Learning styles, conceptually, refer to the way students prefer to absorb and understand information. There are many different types and scales, but they usually suggest people define themselves as visual learners, aural learners, those who prefer reading and writing or those who require hands-on, tactile work to learn.

The first and most important point to note that there’s no scientific evidence to support the idea that learning styles have any discernible impact on a student’s intelligence, learning, behavior or overall performance. Nonetheless, the concept has prevailed for decades.

Many educators believe material can be more effectively taught to students by accommodating their preferred learning styles. And some students swear by their personal learning style.

In this guide, you’ll learn more about the development of the learning styles approach, about the many different types and classifications of learning styles (including the popular VARK method), and how the seven most well-known learning styles are supposed to work in the classroom. We’ll discuss the four learning styles of VARK in greater detail, and touch on alternative structures as well.

You’ll also get an understanding of how learning styles can influence teaching, how to sensibly apply and cater to them, and get an overview of the problems behind learning styles too.

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Table of contents

1. What are learning styles?
1.1. Are learning styles scientifically valid?
2. How many different types of learning styles are there?
3. The seven traditional learning styles
3.1. Visual or spatial
3.2. Kinesthetic or physical
3.3. Aural
3.4. Verbal
3.5. Logical
3.6. Solitary or Intrapersonal
3.7. Social
4. The four learning styles in VARK
5. Different sets of learning styles
6. How do learning styles influence teaching?
7. How to test learning styles
8. Further problems with learning styles
9. Learning styles: The conclusion

1. What are learning styles?

The idea of learning styles is predicated on the fact that each person can learn something most effectively based on the way in which they receive the information. Each learner gathers, organizes and interprets information in his or her unique way, and comes to conclusions based on how they’ve stored this information.

The most well-known group of learning styles is called VARK, which names four sensory-based approaches: Visual, Aural, verbal Reading/writing, and Kinesthetic. Another is Felder & Silverman’s Index of Learning Styles, which consists of a continuum of descriptors for how learners process information, including active-reflective, sensing/intuitive, verbal/visual, and sequential/global.

Regardless of how learning styles are categorized or defined, the fundamental theory is the same: that each learner has a preferred way of absorbing and retaining information, and can learn best by the material being presented or studied in this way. The theory is that a visual learner will best learn when materials are presented through things like graphs, for example, while a kinesthetic learner will learn most effectively through hands-on experience.

Sometimes the course material clearly lends itself to one learning style over another. In a music class, for instance, appealing to Aural learning styles makes sense, while in a class about anatomy, it would stand to reason that Kinesthetic learning would be most effective.

1.1. Are learning styles scientifically valid?

As noted above, there is no actual proof that appealing to a student’s preferred learning style yields any better results than not doing so. Many studies conducted over the years show no statistical significance when testing groups of students arranged and taught by their preferred learning styles. While learning styles refer to a student’s perceived strengths, and the way they typically prefer to learn, or absorb information, it doesn’t follow that this actually helps them.

What’s more, it’s difficult to even design an experiment to test this theory, nor is it reproducible. The VARK questionnaire, for example, has 16 questions that purports to be able to determine a student’s learning style. But there are too many variables and “what ifs” to take into consideration. Answers could differ based on circumstance, context and specific subject material.

Nonetheless, a large percentage of teachers have experienced learning styles working, and try to accommodate them when working with students in their classroom approach. This could result in students blaming their failures or weaknesses on a mismatch: the teacher did not tailor course studies to their particular learning style, and that’s why they didn’t perform well. The reality is that people have different abilities and strengths, not necessarily learning styles.

2. How many different types of learning styles are there?

There are more than 70 purported kinds of learning styles, some more popular than others.

As noted, the most common learning style method is the VARK Model of Student Learning, which was developed by educational theorist Neil Fleming. It is adjusted from the VAK model by Walter Burke Barbe and his colleagues, which is much the same, minus the Reading style. Felder and Silverman’s Index of Learning Styles, also mentioned above, is another, but there are plenty more.

Among the many sets of learning styles, ways of looking at them, and different categorizations, however, are these seven most common ones.

3. The seven traditional learning styles

The seven learning styles considered to be the most common are:

  • Visual (spatial) which refers to the use of pictures and images in learning
  • Aural (auditory/musical), listening to sounds and music
  • Verbal (linguistic) for words, both written and spoken
  • Physical (kinesthetic), referencing the use of one’s body, hands, and touching and feeling
  • Logical (mathematical) which involves using logical reasoning for solving issues
  • Social (interpersonal) for learning in groups or with others
  • Solitary (intrapersonal), for the preference of working and studying on one’s own.

Naturally, everyone learns in these different ways in different scenarios, though some might consider a particular style to reflect a dominant preferred learning method. And some styles might only be used in certain situations. For example, a medical student might learn best getting hands-on with a model of the major bodily organs, but that same person might learn about a car engine better by reading about its parts.

