You’ve probably heard of “learning styles,” and you may have a vague idea of which one you most align with. But even though learning through various methods is a good thing, there’s also a lot of hype and fluff around knowing your specific style. Let’s sort through both the good and the bad.
What are the four learning styles?
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For the most part, educators and researchers agree that there are four learning styles: Visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic. These are usually known as the “VARK” styles. Like the concept of love languages, some experts have proposed there are more, and some have proposed there are fewer, but typically, the styles can be sorted between these four, so that’s what we’ll stick with.
As their names imply, the VARK styles define different information processing preferences. Visual learners may like to watch documentaries or see problems written step-by-step on a board, while auditory learners may prefer to listen to a podcast or lecture, reading/writing learners may want to study a textbook on their own, and kinesthetic learners may prefer using their hands to build a model or jumping into a physical practice. It can be helpful to know which of the four you prefer, so use the VARK test if you aren’t quite sure.
What’s the problem with VARK learning styles?
There are a few issues with the “learning styles” ideology. First, of course, is that even if you have a strong preference for one, you’ll still be exposed to the others during various kinds of lessons, classes, or learning experiences. Second, it’s unfair to box learners—especially kids—into one kind of style, as it can produce a fixed mindset and disrupt their potential to adapt to different circumstances.
Most importantly, though, is that there’s no real evidence to suggest that sticking with activities under a certain style does anything to improve learning overall. In 2009, researchers were commissioned to study the learning styles and their impact on learning, but they found that while there has been a lot of literature devoted to the idea of the four VARK methods, there’s “virtually no evidence” that “instruction is best provided in a format that matches the preference of the learner.”
So what’s the point of knowing your learning style?
As long as you don’t needlessly pigeonhole yourself into a preferred style, there’s no real harm in identifying the way you prefer to learn. But the importance of learning styles is kind of a myth, at least as far as maximizing retention goes. Your best bet is to identify your preference level for each learning style, more for your personal comfort than retention.
Bear in mind, though, that it’s good to use different styles for different topics. When you sign up for a pottery course, you don’t show up to find that you’re getting a lecture on how to make a bowl; you learn kinesthetically by making the bowl. Research shows that differentiated instruction is vital to students’ learning, so mix up how you absorb and process new knowledge. Use Kolb’s learning cycle to examine new topics, considering how you can engage with them through concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Read, write, listen, do—there is no one way to learn, so give them all a shot.