Some Thoughts on Learning Styles

You’ve heard it before and you’ll hear it again…there are three basic learning styles, and everybody has one that they prefer.  Visual learners learn best by seeing information (graphs, maps, and pictures) , auditory learners learn best by hearing (speeches, lectures, recordings) and kinesthetic learners learn by doing (or touching, or manipulating materials).  You’ve probably taken a cute little test or quiz to determine your preferred learning style, and if you are a teacher you’ve been told to vary your lesson plans and teach to all three learning styles.

Before we try to credit or discredit this theory, let’s look at some known facts about cognition and memory.  First, people do differ in their visual, auditory, and kniesthetic memory abilities.  Certain people are better able to remember visual memory applications.  If ask you to visualize a pine tree, the Empire State Building, or the Mona Lisa; I am asking you to use your visual memory.  If I ask you to listen to three different recordings and  identify which one is Barak Obama’s voice, I am asking you to draw upon your powers of auditory memory. If I ask you to show me how to swing a baseball bat you would utilize your kinesthetic memory.  As I sure you realized at a very young age, certain people are just plain better at recalling visual images and certain people have excellent auditory acuity.  Of course, to the chagrin of many of us, some people are just great at remembering and re-enacting the perfect baseball bat swing, and some of us never seem to master it. 

Here’s one other thing we need to consider:  not all of our memories are mere sights, sounds, or movements.  Most of what we “know” is wrapped around meaning.  In other words, we remember things based on what they mean to us.  If a friend tells you a funny story about a co-worker who called in sick and three hours later was seen on TV, cheering on the home team at the noontime baseball game, you would remember the meaning of the story. 

I would remember the meaning of this story as “Somebody lied, somebody got caught, with technology these days you can’t get away with much, I’m so glad it wasn’t me, but it’s pretty funny that it was her!”  Most people would probably think the same thing about the story, or perhaps the “meaning” of the story would vary depending on whether or not you were friend or foe to the person involved.

I would also remember the visual elements of the story, such as the way my friend looked as she was telling it to me, or my visualization of what the TV broadcast would have looked like.  I would also remember the auditory elements such as what my friend’s voice sounded like as she told me the story.  I would also remember the kinesthetics of the moment, such as whether we were walking, sitting, or standing.  But the most important part of the story, the meaning, has a life of its own.

grapesThis part of the “learning styles” theory makes sense:  some people are better at certain types of memory than others. But the main, predictive element of the theory is that students will understand and retain information better (learn better) when the delivery of new material matches their cognitive style.  Let’s say we are teaching a class of 30 adults.  We’re giving a basic introduction to wine production.  We have a list of 30 vocabulary words we want the students to grasp. (Brix, Must, Crushing, Pressing,  Pomace, Racking, Fining, Acidification, Chaptalization, Malolactic Fermentation, Cap Management, Autovinification. Malic Acid, Lactic Acid, pH, Tannin, Sterile Filtration, Aging, Maturing, Blending, Carbonic Maceration….you get the picture!)

Let’s say we divided the vocabulary words into three lists of ten words each. For one list, we presented the information verbally…we read the vocabulary words and recite the definitions several times.  For another list, we present the information visually…we write the words and definitions on the board (or use power point slides).  For the third list, we somehow have our students act it out or use gestures to accompany definitions. If the predictive part of the “learning theory” holds true, the “visual learners” in the group would remember more of the words written on the board and the “auditory learners” would remember more of the vocabulary words that were recited.

Here’s where the theory takes a dive:  dozens of studies have been conducted along these general lines, and the theory is NOT supported.  Using a student’s preferred cognitive modality does NOT give that student an edge in learning new material.

How can that be?  Because what is being taught – the new material we want the students to grasp – is not necessarily visual, auditory, or kinesthetic information…it’s meaning.  If we wanted students to recall visual information, for instance, the way the grapes should look like when they are ripe, presenting that information visually is the only way to go.  Use an actual bunch of grapes or a good picture.  Just imaging trying to describe what something should look like using just your words. “Um…they’re purple, but sometimes kind of blue, and they are grouped together in a bunch with a stem, like a bunch of grapes at the grocery store, only smaller.  And tighter. And bluer. Sort of.”  It sounds funny to even try.

The same holds true for auditory information.  It must be transmitted via sound (I know it sounds a little goofy when stated like that – sorry)! If we wanted students to know how the batch of fermenting must should sound, an audible recording (or the real thing) is the only possible way to impart that information. Imagine trying to describe it using words.  “Oh you know, it should kind of sound like soda being poured into a glass, but then it stops everyone once in a while and goes sh-h-h-h-h-w-o-o-o-f.” Same with trying to teach a group of people what it feels like to crush grapes with your feet.  You just can’t tell them…you’d better go get a bus tub, some grapes, and tell everyone to wear slip-off shoes.

Remember what we are trying to teach here with our list of 30 vocabulary words…it’s not visual, auditory, or kinesthestic information only; it’s meaning. Presenting information via the visual channel has not been proven to give a “visual learner” any advantage in learning anything besides visual representations.  The same holds true for auditory and kinesthetic “learners”.  An auditory learner might very easily remember the sound of your voice while you were reciting the vocabulary words (and can probably imitate you quite well behind your back), but “the sound of the teacher’s voice” is most likely not one of your leraning objectives.

