Knowing how to learn is a superpower. Learning allows you to grow faster, pick up more skills, and invite more advanced knowledge into your life. One of the best ways to improve your learning ability is to understand better how you like to learn.
In this post, we’ll talk about learning styles to help you better understand how you best intake new information and develop new skills.
What Are Learning Styles?
Learning styles refer to the various ways in which individuals process and internalize information. Different people prefer different ways of learning. In the same way that people have different types of intelligence, this theory assumes that people have different learning styles. Some people might learn better by listening to a lecture, others might know better by watching a video, while others might learn better by reading a textbook.
Note: over the years, researchers have theorized about countless learning styles. This article will only touch on some of the more popular models.
It’s also important to note that this is a somewhat contentious topic, and many people in the scientific community are pushing back on the validity of learning styles. Let’s get into it!
The VARK Model
The VARK model1https://vark-learn.com/introduction-to-vark/the-vark-modalities/ is probably the most famous learning styles model and was developed by Neil Fleming, a New Zealand educator, in 1987.
It’s an acronym for Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic.
One study2https://www.researchgate.net/publication/369201592_Analysis_of_Student_Learning_Styles_Using_Fleming’s_VARK_Model_in_Science_Subject suggests that about 35% of people prefer kinesthetic clearing, 30% prefer visual, 21% auditory, and 14% are reading/writing learners.
Here’s a breakdown of each of these learning styles.
Visual learners prefer to see information. The best grasp new concepts through diagrams, charts, graphs, or other visual aids.
Visual learners benefit most from a flowchart that visually maps out the stages of a project, helping them understand the sequence and relationship between different steps. YouTube tutorials are a goldmine for visual learners.
Auditory learners, also referred to as aural learners, prefer to hear information. They may find it easier to understand spoken words, lectures, discussions, or any format that involves listening, often with back-and-forth dialogue.
An auditory learner might prefer a podcast or lecture on a subject rather than reading it in a textbook.
Read/write learners thrive on textual information. They prefer reading and writing to understand and communicate ideas. Books, articles, reports, and manuals are their preferred learning modes.
A read/write learner might learn about a new software system by reading the user manual or online articles rather than watching a video tutorial. Many traditional school approaches rely heavily on textbooks, which isn’t everyone’s ideal approach.
Kinesthetic learners prefer a hands-on approach. They understand new concepts best through experience, practice, and physical engagement with the material.
A kinesthetic learner might best understand how to assemble furniture by physically manipulating the parts and following step-by-step instructions rather than just watching a video or reading a guide. These folks will jump in the pool and learn how to swim.
Nobody has only one learning style. We can each learn through any of the four styles. Though you likely have preferences and affinities for certain styles.
Imagine you want to paint over a white wall. Some people prefer a paint-roller while others prefer a giant paintbrush. Neither is necessarily better or worse, and you could use either effectively. But we each have the styles that feel most natural to us.
Take This Quick Quiz to Learn Your Learning Style
If you’d like to understand which styles are your preferences from the VARK model, then you might enjoy this 12-question quiz. Rate how much each statement applies to you on a scale of 1 (not preferred) to 5 (very preferred). And then we’ll do some simple calculations at the end.
- If I were learning to knit, I’d find watching a YouTube video tutorial or demonstration helpful.
- If I were learning to knit, I’d like someone to explain the steps to me verbally, where I could ask questions.
- If I were learning to knit, I’d prefer to read a step-by-step guide or manual.
- If I were learning to knit, I’d like to dive right in and learn through trial and error.
- If I were to learn directions to a new place, I’d want to study the location on Google Maps first.
- If I were trying to learn directions to a new place, I’d prefer a friend to tell me the directions aloud.
- If I were to learn directions to a new place, I’d prefer to read the directions step by step.
- If I were trying to learn directions to a new place, I’d like to know where the place is in relation to landmarks I already know.
- It is helpful to visualize or draw out information when trying to understand new concepts.
- I prefer learning new things by listening to explanations or conversing.
- I often take extensive notes when trying to understand something new.
- Hands-on experiences or roleplays are very beneficial when learning something new.
