices. For example:

Do you prefer…

… studying vocabulary or grammar?

… working in pairs or alone?

… playing games or doing ‘serious’ exercises?

… watching a film or reading a book?

Of course this is not without problems. Firstly, we have to find the time for our students to do such a questionnaire. We may even have to let them take it home but these things tend to get lost. Secondly, if we have low-level students we may not be able to give them such a questionnaire in English. Finally, students may not see the value in using their time to answer these questions (especially if they seem a little daft).

Observe them in the Classroom

If we can’t ask our students, we definitely can observe them in the classroom.

We can note how students respond to the techniques and activities we use in lessons. Remember that not everything will work for everybody, so try to note students who have very good lessons and students who have very bad lessons, and at what point. Then make sure you keep the things that worked well and think about what you can try for the students who may need something different.

Implications for Teaching

Just as learners have different preferences, we should keep in mind that as educators we too have preferences. We are likely to teach students in the way that we like to be taught ourselves. That might work for most students, but we should be prepared to go outside of our own preferences to hit the needs of all our students. It is a useful starting point therefore to think about what your own learning preferences are and a great way to do that is to take lessons (in languages or something else).

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