Going Beyond Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic: How to Leverage Your Learning Types
In the 1970s, the idea of individualized learning styles began to take off, reaching its peak with the 1983 release of Howard Gardner’s “Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences,” which outlined eight different “Intelligence modalities.” More and more, educators began to evaluate students and tailor their instruction towards individual strengths. Instruction became more differentiated as teachers and researchers alike began to understand that different people learn in different ways.
As research continued, however, it became clear that the idea of individual learning styles was only part of the bigger picture. One 2015 review of learning style theories and research even suggested that “scientific support for these theories is lacking.”
Instead, it is now commonly believed that most people actually learn best through a variety of different learning styles and that some people may learn different types of information best through different types of instructional approaches. As one researcher in The Telegraph pointed out, “Humans have evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain.” As such, engaging the brain through different approaches and experimenting with numerous learning styles, rather than focusing on a single one, is nearly always the most effective approach.
In this post, we’ll outline the different styles of learning as defined by most theories, describing the different ways in which people commonly take in and reinforce new information. Then, we’ll move beyond the traditional definitions and discuss how you can capitalize on all learning styles by employing them each in different ways during the course of your studies. To learn more about how you can maximize your potential through a variety of learning styles, read on.
What Are the Different Learning Styles?
There are three commonly accepted styles of learning. While some theories break these three primary styles down into more subsets, most recognize these three as the primary bases of most learning styles.
Auditory learning occurs through listening. Students who learn through auditory cues do best with verbally delivered instruction. It is commonly thought that auditory learners absorb more information when they hear things rather than when they read the same information.
Some students report that changes in tone help them to track information that they hear. This is part of the argument for auditory processing. These same skills often come in handy on oral exams and when working with background noise.
You can engage auditory learning by talking through a problem as you think about it. You might even move your lips or talk to yourself quietly as you work individually. To reinforce difficult concepts, you might engage in group discussions, read aloud, or put information into a rhythmic pattern such as a poem or song. Music and other auditory distractions are not helpful for you.
Visual learning occurs when a student uses visual cues to process information. Students who learn visually do best when reading written instructions or viewing graphic representations of information. Visual learners often claim to retain more information when they can see in front of them how that information is organized.
Some students report that graphic organizers are a critical piece of visual learning. Information that is presented in a timeline, chart, map or diagram can be especially helpful. You can engage visual learning by creating your own graphic representations of knowledge to help with reading comprehension, fact retention, and critical thinking skills. If you learn visually, soft background music may help you learn; working in a group with lots of discussion may be a bit harder.
Kinesthetic learning occurs through physical action and movement. It is often described as “learning by doing” or experiential learning. For example, practicing a specific physical skill repeatedly allows “muscle memory” to take over. This is a strong example of kinesthetic learning, but it can be applied to non-physical tasks as well.
Kinesthetic-minded students will learn best when they are physically up and moving. Some of the clearest examples of kinesthetic learning are things that you must do to understand, such as physical skills like dance. The same theory can be applied to more academic skills as well, however. For example, a student learning to add fractions might physically cut a piece of paper into fractional pieces and manipulate them manually to simulate the addition. For this learning style, engaging the body through small movements like fidgeting (often facilitated by aids like a fidget spinner) during the studying process will maximize this mind-body connection.
Now that we have a solid understanding of each learning style, let’s take a look at how employing the various strategies suggested by each style can help to contribute to your overall growth as a learner. Here, we’ll outline our three top tips for maximizing your learning potential by engaging all three primary learning styles.
1. Figure out which learning style(s) help you to learn specific types of information.
While the theory that specific students learn best through a single, specific learning style has been debunked as a generalization, it does not mean that you don’t learn specific types of knowledge best through specific approaches to learning. In fact, most people will find that they learn different kinds of new information in a specific way.
Try to start being more cognizant of how you process new information. When you need to memorize a phone number, do you write it down? Do you say it aloud? Do you practice typing it into your phone a few times? This simple ritual says a lot about how you process memorization when it isn’t within a bigger context. If you know you need to memorize a series of unrelated facts, think about this phone number example and engage that same learning style.
Also think about how you best process information that’s part of a bigger picture. For example, when you’re learning how to conjugate a verb in a foreign language or putting a series of important historical events in order, how do you get started? Do you write them out by hand? Do you repeat them to yourself? Do you print them on pieces of paper and then manipulate them into the correct order?
Having a good understanding of how you personally process various types of information will help you to decide how to best tackle different kinds of schoolwork. Become aware of how you naturally tend to learn different types of information and try to think about what learning style correlates to it.
2. Always use a mix of different styles when you’re studying.
Just because you determine that you absorb math facts best through verbal repetition, that doesn’t mean that you should only study for your math test by repeating the new math equations you’ll need to know. Instead, engage all learning styles individually to ensure that you not only learn the equations but also put them into a bigger context.
Also, by engaging different learning styles, you might actually find that what you thought was the most effective method for you to learn something was actually not as strong as another method. Try experimenting. By providing yourself with different contexts for your knowledge, you’re more likely to remember it when you need it, regardless of how it is presented.
This is an especially important approach when studying with a group. Since people process information in unique ways, engaging different learning styles always means that you’ll engage at least one learning style that works well in that subject area for each person in the group. It may even mean that you discover a new-to-you approach or representation that works better for you than the ones you previously employed.
3. Build your study skills in weaker learning styles.
If you know that you struggle to retain information orally, go ahead and put some time and energy into practicing this specific skill. Have a friend quiz you, practice repeating information that you’re told, and otherwise engage your auditory learning skills every chance you get. Auditory learning may never become your strongest style of learning, which is ok, but you can improve it with practice, and doing so is a good investment. You will need to process verbal commands at some point in your academic career.
Learning in different ways isn’t just a helpful skill; sometimes it’s completely necessary. As you progress through your education, you’ll notice that your teachers and professors may become less likely to present information in numerous ways. In fact, as you get older, it’s likely that your teachers will present information in a single format and expect you to process it. For certain subjects, large lectures are the common format. For others, it’s small discussion groups.
By preparing to learn well in any style, you ensure that you’re prepared to process new information, regardless of how it is presented to you. You will then be able to take more ownership of your educational journey.
While the idea that each student learns best in a single learning style is no longer in favor, the three primary learning styles are still valuable approaches to organizing and retaining new information. By recognizing the circumstances in which you naturally gravitate towards one style more than another, practicing multiple learning styles whenever possible, and building your ability to engage each of them in preparation for retaining information regardless of how it’s presented, you prepare yourself for success across the board.
Looking for help navigating the road to college as a high school student? Download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academics, choosing courses, standardized tests, extracurricular activities, and much more!
For more information about study techniques and learning styles, check out these CollegeVine posts:
Want more tips on improving your academic profile?
We'll send valuable information to help you strengthen your profile and get ready for college admissions.