To interpret your responses, calculate your total score for each category:
- Visual: Add up the numbers for questions 1, 5, and 9
- Auditory: Add up the numbers for questions 2, 6, and 10
- Reading/Writing: Add up the numbers for questions 3, 7, and 11
- Kinesthetic: Add the numbers for questions 4, 8, and 12.
The highest total score might give you a clue as to your preferred learning style according to the VARK model.
It is also common to have several scores that are higher, given that we each learn through several channels.
Are Learning Styles Real?
Learning styles have been debated among educators, researchers, and psychologists for decades.
Studies suggest that around 90% of people4https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2019/05/learning-styles-myth ascribe to learning styles. Proponents argue that it can make learning more effective when educators tailor their material to individual learning preferences.
However, some loud critics claim that learning styles are a myth that the masses have bought into. Such skeptics point to a lack of empirical evidence directly linking learning styles to improved academic performance.
We’ll start with criticisms of learning styles so that you can approach the topic with discernment.
Criticisms of Learning Styles
Lack of empirical support
One of the main criticisms is that there needs to be more measurable evidence5https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-problem-with-learning-styles/ to support the idea that teaching to an individual’s preferred learning style leads to better learning outcomes.
While it is valid for people to have preferences for how they learn, there is limited evidence6https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/LearningStylesMyth supporting the possibility that when a teacher matches a student’s preferred learning style, it increases the effectiveness of the learning.
Further critics from the Association for Psychological Science7https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/learning-styles-debunked-there-is-no-evidence-supporting-auditory-and-visual-learning-psychologists-say.html suggest that studies supporting learning styles “fail to satisfy key criteria for scientific validity.”
This has many critics feeling like this fellow below:
Potential labeling and stereotyping
Assigning a learning style to a student may lead to labeling or stereotyping. If a teacher believes a student is solely a visual learner, for example, they might never assign the student reading, which could hurt their growth.
Critics argue that learning styles box learners in more than liberate them. Students may believe they can only learn in one specific way, potentially hindering their ability to adapt to various learning scenarios.
Learning styles are a symptom of our times.
Some folks suggest5https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-problem-with-learning-styles/ that in today’s era, many people want to feel special and enjoy knowing what type of person they are (whether Myers-Briggs, Big Five personality tests, horoscope, learning style, or any other kind).
There’s no issue with typing ourselves; it can be fun and valuable. But critics wonder if we are forcing types where they don’t belong.
Further, some critics suggest that the learning styles movement may be feeding off our culture’s underlying “get rich quick mentality,” where we hope that by knowing our type, we can avoid sweating to learn something.
Some critics have raised concerns that the popularity of learning styles has been driven, in part, by commercial interests8http://www.leerbeleving.nl/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/learning-styles.pdf, such as companies selling learning style assessments and training.
Learning styles are becoming popular in the zeitgeist, and companies might see a quick buck to be made by promoting and selling a learning style, even if it doesn’t have sufficient scientific backing.
Implementing learning styles in the classroom requires time and resources. Critics argue9https://career.ucsf.edu/sites/g/files/tkssra2771/f/Article%20UCSF%20SEJC%20January%202017.pdf that focusing on learning styles diverts attention and resources from other evidence-based teaching strategies that could significantly impact student learning.
It requires time and energy for a teacher to create a lesson plan catered to at least four types of learning. Might this energy be better used elsewhere?
While the concept of learning styles remains popular and continues to influence educational practices, these criticisms highlight the ongoing debate and complexity surrounding the subject.
With that said, let’s go into how learning styles work, how educators are adopting them, and how you might use them to understand yourself more.
It’s Useful to Understand How You Learn
Being good at learning can help you with all aspects of your life.
Learning is a skill. To be more specific, it is a meta-skill.
According to top professional poker player and executive coach Chris Sparks10https://www.forcingfunction.com/articles/play-to-win, meta-skills are “higher-order skill[s] that… act as skill multipliers, directly impacting your bottom line and overall performance.”
In other words, a meta-skill is a skill that permeates all areas of your life and compounds on itself over time.
So, for example, the ability to learn is a meta-skill, but the ability to cook is not. Strategizing is a meta-skill, though chess is not. Self-awareness is a meta-skill; backflips are not. Etc.
You can learn more effectively and enjoyably when you understand how you learn. You can develop study strategies that fit you. And you can know more. This can skyrocket your abilities in work, relationships, and personal growth.