So if the “learning styles” theory is really quite wrong, why does it seem so right?  This theory is ultra- well entrenched in the literature and philosophy of education.   A quick google search of “learning styles” will deliver hundreds of pages on learning styles from the websites of well-respected universities.  A page with the VARK questionnaire on “What’s Your Learning Style?” tells me that over 25,000 people have taken their quiz this month.  I’ve been to several wine-and-food related educational conferences where a session on “learning styles” was offered. It’s almost one of those things that we just want to believe, or believe because everybody else believes, like “people believe 10% of what they read, 20% of what they hear….” which, by the way has also never been proven. And, of course, we have to concede that a small portion of the theory is true.  The fact that people vary in their visual memory ability is obvious.  Some of my students can memorize that wine map of Italy after just one look.  Others have to study for weeks.  They same holds true for the auditory and the kinesthetic.  But we can’t make the mistake of a false correlation between the natural ability of visual memory to an overall superiority of using the visual channel for learning the meaning of things, or for that matter, the learning of anything is isn’t visual.

Finally, a lot of the evidence surrounding learning styles is guilty of what is known as “confirmation bias.”  Once we believe something, we interpret ambiguous situations as being consistent with what we believe.  Suppose, for instance, that you discover that your students score better on tests when you provide them with a handout after your lecture.  You assume that while your lecture might be reaching the auditory learners, the handout reaches the visual learners so that class as a whole performs better.  You feel good about your class and your ability to teach to “the different learning styles.”  What actually happened, however, was more likely the fact that some of your students used the handouts to read the material and study after class, thus exposing themsleves to a repetition of the material.  Using a lecture and a handout is just a better way of teaching than relying on a lecture alone.

Even better, of course, is the student who actually listens to your lecture, reads the book, studies the handout and engages in some discussion or other use of the information. That’s a good way of teaching meaning, and if your classes motivate the students to do just that, you’ve done a good job teaching – to any learning ability and any learning style.

If you’d like more information on learning styles, you can see my previous post on learning styles:

I also highly recommend Daniel T. Willingham’s book, Why Don’t Students Like School?   (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2009). It has a wonderful chapter called “How Should I Adjust My Teaching for Different Types of Learners?” that discusses  and debunks the three “learning styles” as well as many other theories of “multiple intelligences”. 

The Bubbly Professor is  “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas.

Flipping the College Classroom

Flipping the College Classroom

For the past century, and probably for centuries before that, the typical classroom learning experience on just about every college campus in the world has remained the same. Oh sure, we’ve got PowerBooks and Power Point and lots of technological gizmos these days, but in most classrooms it’s the same as it ever was.  The faculty member – the Sage on the Stage – lectures while the students listen and take notes.

But oh how things have changed.  When I first started teaching my biggest problem was keeping an eye on students who were passing notes back and forth.  Now, it’s “Teacher vs. Twitter” as I am competing with Facebook, Google+, iPhones, iPads, Angry Birds and more.  The distraction factor is not even the worst part; it’s a true fact that just about everything I have to say in a three-hour lecture can be found via a three-second search on every student’s personal favorite electronic gizmo, sitting right there in their hand.   

Perhaps it is time for the classroom to change.

Lesson Plans in the Lurch.

To explain how the classroom can change, we first need to understand the learning process. To put it quite simply, there are two parts to the learning process:  transmission and assimilation. In a typical college classroom, transmission takes place as a professor lectures and students take notes.  Transmission also occurs during reading, although getting the students to actually read the textbook  is a challenge unto itself, and one that perhaps I should address at another time.

The second part of learning, assimilation, generally occurs outside a typical classroom as the student does homework, lab work, studies his notes, or takes part in a cooperative learning project.

Back to Bloom

If we refer back to the Learning Taxonomy of Benjamin Bloom, we can see that “transmission” involves the lower order level thinking skills of knowledge and understanding, while “assimilation” involves the higher order thinking skills of application, analysis, creation (synthesis) and evaluation.  In layman’s terms, “real” learning occurs outside the traditional classroom.

The big issue with this traditional model is that as the student’s cognitive load increases, the availability of help, in the form of the professor, decreases.  This model is reversed in a flipped classroom, where (to put it very, very simply) transmission occurs before class, and assimilation takes place during class, with the aid and help of the instructor.

Transmission…Before Class

The very technology that is causing widespread student distraction during class in the first place can be put to use in asking students to view a video of a lecture before class. Students can be assigned lectures to view via Youtube, iTunes or other media, and may be required to be involved in online chats or forum discussions. At its most basic, transmission before class can take the form of a good, old-fashioned text book reading assignment. 

Obviously, an excellent text book, a series of recorded lectures, and a reliable delivery system are pre-requisites for flipping the classroom. In addition, guided practice for basic knowledge and skills such as take-home or online quizzes or other types of homework should also be included and required as a “ticket for entry” into class.  Flipping a classroom just doesn’t work if the students don’t read, view, or do their assignments before class.

