Understanding the four key styles of learning

One of the most important parts of teaching is understanding that children can be very different, and can learn and absorb information in very different ways. To an extent, it’s similar to how a good football manager oversees their team: they’ll understand which players need clear and precise instructions, and which ones need the freedom to explore and be more creative.

The vast majority of children learn in four different ways, depending on their mental characteristics and how they engage with people. In this guide, we’ll explore the four learning styles, how they differ, and why they’re so important – especially in the current education landscape.

Children learning a science experiment

What are learning styles?

The concept of learning styles first emerged in the 1960s and started to gain real traction in the 1990s. It’s based on the premise that different people learn better when information is delivered to them in particular ways, and that when the information is delivered through other means, they quickly become disengaged with the subject matter or simply struggle to take the information in.

Of course, a typical class is likely to contain a mix of students who prefer each of the four styles. Balancing all their preferences and delivering education that combines all four is therefore the best way to engage a whole class simultaneously.

What are the four learning styles and how do they differ?

In 1992, the research of Fleming and Mills first put forward the ‘VARK’ model of learning styles, which divides learners into the following four categories:

  • Visual: these are learners who operate best when they can see the information laid out in front of them graphically and pictorially. Reading out a long list of facts or giving them a huge block of text doesn’t work, but using charts, graphs, diagrams and other means that can help them ‘see’ their way through a subject tend to resonate much better. Generally speaking, these students tend to make lists, doodle, or even try to replicate the graphs they see while they’re learning.
  • Auditory: these are the learners who will be using their ears much more than their eyes during a lesson. They like to listen to subject matter so they can process the information through their brains, and this works just as well when they’re listening to a lecture or talk given by one person, or when they’re participating in a group conversation. Because of the need to pay attention to get the information, these students tend to be  those who engage with lessons the most, and will read aloud things that they read so that they can process written content in their preferred way.
  • Reading and Writing: these learners rely on the written word to process information, whether that be reading from a book, an article or other written resources, or writing out teaching that’s delivered in other ways. These students like to take notes as much as possible, and will always turn to resources like dictionaries, search engines and encyclopaedias when they want to find out anything else.
  • Kinesthetic: these are the learners who will typically use all of their senses to gain the fullest understanding they can of the subject matter at hand. They like to physically work through things and get hands-on, because they feel that getting into the thick of it will help them engage better. These learners are usually full of energy and may have shorter attention spans, which means they struggle to sit still or stay focused during long periods of intensive studying.
Children in classroom

Why is understanding these learning styles so important?

Assessing which learning styles individual students lean towards can make a huge difference in helping them engage with a subject, and ensuring that certain class members don’t end up falling behind their peers. It also aids teacher performance, as they develop the skills that allow them to consistently resonate with an entire class, whatever the subject matter.

It should also be mentioned that paying attention to learning styles is especially important in the context of the challenges the pandemic has posed to education. Students who have had two years of minimal face-to-face learning time may struggle in a more traditional classroom environment, especially if lessons are delivered in ways that don’t suit their style. Understanding those styles is therefore especially important to making them feel at home in a learning structure that they may not be familiar or comfortable with.

FIND OUT HOW THE PANDEMIC HAS IMPACTED CHILDREN’S LEARNING

In our National Dataset Report, we examined teacher assessment data from over 500,000 pupils representing more than 6,000 primary schools to see how the pandemic has impacted children’s learning.