As a manager, when you recognize how you or your employees prefer to learn, you can tailor training sessions, meetings, and professional development opportunities to align with these preferences. This personalization helps engage learners and leads to more efficient and practical understanding and retention of information.
Let’s review a few of the most popular models of learning styles.
One other meta-skill is goal-setting. The better you are at setting (and achieving) your goals, the more you can succeed in all areas of your life. If you’re interested in boosting your goal-setting skills, you might enjoy this free goodie:
How To Set Better Goals Using Science
Do you set the same goals over and over again? If you’re not achieving your goals – it’s not your fault!
Let me show you the science-based goal-setting framework to help you achieve your biggest goals.
Other Models of Learning Styles
VARK is one way of looking at learning styles, but many others exist. Here are a few other popular models.
Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory
In 1984, educational theorist David Kolb developed his Experiential Learning Theory11https://experientiallearninginstitute.org/resources/what-is-experiential-learning/, a four-stage learning cycle: experiencing, reflecting, theorizing, and experimenting. Kolb identified four unique learning styles that reflect how learners process and perceive information.
His work underscores the power of understanding one’s unique style to enhance learning. And that once we can understand how we learn things, it can bring greater clarity to our lives.
One study found12https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8968357/ that when older adults with diabetes discovered their learning style through Kolb’s model, they could effectively implement more self-care. Another study13https://journal.bpj.ir/article_536448_en.html found that teaching university students based on their Kolb learning style increased their creativity and achievement.
Here are the four types:
Diverging (feeling and watching): These learners prefer observing and gathering information. Divergent learners are imaginative, open-minded, and known for viewing situations from multiple perspectives.
For example, if they were learning about a historical event, they might prefer to study it from various viewpoints through discussions or roleplay activities rather than merely memorizing facts.
Assimilating (watching and thinking): Assimilating learners are logical learners who prefer reasoning and precise, clear explanations over practical experience.
For example, they better understand complex theories or concepts when studying from textbooks or attending lectures rather than through hands-on exercises.
They might enjoy a precise step-by-step recipe for a blueberry cobbler rather than learning by getting their hands in the flour.
Converging (doing and thinking): Converging learners apply theoretical concepts to practical problem-solving.
For instance, in learning how to program, they might enjoy tackling real-life coding problems or puzzles that require the application of known programming principles.
Accommodating (doing and feeling): Accommodating learners prefer experiential learning and often rely on their intuition and personal experience.
If learning photography, for example, they might walk in the woods, tinker with the camera settings, and play around rather than attending a theory-based photography course.
Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles
Another popular model is Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles theory14https://openlearnlive-s3bucket.s3.eu-west-2.amazonaws.com/30/3a/303a9899cb4d96797bf63a9c5e970961b55f940e?response-content-disposition=inline%3B%20filename%3D%22t175_4_3.pdf%22&response-content-type=application%2Fpdf&X-Amz-Content-Sha256=UNSIGNED-PAYLOAD&X-Amz-Algorithm=AWS4-HMAC-SHA256&X-Amz-Credential=AKIA4GIOSMQ5JGMSLFXY%2F20230807%2Feu-west-2%2Fs3%2Faws4_request&X-Amz-Date=20230807T170105Z&X-Amz-SignedHeaders=host&X-Amz-Expires=21595&X-Amz-Signature=b4bda96d10ba109d04488ec6b8e3f5590877eda41d0d18c8a854755cd954f34c, introduced by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford in 1982.
They suggest15https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ920100.pdf that it’s good to know your preferred style, but it’s also helpful to improve your weaker styles to become a well-rounded learner. They say that while we each prefer one style, the best learning includes a combination of styles and that one style might be ideal for one situation but not another. Here are the four different learning preferences they put forth.
Activists: These learners learn by doing. They’re open-minded and thrive on new experiences.
If learning to play the guitar, for example, an activist would jump right in, strumming strings and trying to play a chord without hesitation.
Reflectors: Reflectors prefer to learn by observing and thinking about what happened. They enjoy gathering data and pondering it before coming to any conclusion.
If a reflector were learning to play the guitar, they would likely watch several tutorials and a few Jimi Hendrix concerts, take notes, and carefully consider the techniques demonstrated before trying them out.
Theorists: These learners prefer to understand the theory behind the actions. They need models, concepts, and facts to engage with the learning process.
A theorist learning to play the guitar would start by understanding the music theory, the role of different chords, and the principles behind constructing a melody.
Pragmatists: Pragmatists need to see how to put the learning into practice in the real world. They prefer practical exercises and problem-solving.
A pragmatist learning guitar would likely start applying learned chords to playing a whole song or composing a short piece, focusing on how the skill can be used in a practical context.
While there are many approaches and styles to learning, this GIF below is not one of them!
4MAT System by Bernice McCarthy
Another prominent learning theory is the 4MAT System16https://4mat4learning.com.au/what-is-4mat/, developed by educator Dr. Bernice McCarthy in 1980.
Ample studies suggest that learning through the 4MAT System improves academic achievement.
Here are the four styles of this model.
Innovative learners: These learners ask “Why?” most often. This style values personal meaning and seeks learning connected to individual experiences.
For example, suppose they were to learn to play a musical instrument. In that case, they’d appreciate understanding the instrument’s history and how playing it could enable self-expression or enrich their life. “Why does the horn make this sound? Why do we play it like this?”
Analytic learners: These learners ask “What?” most often. This style is interested in facts, details, and information. They like to know what the experts think.
If learning photography, they start by studying the camera manual thoroughly, understanding its specifications, and learning the theories behind the art of photography. “What does this button do?”
Common sense learners: These learners ask “How?” most often. These learners value practicality and utility and prefer hands-on, applied learning.
If they were to learn cooking, they’d prefer to get into the kitchen immediately, follow a recipe, and learn by doing. “How do I make linguine? How do I get it to taste like that?”
Dynamic learners: These learners ask “What if?” most often. These learners are imaginative and innovative, favoring learning that involves hypothesizing and personal interpretation.
If they were learning to code, for example, they might dive into creating their unique project or tweaking existing codes, exploring the possibilities of what they can make or modify. “What if we combined these two ideas?”
Tips to Help You Clarify Your Learning Style
Now that we’ve gone through a few popular learning style modalities, here are some tips you can go through to better understand your relationship with learning.
Note: As mentioned before, since the consensus in the scientific community is that learning styles aren’t scientifically valid, please take this section with a grain of salt. You might still discover insights about yourself and your tendencies toward learning, but please hold these frameworks loosely.
Reflect on something you’ve learned recently.
Think about a hobby, skill, or concept that you learned recently. “Recent” could mean in the past few weeks or years.
See if you can find something where the learning process feels enjoyable and effective.
Then, go through these questions:
- What did I find most enjoyable about the learning process?
- When did I make quantum leaps of understanding, and what led to those leaps?
- Were there any methods or moments of learning that didn’t work well? Why not?
- Were any books, lectures, or teachers significantly helped your learning? What about their teaching style that felt effective?
- Did I learn more effectively by practicing alone or with others? Where did I see a benefit in either?
- Did I enjoy having a structured learning plan, or did I prefer a more flexible, go-with-the-flow approach? Why did I prefer that?
Learning style quizzes
We reviewed a brief quiz above to help you understand yourself through the VARK model.
However, if you’d like to dive deeper into each model, here is a more comprehensive quiz.
- Quiz for VARK
- Quiz for Kolb’s Experiential Learning
- Examination of Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles
- Test for 4MAT System.
Ask for feedback
If you’ve had managers, teachers, tutors, or coaches in the past few years, they’ve likely witnessed you grow and learn firsthand.
While no one knows better about your experience than you do, asking others how they perceive your learning style can be helpful.
Action Step: Reach out to a manager, teacher, or coach and ask them what they’ve perceived about your learning styles. How did they see you learning most effectively?
Plan out your next learning project.
Is there something you are in the process of learning right now? Or something you want to know? A new skill at work or a hobby you’ve been practicing.
Action Step: Once you’ve clarified the skill or concept you’d like to learn, ponder which approaches you feel most drawn to. Please rank your top three options.