3.1. Visual or spatial

Visual or spatial learning involves using images, pictures, colors, maps, graphs or charts to organize and understand information. Usually, those who say they prefer this particular learning style tend to have good spatial sense and a decent sense of direction.

Visual learning fits subjects such as art, architecture, photography, film, design, planning and navigation, since all of these fields of study involve plenty of visual-based materials.

But in any class, visual learners will appreciate the use of things like whiteboards where they (or the instructor) can write down and illustrate points using graphs or other imagery, as well as presentations. You could draw a diagram of a building to help students understand the architecture behind it, or display pictures of each major part of a car engine for students to fully understand how it all works together. Another idea is to break up lengthy lectures with plenty of visual material or infographics.

3.2. Kinesthetic or physical

The kinesthetic learning style is about getting hands-on. It’s perfect for fields like sports, exercise, gardening, woodworking and dance—anything that involves some kind of physical work.

In any subject, encourage students to get up and participate interactively. For example, rather than showing students how to repair a broken car part, or how a chemical reaction works, have them try it themselves, even if virtually.

If the course material doesn’t involve obvious hands-on work, there are still ways to get students physically involved. Use things like flashcards they can touch and feel versus having them just write notes or dictate points. Even having them hand out materials in class, or deliver a short presentation, can satisfy the need to get up and move about.

3.3. Aural

Using sounds and music and emphasizing a good sense of pitch and rhythm, this learning style aligns with any instruction that includes singing, playing musical instruments, listening to and identifying sounds of different instruments, composing music, or working with sound engineering.

But this isn’t just relevant to music: you could play recordings of an aircraft engine, for example, to help pilots practice flight procedures. Or analyze the sounds of breathing to study different medical conditions or illnesses.

Also, encourage students to listen and speak, in lectures or group discussions. Rather than jot down notes, they can record the lectures and listen to them again to better retain the information. Consider incorporating things like podcasts into course material or your flipped classroom.

3.4. Verbal

This learning style offers a preference for both written and spoken words, and can apply to many learning scenarios—particularly those that involve reading and writing at their core.

Public speaking, debating, politics or journalism fit with this. Students can be asked to explain a concept to the instructor by writing it or dictating it in their own words, or to read passages aloud. Group activities could include role-playing, like conducting mock trials in a law class, or sales negotiations in business studies.

Students can study by talking through procedures, reading notes or textbooks, and taking notes. Repetition can be a valuable tool here, as can techniques like mnemonics to recall lists of information. Some people who ally to this learning style like to use acronyms, too.

3.5. Logical

Those who proclaim themselves as having a logical learning style gravitate toward mathematical analysis and reasoning, and often find it easy to make logical connections between concepts. This learning style obviously works particularly well in areas like math and science, accounting, detective work, law and computer programming.

Naturally, students would respond best to being able to work through problems in a systematic way, and create defined procedures in order to come to conclusions. Students might set targets, and continuously track their progress. They can also present ideas, and have students explore links between them and analyze situations, whether it’s a legal point, or programming language.

You can invoke this learning style by encouraging the creation of agendas, itineraries and to-do lists, or present using data, stats and figures. You can also allow students to take detailed notes, write essays, or turn charts into statements that they can more effectively digest. Written quizzes are a perfect complement to this learning style, along with annotated handouts that students can use to follow along with visual presentations.

3.6. Solitary or Intrapersonal

Private and independent work is the preference with this learning style, which is most applicable to students who can concentrate well, and remain focused on their own thoughts.

Having students keep a journal, diary or personal blog is a great way to support this learning style. They can reflect on the material they’ve learned, and their reactions to it.

Allowing students to work on problems on their own, and giving them time to think over points and devise comprehensive answers, is a good strategy. Individual capstone projects that require self-study and research (while checking in with the instructor) fall under this category too.

3.7. Social

Conversely, social or interpersonal learners communicate well with others, both verbally and non-verbally, and prefer to work in group settings where they can share ideas and accept and understand the views of others.

Encourage group work sessions, or even one-on-one time with the instructor where the students can express their opinions, ask questions, and work through problems. Card or board games might work well, along with activities like team sports.

A learner who claims that his or her learning style is social might excel best in studies like counseling, teaching, training, coaching, sales, politics and human resources. Present a problem or point, and have classmates work in groups to solve it, bouncing ideas off one another, and exploring different options. Encourage the formation of study groups as well for after-class sessions.

4. The four learning styles in VARK

The VARK model of student learning was devised by Neil Fleming in 1987, an educational theorist and teacher from New Zealand. He observed that while some good teachers were having problems getting results from certain students, less well-practiced teachers were able to effectively reach them.

Fleming created the VARK test, which stands for Visual, Aural, Reading/writing, and Kinesthetic. The test expanded on Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) models, and was built on the previous VAK method by Walter Barbe and colleagues, splitting Visual and Read/write into two separate styles.

