What Are the Different Learning Styles?

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Professional Development

Now when we went to write this blog, we thought we were pretty clear about what the content should be when it comes to writing about learning styles. But as any professional organisation should, we went to see if there were any updates or changes to what’s already thought to be “common knowledge”…

Turns out, there was something. D’oh!

So let us give you a very brief overview of what the common knowledge was before we found a very valid, viewpoint-shifting article written by a PhD in the USA.

There are 4 well known and widely accepted learning styles. The VARK model (by Neil Fleming) was introduced in 1987 and designed to help students and teachers recognise a students’ primary learning style. This was well before online learning was even a thing but relevant to it as well…

The theory was, if you were a teacher/trainer and knew your students’ learning style, you could help them learn faster by creating, or using, content in their primary learning style. In the end, they would learn more and more easily… In theory.

The VARK model learning styles are:

1. Visual – Prefer images, infographics, video, maps, graphics and anything that can present information or concepts in a visual way.  They can study best by drawing pictures, creating their own mind maps or studying graphics to recall important information. Think “a picture is worth a thousand words” and add lots of visuals for these people.

2. Auditory – Learns from listening (podcasts, lectures, stories), being involved in Q&A sessions, but also learns from speaking.  These people do well in group discussions to understand and explore new ideas and concepts.  Sometimes repeating statements is how the information sticks in their brains too, especially if you have songs they can be connected to.

3. Reading and writing – As it suggests, these people learn from reading and writing. They typically do best writing their own notes from reading information at their own pace, often using multiple text sources to get a full understanding. These learners get a deeper understanding from writing what they’re learning in their own words and being given time and space to absorb what they’re reading.

4. Kinesthetic – These are the doers. They learn best by doing, practising, walking through the practical side of learning, playing games or role playing. Real experience,, or simulated, is how these people “get it” best. Add more movement to anything they need to learn and they’ll have an easier time of learning it, getting it into their bodies. As I’m sure you’ve already guessed, this is the learning style that’s the hardest to cater for in an online learning environment.

Ok, so that’s the core 4, and they sound simple and logical, right?  And to make your training easier to learn, you just make sure it has things to look at, things to listen to, things to read and write and something to do… Yeah? Well, hold that thought because there are a lot of theories, schools of thought and different ways to categorise learners, so hold onto your hat because it’s about to get crazy.

Here are some others learning styles I found:

1. Logical/analytical learners – These people look for patterns, cause and effect connections etc. They work well with data and finding correlations. They like having reasons for why things happen or need to happen. Think scientist types.

2. Social/linguistic learners – These are your social people who love learning from others, they thrive on participating, group activities and learning from stories and sharing.

3. Solitary learners – Learn best in their own space going at their own pace, away from distractions and interruptions.

4. Nature learners – Learn best when not confined to a room and a desk. A variation on the kinesthetic learner who needs to do things to learn, these learners do best being outside in nature where it’s calm and relaxing. These are people who typically don’t end up in an office job.

(From: https://bau.edu/blog/types-of-learning-styles/)

And for extra fun and to really break your brain, check out this list…

The Felder-Silverman Learning Style Model:

Group of Learners Laughing

1. Sensing learners – Concrete, practical, oriented towards facts and procedures.
2. Intuitive learners – Conceptual, innovative, oriented toward theories and meanings.
3. Visual learners –  Prefer visual representations of presented material – pictures, diagrams, flow charts.
4. Verbal learners – Prefer written and spoken explanations.
5. Inductive learners – Prefer presentations that proceed from the specific to the general.
6. Deductive learners – Prefer presentations that go from the general to the specific.
7. Active learners – Learn by trying things out, working with others.
8. Reflective learners – Learn by thinking things through, working alone.
9. Sequential learners – Linear, orderly, learn in small incremental steps.
10. Global learners – Holistic, systems thinkers, learn in large leaps.
(From: https://www.education.vic.gov.au/documents/childhood/professionals/support/egsls.pdf)

We told you it was going to get crazy!

Ok, so it’s safe to say there are quite a large number of “learning styles” and to date, the concept of every person having a primary learning style has been widely accepted, regardless of offline or online learning environments, however…

This article from Scott Barry Kaufman, Ph.D., author and humanistic psychologist gives us something else to think about. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/enough-with-the-learning-styles-already/

He basically turns all of those learning styles upside down, mentioning a number of studies where the results show that teaching people in their primary learning style, doesn’t actually help them learn. In fact, it could be limiting them from being able to learn!

Plot twist, right?

Let me explain (although you are welcome to read the original article).

When you pigeon hole someone with a label like “you’re a kinesthetic learner”, the sub-text their mind grabs onto can be “if there isn’t an option to learn by doing, I can’t learn it at all”.

And so a belief is created that there’s only one way they can actually learn, and now we have a block, particularly if they have to do any online learning. They may even give up before they start to learn something new because they think they need a kinesthetic “doing” type way to learn anything.

The truth is we learn using multiple learning styles, even if one way seems to be easier at times, it’s not necessarily the hard rule for ALL learning.

So, is focusing on learning styles actually helpful in learning, or is it limiting? It’s not for us to say… We think that learning styles still exist, we definitely see them but perhaps there’s been too much emphasis on them being the be-all end-all learning solution.

The key is to not box yourself into using just one or 2 with each student, and to think of learning styles as a symphony or rock band (see what I did there?), each instrument has its place and together is how they make epic music, right?

In this case there’s evidence either way that learning styles impact actual learning ability, but when the scientists and PhD’s can’t agree if it’s positive or negative, how do we move forward?

We consider it but as our grandparents use do say, we don’t put all our eggs in one basket, so-to-speak. Instead we could…

Encourage a “Growth Mindset” in every person we train, whether it’s in a face-to-face environment or an online learning one.

And what is a “Growth Mindset” you ask?  It’s a way of looking at learning based on a core belief that absolutely everyone can learn if they choose to put in some time and effort. It also includes a belief that everything we learn helps us build more knowledge, skill and wisdom.

How fast and how easily, often changes based on the subject and how interesting it is (if we’re really curious or thirsty to learn, we just do), how much personal experience we have with that topic, how much we like and vibe with the teacher/trainer, how much physical energy we have to focus on the day, if we have good learning strategies (yes, this is a thing) and even if the learning environment feels safe.

Side note: A safe learning environment means being able to ask a question without having to worry about being judged, ridiculed or shamed, and for some, being put on the spot or made to be the centre of attention. When you take the stress and fear out of their environment, the whole body relaxes, making it fully open and ready to learn!  You can’t learn when the body is in survival, or fight or flight mode.

At the end of the day, when creating our training material, for offline or online learning, the best approach is to use as many of them as possible.  Hearing it, seeing it, writing about it, talking about it and doing it will layer in anything someone wants to learn.

Give students a way to work in groups, access extra learning resources, have Q&A discussions about the topic, as well as time to work solo so they can absorb it at their own pace, and you’ve pretty much covered it all and then some..

But just to drive this home, here are some practical tips for you, regardless of learning style and whether you are doing offline or online learning.

How you can help students who are struggling in your training:

1. Get some one-on-one time with them, this alone will make a huge difference to finding out what they’re getting stuck on and being able to try anything below to help them get unstuck.  Our trainers swear by this… Oh and if you do online learning like our trainers do, get on a Zoom/video call where you can share screens, show drawings and see each other!

2. Ask them to describe what they understand and what they don’t, this will help uncover where they’re getting stuck and what’s actually getting in the way. Sometimes just saying things out loud with someone else who gets it, can unlock the block easily.

3. Find out what they’re interested in like hobbies or what they do for fun, or what their area of work is and come up with metaphors, stories or examples to explain the concept using these as the topic. Our trainers for the Cert IV TAE are experts at this!

4. Give them some extra resources like YouTube/videos, podcasts/audios or PDF’s that explain things in a different way, or just expand on a concept so they can get it.

5. Create some kind of game, silly song, acronym, or pattern to help them remember important concepts. Who still remembers My Very Elderly Mother Just Sat Up Near Pluto (or some variation) to remember the order of the planets?  They work!

6. Be compassionate, caring and truly listen to them when they’re frustrated, even upset that they aren’t getting something. Give them space to “feel the feels” and share them with you, then focus on building them up, encouraging them, praising them for how much effort they’re putting in… Even connecting their frustration and upsetness with it showing how much they really care about learning, which means they WILL get it!

If you’re reading this then we already know you are one of those trainers with a huge heart and desire to be amazing, so really, you’ve already got this. Trust your trainer gut, just listen to your students and the way to help them will more than likely just come to mind. Then all of the above just confirms what you already know or just gives you a few more ideas to pull from!

Now go forth and be even more amazing 🙂

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