- Watching a how-to video
- Reading a blog post on learning the skill
- Hiring a tutor or coach
- Diving in head first and exploring the skill
- Learning the theory and principles behind the skill
- Understanding how this skill might affect you and applying it to your life
- Watching and studying other people enact this skill
- Learning the skill from multiple angles and perspectives
- Reflecting after every practice session about what you learned
- Learning about the history and culture of this skill
As you learn new skills in the coming days and weeks, note what’s working and what’s not.
Action Step: Use a notebook or a Google Doc to jot down notes and reflections after each practice session with your skill. Anything you notice about what works or what doesn’t? Over time, you may start to see patterns suggesting your learning preferences.
How Have Learning Styles Shaped Educational Practices Across Time?
The concept of learning styles has had a profound impact on educational practices over time, influencing both teaching methods and educational philosophy.
Here are four significant ways that learning styles have impacted education:
Personalized learning: recognizing that individuals have unique ways of learning has led to a more customized approach to education. Teachers are encouraged to assess the learning styles of their students and adapt their instruction to cater to those preferences.
Diverse teaching strategies: the awareness of different learning styles has prompted educators to incorporate various teaching strategies. For instance, lessons might include visual aids for visual learners, discussions for auditory learners, hands-on activities for kinesthetic learners, etc.
Focus on individual strengths and weaknesses: learning styles have encouraged an understanding of individual strengths and weaknesses. This awareness can foster a more compassionate and practical approach to education, allowing teachers to support areas of difficulty and capitalize on areas of strength.
Inclusion and special education: the understanding of different learning styles has also influenced special education, helping educators to design interventions that align with the unique learning needs of students with disabilities.
The concept of learning styles has permeated many aspects of education, from lesson planning and classroom instruction to educational technology and professional development.
It reflects a movement of our culture that is veering away from “one-size-fits-all” approaches and will hopefully continue to foster more effective learning and self-knowledge.
Frequently Asked Questions About Learning Styles
You can identify your preferred learning style by observing how you naturally interact with new information and experimenting with different learning strategies. Various self-assessment tools, such as Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory, Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles Questionnaire, or VARK Questionnaire, can help provide more structured insights.
Individuals can have a dominant learning style that they prefer or find more comfortable. However, it’s typical for people to exhibit a mix of styles depending on the context or nature of the material being learned.
Learning styles are not fixed; they can change and evolve based on experiences, the development of new skills, and shifts in personal or professional focus.
Various teaching methods cater to different learning styles; for example, visual learners may benefit from diagrams or charts, auditory learners from verbal explanations or discussions, kinesthetic learners from hands-on experiences, and so forth.
Takeaways About Learning Styles
It can be useful to inquire into how you best learn to improve your future learning trajectory. Here are the learning types from the primary models we covered.
The VARK Model:
- Visual: prefers using images, maps, and graphic organizers
- Aural/Auditory: learns best through listening, such as lectures, discussions, or podcasts
- Read/write: prefers information that is displayed as words, as well as reading and writing tasks
- Kinesthetic: learns best through experience, hands-on activities, and movement.
Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory:
- Converging: excels at problem-solving and decision-making
- Diverging: excels in brainstorming and viewing situations from different perspectives
- Assimilating: prefers clear, logical explanations over practicality
- Accommodating: leans towards hands-on approaches and relies on intuition over logic.
Honey and Mumford’s Learning Styles:
- Activist: enjoys new experiences and is open-minded, often diving into new challenges
- Reflector: prefers to observe and ponder experiences from different perspectives before taking action
- Theorist: logically approaches learning, valuing models, concepts, and facts
- Pragmatist: seeks ways to apply knowledge in practical situations, loving strategies, techniques, and experiments.
- Imaginative learning: prefers asking why, needing to connect learning with personal experiences
- Analytic learning: focuses on asking what, wanting factual knowledge and details
- Common Sense learning: centers on asking how aiming to understand how things work in a practical sense
- Dynamic learning: asks “what if,” thriving on self-discovery and adapting knowledge to fit new situations.
If you feel passionate to continue your learning journey and would like further inspiration on what to learn, check out this post on creating a learning bucket list.
How to Deal with Difficult People at Work
Do you have a difficult boss? Colleague? Client? Learn how to transform your difficult relationship.
I’ll show you my science-based approach to building a strong, productive relationship with even the most difficult people.