There’s No One Best Way to Learn

I have a good friend who I’ve always thought would make a fabulous teacher. She’s finally making the leap and will teach a course this semester at Niagara College.

Although anyone who knows her is confident she’ll be great, she admits to being a bit nervous. I really don’t think she needs to be as she really does know her stuff.  Additionally, she’s very organized, works hard, and is the kind of person who cares deeply about others. The students will love her. 

In the course of our conversation about her new venture I volunteered to help in any way I could. As a result she asked if I would be able to willing to review her lesson plans.
Of course I said yes but in hindsight it might have more useful if I had thought to share with her the biggest mistake I made during my first few years of teaching.

My mistake was thinking that others learned the same way I did. Of course, they don’t. People have different ways of responding to, and using information, in the context of learning.
A fair bit of research has been done so while there are a variety of instruments that can be used to determine an individual’s learning style, there isn’t universal agreement that any one of them is totally accurate.

However, even if there is agreement that you can’t really divide the entire population into distinct learning categories, the tools do convey an understanding that people learn in different ways.
Having said that, it’s also important to understand that no one falls neatly into any one category so we can’t pigeon-hole people. Also, even if we prefer one style, it doesn’t mean the other styles don’t do us any good as we are all capable of learning in different ways.

The most popular model, likely because it is so simplistic, is VAK - an acronym for visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.

I’m mainly a visual learner but kinesthetic is also important for me. Kindergarten to grade three included a lot of kinesthetic learning so that worked out well for me as did grades four to eight which provided more opportunities for visual learning. High school and university were more about auditory learning so for me they were definitely more of a challenge.

As a visual learner, I learn best though two conduits - linguistic and spatial. As a visual-linguistic I learn through written language. I remember what is written down. I need to write down directions and I pay better attention to lectures if I watch them. As a visual-spatial learner I also do better with charts, demonstrations, videos, and other visual materials. I find it easy to visualize faces and places by using my imagination and, unlike my husband, seldom get lost in new surroundings.

The best strategies for teaching visual learners include using graphs, diagrams, charts, illustrations or other visual aids, using outlines, agendas, and handouts for reading and taking notes, flip charts, emphasizing key points, inviting questions, and role play.

Auditory learners, like my husband, are quite different. They often talk to themselves, may move their lips and read out loud. He often does better talking to a colleague or hearing what was said.

In a learning environment, he likes it best when he is told what he is going to learn, is taught, and is then told what he has just learned. Unlike me, he likes lectures, dialogues, and being asked questions to test his learning and to make connections of what he has learned and how it applies. 

Kinesthetic learners do best while touching and moving. It also has two conduits - kinesthetic or movement, and tactile or touch. They tend to lose concentration if there is little or no external stimulation or movement. When listening to lectures they may want to take notes. When reading, they like to scan the material first to get the big picture and then focus in on the details.
These are the learners most likely to use highlighters and take notes by drawing pictures, diagrams, or doodling. Teachers wanting to accommodate kinesthetic learners should give them something specific to do or use activities that get them up and moving. Transferring information from one medium to another is also helpful such as recording notes onto a computer or a flipchart.

Once both my students and I had a better understanding of these learning styles, I was able to incorporate a variety of learning activities into my daily lesson plans rather than simply teach the way I preferred to learn – which is what I did when I first started.  In hindsight, I’m sure I made all the auditory learners absolutely crazy.

When all is said and done, did understanding learning styles make me a better teacher?  I like to think so.

Posted on 02-21-10

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