Like other learning styles, each style in VARK suggests the preferred way that a particular student absorbs, processes and comprehends information. The gist of VARK is that no two students are alike, and a one-size-fits-all method of teaching doesn’t work effectively for everyone.

Many educators are proponents of VARK, using the strategies to reach certain students or classes, and adjusting tactics based on how students appear to prefer to learn.

5. Different sets of learning styles

While VARK and VAK are arguably the most well-known and used learning styles, there are a wide range of others.

David A. Kolb’s experiential learning model looks at concrete experiences, reflective observation and active experimentation, and how these factors combine in different ways to create different learning styles. A more cognitive-based approach is the Anthony Grasha-Reichmann Learning Style Scale, with styles that are based on student attitudes and how they prefer to approach learning. It includes styles like avoidant, participative, competitive, collaborative, dependent and independent.

An interesting learning style called Naturalistic was noted by psychologist Howard Gardner as the eighth and newest type of “intelligence” based on his model of human intelligence that also includes linguistic, logical-mathematical, musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spatial, interpersonal, and intrapersonal. It defines those who are curious and investigative, and like to take hands-on experience from nature in order to understand the world around them. They then use this information to draw conclusions about plants, animals, and the environment.

As you can see, learning styles, and the way they can be categorized and defined, truly run the gamut.

6. How do learning styles influence teaching?

Naturally, there are sensible ways to accommodate learning styles based on what you’re teaching. It goes without saying that archeology or medical courses would require some form of kinesthetic and spatial learning, while computer programming or accounting screams for logical learning. But other forms of learning could apply in both those cases, like social, verbal and aural.

So while you can include student preferences in your teaching strategies, it’s important to also try different things. Even a student who defines himself as falling into the categorization of a particular learning style might benefit by adopting another style depending on the situation and course material. Metacognition can come into play here, which refers to the student’s awareness and understanding of his or her own thought processes.

Most importantly, use and trust your judgment. It’s a framework, but don’t rely on it as gospel—remember, there’s no scientific proof. There are ideal ways to teach certain subjects or course material, regardless of how students feel they can best learn.

7. How to test learning styles

There are various assessment methods for testing learning styles, in addition to Neil Fleming’s VARK questionnaire. Though not scientific, the questions and results can inspire newer ways of teaching.

The Learning Style Inventory, connected with Kolb’s experiental model, defines nine learning styles (initiating, experiencing, imagining, reflecting, analyzing, thinking, deciding, acting and balancing) to help determine how students best work through problems and with others.

Richard Felder and Linda Silverman have their own Learning Styles Inventory that includes pairs of extremes: Active/Reflective, Sensing/Intuitive, Verbal/Visual, and Sequential/Global. Take the test, and receive four scores (one for each) to determine how you apparently prefer to learn.

The research department of the National Association of Secondary School Principals developed an instrument in partnership with a national task force of learning style experts. The diagnostic tool consists of 23 scales of higher order factors like cognitive styles, perceptual responses and study preferences, and uses questionnaires to determine learning styles of children from grades six to 12.

There’s also Chris Jackson’s Learning Styles Profiler, which measures four factors: learning environment, social interaction process, information processing style and personality.

8. Further problems with learning styles

As noted, there’s no scientific research that proves anything concrete behind learning styles. Their use cannot be effectively linked with improved student performance, and student inclination towards one or two of the many learning styles have not been reliably reproduced. The bottom line is that there’s no consistent evidence that they can be linked to better educational outcomes. Some experts call the whole idea a “neuromyth.”

One reason they are impossible to test properly is that different learning styles might work best with different course materials, and for the same student in different scenarios. Contextual factors must be taken into consideration when looking at learning styles—and preference might vary based on specific situational variables. For example, a student might only prefer sending an email over making a phone call because they happen to be in front of a computer at the time. Or, they may opt to jot down notes over recording a lecture simply because they don’t own a recording device.

People love learning styles because the idea of easily defining oneself as a visual or a logical learner sounds like it might (and should) be right. But many others have pointed out that learning style success ends up being a placebo or a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally, as Kolb himself pointed out, there is “practical and ethical problems of sorting people into groups and labeling them. Tracking in education has a bad history.” Even if learning styles were scientific, they would have to be applied with enormous care.

9. Learning styles: The conclusion

None of this is to take away from the fact that many educators, and even students, continue to swear by learning styles and find them useful.

As always, it’s best to do your own research. While some educators might endorse them, and it could sometimes help to respond to students’ preferred learning styles, they shouldn’t be considered hard and fast rules.

Track results to see if accommodations you’ve made in class, either for everyone or for particular students, are working. While catering to specific learning styles might not directly lead to better student performance, it could indirectly boost a student’s confidence, in turn helping them perform better.

Learning styles might work in some contexts, but not as part of an overall strategy. The most appropriate way to deploy them is to try different techniques interchangeably within an active learning context.

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