A Short Guide to the Different Types of Learners
Have you ever walked out of a movie theatre with a friend, beaming from ear to ear at the film you just saw, only to turn to them and find an expressionless face? “It just wasn’t for me,” they might say. Or, “I found the whole subplot with the aliens to be distracting and confusing.” It can be alarming – jarring even – to discover that this person you know so well, who sat next to you in the dark theatre for 120-odd minutes, had a completely different experience than you.
But this illustrates a central truth about being human. We live our lives alongside one another, but in completely unique fashion. The ways in which one person processes, understands and formulates opinions upon an experience can be fundamentally different than the next person. You can best sum it up with that age-old, perhaps cliched, axiom: Everybody’s different.
That’s true of filmgoers and learners. Here at Ontario eSecondary School, we have the privilege of teaching all sorts of students through our e-learning courses. We see first-hand the different ways students process and understand information. As such, we wanted to share a few insights with you.
Types of Learners
Recently, people have taken much interest in the concept of “types of learners.” For some parents, the idea offers a convenient window into their young one’s mind – a way of grasping the unique inner workings of a mysterious teenager. Further, understanding types of learners may help you map a path toward academic success, or craft an explanation when your kid is struggling.
As we’ll discuss in this article, categorizing teens into types of learners should come with a few caveats. Nevertheless, it’s a useful model for understanding differences, and may help parents choose modes of education that suit their young learners.
In an ideal world, this article would come chockablock with pictographs, audio components and even a tactile arts and crafts component. But, for now, we have to settle for the written word. Join us as we explore the four different types of learners: kinesthetic learners, visual learners, auditory learners and reading/writing learners.
First: A Few Thoughts on Essentialism
If there’s one persistent critique levied at the idea of “types of learners,” it’s this one: categorizing learners can be essentialist. What does that mean, exactly?
We never want to tell young learners that the way they think is fully ingrained, inherited, unchangeable and – importantly – essential to their being. At OES, we firmly believe in a growth mindset where students understand that their abilities can be developed. It’s important to us that all students know they can strive toward new ways of thinking, new kinds of intelligences.
In this article from the American Psychological Association, they make similar recommendations when approaching types of learning. Although learners may (and often do) show proclivities toward one type of learning, “all students would benefit from learning through various methods.”
So, it’s an important caveat to make upfront before we delve into the specifics of different types of learners. Knowing what type of learner your kid is can be useful, but exercise caution in how you use the information. Make certain that your young learner knows they can expand the way they think. If they are a visual learner, they can still make inroads with reading and writing; likewise, if they learn best through reading, they should still exercise their ability to analyze, interpret and evaluate visual information.
With that proviso off our chest, let’s take a look at the different types of learners!
First up on our tour of the types of learners: kinesthetic learners. These types of learners often find they learn best by doing. Whether it’s the tactile sensation of a dinosaur bone, the feel of a basketball beneath their palm or the act of putting potassium iodide and hydrogen peroxide together in a chem class, their brains soak up knowledge through kinesthetic experiences.
Often, you’ll hear kinesthetic learning compared to lectures – a kind of “one versus the other” type of dichotomy. If a teen is bored by the continual sameness of a lecture, some say, they may just need tactile stimulation in the form of kinesthetic learning. This is probably true. A course that only includes lectures may alienate kinesthetic learners. That’s why, at our Ontario online high school, we like to include several methods of learning.
Kinesthetic learning is also an important component of sports. Not so long ago, people misunderstood sports as a pastime separate from intelligence. “It just requires your body to move; your brain doesn’t have much to do,” someone might say. How wrong we were.
Kinesthetic memory and perceptual motor skills require immense intelligence. If you’ve ever seen a hockey player deftly deke a line of defence, or a dancer express complicated emotions through movement, you’ve seen kinesthetic intelligence in action. Thankfully, the world of education has come around to viewing these skills for what they are: a valid form of intelligence requiring skill, grace and hard work.
Visual learning seems self-explanatory. However, as with all types of learning, complicated mechanisms are at work in this learning style.
This seems like as good a time as any to introduce the framework for types of learning. The types of learning we explore in this article are part of the Fleming VAK/VARK model. Developed by New Zealand instructor Neil Fleming in 1987, the model is a continuation of studies into neuro-linguistic programming. Fleming wanted to know why certain teachers weren’t reaching all of their students, and why others had great success. Eventually, he landed on the explanation that different types of learners work best through different sensory modalities.
That brings us back to visual learners. Neuroimaging of visual learners (that is, essentially, imaging the brain for pings of activity) found that visual learners process separate types of information visually. When they hear a word or see a word written, they immediately visualize it in their mind’s eye. This may even be true of non-physical concepts. If you wrote “joy” in big letters on a computer screen, a visual learner’s mind might jump to images of a carousel, a family gathering or an elated face.
