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Ask Susan: Understanding Learning Styles

Hi Susan

My son is in 5th grade. I have been helping him with his study work, but am afraid to force him to use ‘my’ methods. I always learned well with pictures, but what worked well for me might not work for him. How will I know what works for him, and what doesn’t?


Hello Emily,

People not only learn at different rates, but also in different ways. Some students want their teacher or lecturers to write everything on the board. Others prefer to listen. Some like to sit in small groups and discuss a question. Yet others like to listen to a lecture, translating it into pictures or doodles in their notebook. Such individual learning preferences are known as learning styles.

Learning styles are generally divided into three categories:

  1. Visual learners, who need to see it to know it
  2. Auditory learners, who need to hear it to know it
  3. Tactile/kinesthetic learners, who prefer a hands-on approach

It is said that 65 percent of people learn visually, 30 percent tend to retain information after hearing it, and approximately 5 percent pick things up through touch or practical imitation.

A learning styles test

To test if a person’s learning style is preponderantly visual or auditory, one could do the following test with him. The testee must not know the purpose of the test in advance, otherwise he will become too conscious of the associations which he forms.

Read the list of 10 words below to the testee. Tell him to write on a piece of paper the first word, preferably noun or verb, which comes to his mind when he hears a word that you call out to him. Here are the 10 words:

  1. wall
  2. cake
  3. book
  4. noise
  5. file
  6. river
  7. letter
  8. bird
  9. flag
  10. hat

Then look at the words which the testee wrote. Generally speaking, there are two possibilities:

A.  He may have written words like these:

  1. picture, paper, ceiling
  2. flour, sugar, icing
  3. page, illustration, text
  4. propeller, music, siren
  5. paper, draw, box
  6. water, boat, fishing
  7. envelope, computer, stamp
  8. feather, wings, egg
  9. cloth, mast, signal
  10. ribbon, straw, felt

B. He may have written words like these:

  1. hall, ball, value, valet
  2. make, bake
  3. look, hook, bug
  4. poise, choice, moist
  5. pile, mile, fine, fire
  6. liver, ringer
  7. latter, ladder, ledger, lecture
  8. flirt, hurt, birth
  9. bag, drag
  10. bat, chat, flat

Of course these words are only examples, and the variety of words which the testee may have written in response to the words called out to him is almost unlimited. But whatever his response is, a survey of his answer will show whether more words are similar to Group A or whether more words are similar to Group B.

As you see, the examples in Group A contain words which somebody with a vivid imagination may see if he thinks of wall: cake, book, and so on. The examples given in Group B indicate words which are similar in sound to the words which you called out to him. Therefore, if you check the testee’s paper, you must compare the words that you gave him with the words that he wrote down. If you find more words which belong in Group A, the testee is preponderantly visual; if you find more words which belong in Group B, he is preponderantly auditory.

Prepare your child for the real world

Although there is some value in adjusting to a preferred learning style, we should not overlook that a child must be prepared for the real world and real time.

“In the real world, and real time, learning styles theory is often an academic luxury,” writes James Atherton in an article entitled ‘Learning styles don’t matter’. Therefore, it is essential to teach a child a versatile learning approach from a young age, which means that he will be able to use multiple senses when learning. We must not improve only his strengths, but also his weaknesses.

There is no doubt that a person’s weaker senses can be improved. A blind person, being deprived of sight, usually develops all the other senses to a remarkable degree. To learn to read Braille, for instance, his tactile sense must be developed to a remarkable degree. This fact is important because it shows without the help of complicated tests that every sense can be developed and improved.

A myth, according to some

Not everybody agrees about the existence of preferred learning styles. “There is no credible evidence that learning styles exist,” says Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. “It’s one of those things people think ‘they’ have figured out, that science knows it to be true, even though science says exactly the opposite.”

Writing in the Times Educational Supplement Magazine, Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution and a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, said that “from a neuroscientific point of view [the learning styles approach to teaching] is nonsense”.

Some leading experts believe the theory of preferred learning styles is not just a benign misconception, but is likely causing harm. Scott Lilienfeld and colleagues write in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology, the approach “encourages teachers to teach to students’ intellectual strengths rather than their weaknesses.” They add: “students need to correct and compensate for their shortcomings, not avoid them.”

To summarize

Emily, I personally believe there is some truth in the learning styles theory, but I agree with Atherton and Lilienfeld that we should not focus on learners’ intellectual strengths, but rather on their shortcomings. The answer is thus to teach a child a versatile learning approach from a young age, which means that he will be able to use multiple senses – his visual, auditory and tactile senses. By learning to use all three senses, the learner’s ear will eventually come to the aid of his eye, and his hand to the aid of his ear, thereby opening three channels to his mind instead of only one. And that, is exactly what Edublox aims at doing!



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More about Susan

Susan is an educational specialist in the field of learning problems and dyslexia and has a B.A. Honors in Psychology and B.D. degree from the University of Pretoria. Early in her professional career Susan was instrumental in training over 3000 teachers and tutors, providing them with the foundational and practical understanding to facilitate cognitive development amongst children who struggle to read and write. With over 25 years of research to her name Susan conceptualized the Edublox teaching and learning methods that have helped thousands of children who were struggling academically to read, learn and achieve. In 2007, Susan opened the first Edublox reading and learning clinic and now there are 25 Edublox clinics internationally. Her proudest moments are when she sees a child who had severe learning difficulties come top of their class after one or two years at Edublox. Susan always takes time to collect the ‘hero’ stories of learners whose self-esteem is lifted as their marks improve.