What are learning styles and why do we need to understand them?
Most of us are familiar with the idea that we have preferred ways of learning. Some of us like to read information for ourselves, whilst others might prefer to watch a video tutorial, for example.
Many of us learn to adapt to a range of different learning styles, even if we have a particular preference. Lots of people find that a combination of methods can help them to learn – which we sometimes call multi-modal learning.
It’s really useful for educators to be aware of a multi-modal approach. This means that our content is likely to be more accessible to a wider range of people.
Some examples of learning styles
Several educational theorists and psychologists have popularised the idea of learning styles and there are different models.
David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory, Howard Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, and Neil Fleming’s VARK model all emphasise different aspects of learning preferences, such as experiential learning, diverse intelligences, and sensory modalities. Some commonly-accepted ways to learn include:
With a preference for using images, charts, and graphs to understand information. Visual learners benefit from seeing things.
Some people excel with written words. They prefer reading and writing as primary modes of learning.
With a preference for learning through listening. They prefer spoken information and discussions.
For people who thrive in group settings. They learn best through interaction, discussion and collaboration.
These learners like hands-on experiences and physical activities. They prefer touching and doing.
With a preference for learning alone. They thrive in quiet environments and can focus well without external stimulation.
Educators often plan lessons around VAK (visual-auditory-kinaesthetic learning), presenting information in a range of formats. But it’s useful to use the full list to consider whether your learning programmes and exhibitions suit one particular style of learning more than others. Could you adapt your methods in order to appeal to a wider range of learning styles? Are there opportunities for the learners to make choices about how they engage – e.g. tasks that could be done in groups or alone, for example?
Some tips to cater to a range of learning styles
When we have lots of information to convey to a group, it’s very easy to slip into talking at them. If you find yourself talking for more than a minute or two, without your learners doing anything themselves, try thinking about how you could make your education style a bit more varied. Could you use some of these tips too?
To benefit all learners, try adding an extra column to your session plans, called ‘learning style’ or ‘multi-modal learning’. Use it to make a note of the range of methods you’re using and spot what’s missing. You can’t do everything all of the time, but it will help you see if you’re over-relying on one style.
For tactile learners, incorporate object handing into tours and talks, with feely bags for extra curiosity. Encourage people to think about objects that feel similar. Pay attention to the textures.
For learners who like writing and words, distribute post it notes or cards for people to write questions on during your sessions to come back to later. Encourage people to jot down notes if they’d like to. Encourage your learners to ask questions and give praise when they do.
For auditory learners, are there any sounds that could be included? These can also help promote curiosity too. Think about the sounds that any of the objects might make – like on this website Rosie developed in the Highlands of Scotland. Or explore free sound effects sites such as Pixabay. You can have sounds cued up on your phone ready to press play at a key moment.
Bear in mind that kinaesthetic learners and others may find it difficult to listen without having some sort of physical stimulation as well. Don’t be frustrated if some learners have fidget toys or want to tap pens or similar. It doesn’t mean that they are bored or not listening.
Kinaesthetic learners would also benefit from gestures or actions during the session. E.g. Could they imagine putting on different hats when thinking about different people from the story? What actions might be appropriate? Could they use Makaton signs?
For visual learners, have key words written out on word cards which can be shown to the group as you speak. Most school teachers know to write key words on the board as they go along, but museum educators usually don’t have boards so could you bring the words with you? Or find a different way to spell them out?
Many learners benefit from thinking time when you ask questions – don’t expect an immediate answer, but tell your groups to ‘think about’ for a few seconds first. Using the formula of ‘think, pair, share’ allows all learners, including social ones, to articulate their ideas safely before sharing with the whole group.
Solitary learners can be a little harder to cater for as many educators always expect tasks to be done in groups or pairs. Don’t be afraid to tell a group that they can explore an exhibition individually if they’d prefer, before coming back together as a whole group. They could use a camera, phone or app to record things that catch their eye.