Further, research from Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience found that visual learners display “a lower cognitive load when processing visual information.” In layman’s terms, they find it easier. If your teen has an easier time learning through visuals like slideshows or movies, they might be expressing a proclivity toward visual learning.
If your teen has the gift of gab, they might be a primarily auditory learner. At least, that’s what researchers Marjorie Kostelnik et al. found in their influential 2004 paper, Appropriate Curriculum: Best Practices in Early Childhood Education. They found that auditory learners rely on speaking and listening as a primary way to learn, that they make great storytellers, and that they like to problem-solve by talking things out.
This shouldn’t pigeonhole auditory learners, though. They can still be great at writing, especially in response to verbal lectures they received. This is an important distinction to make as it applies to all types of learners. As we mentioned in our section on “essentialism,” understanding someone’s preferred learning method shouldn’t mean precluding them from other forms of learning. An auditory learner may be quite happy performing a science experiment or watching a slideshow – they may just want to talk about it afterwards to process it fully!
If you sense that your teen is an auditory learner, the best thing you can do as a parent is to spark a conversation. Ask them what they learnt today in their online course. Talk through their ambitions as they set academic goals for the school year. Get them talking about science, English literature, financial accounting, world history – or whatever they’re into.
It’s estimated that around 30% of the population are auditory learners. That means, in a family of three, the chances are that one of you prefers to “talk it out.”
Our fourth type of learner is the last “generally recognized” type on this list (as we’ll see in the following section, “social learner” is a rather broad descriptor). Although it doesn’t appear in the Fleming VAK/VARK model, educators generally recognize reading/writing learning as an important modality among students.
Reading/writing learners may process and express information best through the written word. If you’re reading this article, for instance, and feel wholly comfortable following along with the syntactic turns, linguistic flourishes, asides and paragraph structures, you might be a reading/writing learner. If you’re thinking to yourself, “I wish this was a podcast,” perhaps the section above is where you feel most at home.
As a parent, if you believe your young learners have a read-write bent, you have a bevy of options for encouraging their academic pursuits. Naturally, you can encourage them to read more (a valuable piece of advice for parents of all types of learners). When faced with visual modes like a film, you may encourage them to write down their thoughts. Getting a read-write learner into journaling can be immensely fruitful.
Finally, let’s touch on the concept of “social learners.” While social learning is a pillar of the original VAK/VARK model, the classification sort of… muddies the waters. Surely, someone who learns through social cues, conversations, witnessing the behaviour of others, etc., can be said to exercise all the types of learning above. They listen like an auditory learner, watch like a visual learner and partake in social activities like a kinesthetic learner.
Still, it’s important to recognize social learning as a category unto itself because it offers insights into how we all learn. Often, we learn through modelled behaviours. We see others putting their trash in the trash bin rather than tossing it on the sidewalk, and we do the same. We listen to someone who introduces a word we’ve never heard before, and maybe we work that word into our next conversation. And we look around us at a yoga class to see how on earth we’re supposed to do this crow pose.
This is a cornerstone of good education. An instructor should be a modeller of academia, someone who shows kids that learning is doable, fun and worthwhile. Indeed, at Ontario eSecondary School, our experienced and dedicated instructors consistently model a love of learning.
The Benefits of Online Learning for All Types of Learners
Previously on this blog, we’ve explored the various online learning benefits for students. Among the benefits listed, we talked about flexibility and self-paced learning.
We feel that these advantages make our school inclusive to all kinds of learners. The self-paced structure of our courses allows students the time they need to process various sorts of information. As we mentioned earlier, psychologists recommend exposing young learners to various methods of learning – not just the one in which they feel most comfortable. As such, a primarily visual learner might require extra time to parse out the finer details of an English novel. A read-write learner may need an extra week to prepare for that upcoming oral exam. Whereas traditional brick-and-mortar schools demand that learners keep pace with their peers – regardless of whether a section of the curriculum suits their particular learning style – online schools give students the breathing room to process materials outside their comfort zone.
Secondly, online learning is flexible. If you have a primarily kinesthetic learner who wants to dance their emotions out or attend a robotics workshop at the local university, they’re free to do so while they take courses at OES. If you want to keep your brain moving in a summer class while writing that YA novel you’ve been cooking in your head, you can accommodate both projects!
Inside and outside our digital classrooms, you will find a flexible environment geared towards all types of learners. If your kid is interested in pursuing their education at a fun, self-paced and accommodating online school, don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Visit our website for more information on how online schools work and how to apply today!
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