Learner Styles

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

Learner styles are a popular way to describe the different ways in which people learn. In recent years Youtube has become a popular way for people to learn a whole host of skills such as cooking or playing a musical instrument. Why has learning in this way become so popular? Most likely because it effectively caters for several different learner styles at once.

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 preferred learning style.

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 styles 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 styles are more of a spectrum than a dichotomy. For a slightly more detailed look, take the quiz below:

VAK/VARK Analysis

One of the best known analyses of learner style is the VAK analysis, which stands for Visual Auditory Kinaesthetic – the three styles which it tests for.

Even though this model was developed by psychologists in the 1920s, VAK analyses are still popular today. In the 1980s, a further learning style “Read/Write” was added, changing the acronym to VARK.

According to VARK analysis, we all have one of these four component learning styles. However, many people do not fit squarely into just one category, with some people benefitting from all four learning styles.

Visual learners prefer to see what they are learning. This might mean seeing a picture, a diagram, a video or live demonstration. Auditory learners prefer to hear what they are learning. This would therefore likely be a spoken explanation. Read/Write learners prefer to deal with the written word. They are the type of people who can learn from a book. Kinaesthetic learners like to experience what they are learning through touch or movement.

As a teacher it is useful to understand your own learning style as this is likely to be favoured in the way you teach. Take the quiz below to find out.

Finding Out Your Students' Learning Styles

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 will not know if they are a visual or a holistic learner. We can therefore ask them questions like in the questionnaires linked to on this page.

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.

Visual learners (which are typically the most common at around 60% of learners) will respond to pictures. They like to see things written down especially in some kind of diagram. When taking notes they may draw a diagram, or table or make lists.

Auditory learners respond better to discussion or listening. They don’t like additional distracting noise as this reduces their ability to learn. 

Kinaesthetic learners tend to have high levels of energy and get restless if they are sitting for too long. Typically, children begin as kinaesthetic learners, although only around 5% of adults remain kinaesthetic.

However, as mentioned above, while some students will be clearly one or other of these types, others will be a combination.

Implications for Teaching

We wouldn’t think about learner styles if there wasn’t some implication for us as teachers.

If we have many different types of learners in class, then it is important that we are meeting all of their needs.

The first thing we need to think about therefore is what is our own learning style. The reason for this is simple – teachers will naturally gravitate towards the way they like to learn. If this is the case, then other students are not being catered for.

We must therefore make additional effort to include opportunities for other learner styles to flourish in our lessons.

Notice

While this session is based on material typically covered by a CELTA, it is not a substitute for one. The contents of this session are intended to help teachers who plan to take a CELTA, or as a refresher for those who have.

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