Assimilation…During Class

Instead of a lecture, the flipped classroom is used to reinforce, practice, and analyze the subject matter at hand through the use of a bank of interesting, challenging in-class assignments intended to assist in the assimilation phase of learning. In other words, you do your homework in class, where the teacher can watch over and guide you. Class time can also be used for debate, demonstration, discussion, and review of specific concepts.

Any instructor who has ever overseen a learning lab or a group project knows that directing activity in a classroom can be far more demanding than lecturing. Careful management and acute attention is demanded on a minute-by-minute basis in a flipped classroom, lest your well thought-out learning session turn into a group nap, a gossip session, or a brawl. (You professors know exactly what I mean.)

The Challenge for Educators

No one is saying that this type of teaching is easy. You are very likely to encounter student resistance, at least at first.  As a matter of fact, you should count on the fact that classes taught in this manner will be fraught with skeptical students for the first few weeks. Even students that say they play on Facebook all throughout class because the professor is boring are still likely to resist this alternative format as they are used to a class that requires very little in terms of effort, participation, and engagement.  Unfortunately, the ubiquitousness of the lecture format of teaching has bred a generation of students that are content to “zone out” for a few hours a day during class.

Student accountability is another issue. I’ve been in plenty of classrooms where it’s obvious the students didn’t do any of the assigned readings. I even had one student explain that he didn’t bother opening the book because “I did such a good job of teaching it.” (What do you say to that?) Accountability, such as readiness assessments done individually or in teams should be woven into the curriculum. However, the overriding hope for this method is that students will actually be better prepared for class because the materials are more engaging and they know that the class will be structured around the information assigned in advance.

Finally, this idea is not ideal for all disciplines, all subject matters, or even all the days in one particular course. I’ve found it works very well on about half of the days of my classes, and students need to know exactly what days to expect a flipped class.

What do you think…can you flip your college classroom?


The Bubbly Professor is “Miss Jane” Nickles of Austin, Texas




Train the Trainer: Are you a visual or a verbal learner?


Are you a visual or a verbal learner? Do you tout the fact that there are four learning styles – and your classes engage each one of them? Do you make power point slides and handouts in an attempt to “engage visual learners”? Do you think your lecture and discussion is ideal for “engaging auditory learners”? If so, you are not alone…but many people will argue that you are wrong! Ouch!

Let’s give this side of the story a chance and consider that it might be high time to get over this antiquated idea of education.

For more than 30 years, the notion that teaching methods should match a student’s particular learning style has exerted a powerful influence on education. The wide appeal of the idea that some students will learn better when material is presented visually and others will learn better when the material is presented verbally (or kinesthetically, or logically) is evident in the vast number of learning-style tests and  teaching guides available, not to mention the reams of literature on the subject.  Just google “learning styles” and see what happens.  I got over 14 million results touting no less than 71 different “learning styles” – all in 1.3 seconds!


This is not to say that people do not differ in learning abilities.  A person with a high level of visual learning ability will be able to easily recall if an image was red or blue, and will have a high level of recall of people’s faces.  A person with a high level of auditory learning ability will have an uncanny ability to differentiate between different pitches, levels of volume, and the unique sound of a voice.  However, this does not imply higher levels of the construction of new knowledge, new meaning, new vocabulary, new concepts or new context based on the path of input.

Modern scientific research simply does NOT support the existence of different learning styles, nor the hypothesis that people learn better when taught in a way that matches their own unique style.  As a matter of fact, reams of literature have also been written on the subject that there are NOT four distinct learning styles. I got nearly as many google hits by using the terms “learning styles don’t exist” and “learning styles debunked” as I did on “learning styles” alone! If you don’t want to believe me (or google), perhaps you will believe a team of eminent researchers in learning psychology and their report published in December 2009 in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. The report reviews the existing literature on learning styles and finds that although numerous studies have purported to show the existence of different kinds of learners such as “auditory learners” and “visual learners,” those studies have not used the type of randomized research designs that would make their findings credible.


Or perhaps you will believe a Harvard  Ph.D.  Dr. Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist and author of Why Don’t Students Like School, recently posted a short video on youtube entitled “Learning Styles Don’t Exist.” I highly recommend it, and his book for that matter. Dang. So, if it is just not as simple as “learning styles”, what’s an educator to do?  At the risk of oversimplification, I believe we should concentrate on what cognitive processes learners have in common rather than focusing on how they might be different. The latest research on learning, and something that has certainly changed the way I teach, is well reflected in something called “whole brain teaching.”

Whole brain teaching recognizes that maximum learning occurs when a learning activity involves visual, verbal, and emotional elements combined with activities requiring critical thinking, movement and speech.  Teaching in this way triggers action in the “whole brain”, in other words, six distinct regions of brain activity working in conjunction. And while we are at it, please forget the cliché that “we only use 10% of our brain capacity.”  The truth is actually closer to “we only engage 10% of the brain at a time when using outdated teaching techniques.”

References/for more information: