There are a lot of identifiers that give a bit of insight into how people tick. Identifiers like our zodiac sign, what Hogwarts house we belong to, our Myers-Briggs type, and even what learning style best suits us. But when it comes to kids, does knowing their learning preference make a difference?
Recently, my husband and I were discussing how we learn best. My husband absorbs information best auditorily while I find myself to be a visual learner. This talk came as we were trying to figure out what type of learners our kids were, especially when it came to our 4-year-old who was struggling to recall and apply information (like knowing what day it is or when his baseball practices were). We were trying to determine the best way he obtains knowledge in order to help him succeed.
Their Preferred Way of Learning
Learning styles have been observed since the days of Aristotle, who noted that each child possessed specific talents and skills. In 1987, a New Zealand teacher named Neil Fleming researched if student preferences for receiving/providing information affected their learning. This led to the VARK model, which outlined four different types of learning styles (visual, aural, read/write, or kinethestic).
Which one best describes your child?
- Learn best with pictures and graphics
- Will often recognize numbers, letters, or symbols better than their peers
- Can remember faces of people, places, and things
- Prefer to draw to explain or show what they know rather than verbally explain
- Have a vivid imagination and think in pictures
- Learn best when they hear information
- Prefer listening to stories or teacher lecturing the class
- Can pick up nuances in sound, music, or other languages
- Process information through talking/conversation
- May ask a lot of questions
- Learn best with text in the form of books, references, lists, and bullet points
- Unlike a visual learner, they prefer seeing words over pictures
- Verbal directions tend to go through one ear and out the other
- Prefer to write to communicate what they know
- Have an extensive vocabulary
- Learn best through physical means, like movement or manipulating objects
- Like real life examples and exploration
- May fidget while listening
- Prefer to physically show or demonstrate what their learning
- Have exceptional hand-eye coordination
Although it’s helpful to recognize which type your kid uses to gain and express information, you may notice that their learning traits fit into more than one category. If this is the case, then how can a parent best support their kid’s learning style?
The Learning Style Myth
Each component of the VARK model is a modality for learning and people have their own preferences. However, learning styles only indicate what someone likes/dislikes (looking at pictures or moving about) in order to make the information interesting, rather than help them understand the material. Here is what we know from the research:
- A 2018 study surveyed 426 undergraduate anatomy students to determine what kind of learner they supposedly were and the study strategies that would correlate with that learning style. They found that not only did these students not study in ways that seemed to reflect their learning style, but those who did tailor their studying did not do any better on their tests.
- A 2017 study revealed there was no correlation between learning style and recall of information (in this case, visual learners with pictures and auditory learners with words).
- A 2015 paper found no relationship between learning style preference (visual or auditory) and their performance on reading or listening comprehension tests. Rather, the “visual word learners” had higher test scores overall.
Here’s where the concern comes in. Despite the research results, learning styles still influence how we view and teach our little ones. A 2019 survey found that over 90% of its participants believe in learning styles and around half of them believe it is innate, can easily be identified, inherited, and help predict what a child will do in life. The problem with this belief is that it takes away the opportunities for kids to learn outside of their proficient abilities.
For example, if a child is deemed an auditory learner, their educational material becomes centered around their ability to listen rather than utilizing their other senses to learn (try explaining math without numbers and graphs), providing them a disservice as they grow. The point here is that children’s brains are malleable and are under constant construction. Your kid may have better hearing, vision, or touch than others which make them gravitate towards certain modes of learning, but their brain operates as an integrated whole, taking in data from ALL of the senses to understand what is being taught to them.
So, instead of worrying what your kid’s specific learning style is, try a multi-sensory approach when teaching them a new concept. The more engaged your kid’s sensory systems are to new information, the more likely that information will be absorbed and retained. Hence, the saying, “learn by doing.”
For us, we overcame our son’s difficulty with the days of the week by introducing him to a calendar (visual) and pointing to the days as he sang the Days of the Week song (auditory). We then used his velcro daily calendar chart to help him identify and place the correct day, date, month, year, weather, and season in its proper location (kinesthetic). Later that day, he was able to remember what the day was as well as what days he had baseball practice and when movie night is.
In the end, your child will encounter tasks and activities that will require more than one learning approach to be successful. Give them opportunities to figure it out, whether visually, auditorily, kinesthetically, or with good old-fashioned pen and paper. You never know how that information might stick.
What Type of Learning Style Best Fits Your Child? (engineeringforkids.com)
Husmann, P.R. and O’Loughlin, V.D. (2019), Another Nail in the Coffin for Learning Styles? Disparities among Undergraduate Anatomy Students’ Study Strategies, Class Performance, and Reported VARK Learning Styles. American Association of Anatomists, 12: 6-19. https://doi.org/10.1002/ase.1777
Knoll, A. R., Otani, H., Skeel, R. L., & Van Horn, K. R. (2017). Learning style, judgements of learning, and learning of verbal and visual information. British journal of psychology (London, England : 1953), 108(3), 544–563. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12214
Rogowsky, B. A., Calhoun, B. M., & Tallal, P. (2015). Matching learning style to instructional method: Effects on comprehension. Journal of Educational Psychology, 107(1), 64–78. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0037478
Belief in learning styles myth may be detrimental (apa.org)
Busting the learning styles myth: Why learning generalists perform best (bigthink.com)
What are Learning Styles (cortland.edu)