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When working through a problem, do you prefer to make a list or talk it out? Do you hum along to the music, or tend to tap your foot? Would you rather look at a map, or read turn-by-turn driving directions? Would you choose to take an art class or an exercise class? When you're happy do you grin, or jump for joy? Your answers indicate some of the ways in which you choose to interact with the world around you, and your preferences might have something to do with your learning style.

Everyone takes in information through their senses. Our five senses are the only way we interact with the world outside ourselves. However, we all process that information in our own way.

Educators and researchers have categorized those different processing methods into broad categories they call Learning Styles or Learning Preferences. There are three basic styles: Aural, Visual and Kinesthetic. While a handful of other categories have also been thrown into the ring from time to time, most of them fit within one of the three major styles. Understanding the way you or your child prefers to take in information can help you maximize learning opportunities inside and outside the traditional classroom.

Aural (or Auditory) Learners

These learners generally prefer to hear information. They will typically learn most easily from lectures, group discussions, music, web chats, or talking things through. Often people with this style will process things by talking about them, rather than talk about things after they've processed them.

Aural learners benefit from being able to clearly hear what is happening; being able to see what is happening is less important. They might choose to study by reading aloud, and they benefit from verbalizing what they've learned.

Visual Learners

Maps, charts, diagrams, graphic organizers, patterns and shapes—these are some of the best tools for visual learners. They tend to be "big-picture" people and are often interested in layout and design. Individuals who prefer this learning style generally can grasp information more quickly (and more thoroughly) when it is organized graphically than they would if that same information were explained aloud.

This category also includes learners who prefer learning through reading and writing. These activities are, in a sense, visual. We take in written information through our sense of seeing. However, it is a very different mode of learning. This style prefers information that is presented in text—through words—rather than through graphic representations. It is linguistic rather than spatial. Not surprisingly, many academics belong to this category of learners. Because this text-based aspect of the visual learning style is so different from graphic-based visual learning, some researchers have split the style into two distinct preferences: Visual Learners and Read/Write Learners.

Both types of visual learners tend to take detailed notes. They prefer to be able to see what they are learning and might close their eyes in order to visualize or remember something. Visual learners also benefit from color and illustrations and enjoy imagery-rich language.

Graphic-based visual learners may benefit from translating many of their notes into pictures that they can easily recall. Read/Write learners may benefit from re-reading or re-writing their notes. They might also find it helpful to create lists or summarize diagrams into statements.

Kinesthetic Learners

The word kinesthetic is related to a Greek word that means movement, and certainly these learners prefer to learn by doing something physical (such as a hands-on activity or a field trip). But there's more to it than that. Some researchers have defined this style as preference for learning related to experience and practice—in other words, they prefer their learning to be connected with reality. Certainly physical activities accomplish this. However, demonstrations, exhibits, case studies, and concrete applications also appeal to kinesthetic learners. Interestingly, movies and videos (particularly videos of "real" things) align with this the kinesthetic style more than with the visual style, as video connects learning to a simulated "real" experience.

Kinesthetic learners will benefit by using all of their senses (taste, smell, touch, sight, hearing) to ground their learning in real experience. Including plenty of examples, case studies and applications in their notes will help them remember what they learned. They might also benefit from scheduling study breaks in order to get up and move around.

Researchers caution that these learning styles are not destiny, and they are not set in stone. They are just preferences. In fact, most people favor two or more of the styles, depending on the situation. Additionally, information presented in one style can serve to reinforce the same information presented in a different one—such as when the text and graphics in a textbook complement each other to make the same point.

Understanding the ways you prefer to take in and remember information can help with learning and retaining information, particularly when you're dealing with something that is difficult for you. Alternatively, when you have the opportunity to work with something that comes easily, you might choose to practice using methods from different styles. 

Research into the different learning preferences also has an impact on our education system. Teachers can present information in a variety of different ways, allowing for students with different preferences and learning needs. For example, in a science lesson a teacher might include verbal and written instructions, hands-on experimentation, a chart to visually record observations, and a class discussion about the results. For reviews of some excellent educational software that includes teaching tools aimed at reaching students with a variety of learning styles, see our Elementary Science Software review site.

There is a slew of information online about these learning styles and the study habits that can maximize education based on the way you or your child prefer to take in and process information. You can also find surveys and questionnaires that will help you determine what style or preference you have. Understanding your learning preference can be helpful for a student, especially when that student finds something is difficult. However, we all process tons of information every day, and it's useful to think about how your own learning preferences influence the ways you interact with people and information on a daily basis.

References:
VARK: A Guide to Learning styles. (2010). Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://www.vark-learn.com/english/index.asp
What's YOUR Learning Style? (2009). Retrieved July 12, 2010, from http://people.usd.edu/~bwjames/tut/learning-style/index.html

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