The Gift of Learning – Part 4 (of 6)

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active learning

In last week’s blog, I introduced the various learning systems in our brain that help us learn. This week, I’d like to share a bit more specifically about learning styles so that you can have some tools to identify how your kids learn best. Learning style encompasses many different variables, including each individual’s environmental, emotional, sociological, physiological, and cognitive processing preferences. We cannot correctly identify all the elements of a student’s learning style pattern through observation. Some elements of style are not observable even to the experienced eye, and the behaviours associated with other elements are often misinterpreted.

We each learn and process information in different ways. You may not have realized this before because most of us grew up attending schools where teachers delivered instruction in one way. Most teachers talked to us, and we answered their questions. We then took pencil- and paper-based tests. Traditional teaching techniques tend to be designed for auditory sequential learners.  Concepts are introduced in a step-by-step, linear fashion, practiced with drill and repetition, assessed under timed conditions, and then reviewed. This process is ideal for learners whose learning progresses in a step-by-step manner from easy to difficult material.  However, as many of you know personally – and observe in your children – this may not be the best way for you or your kids to learn. 

Very broadly, there are three main types of learners:

Visual Learners:  prefer using pictures, images, and spatial understanding.

Auditory Learners:  prefer using sound and music and/or words.

Tactile/Kinesthetic Learners:  prefer using their bodies, hands and sense of touch.

Most people have a dominant and a secondary learning modality.  We usually rely on those modes to process information at an unconscious level, but we may be consciously aware of which modes we prefer. We access through all senses, but generally favour one. We process by sight, by sound, by moving, or by touch.

Visual learners prefer seeing what they are learning.  Pictures and images help them understand ideas and information better than explanations. A drawing may help more than a discussion about the same. When someone explains something to a visual learner, he or she may create a mental picture of what the person talking describes.

Many people assume reading is a visual action. Though we see the words, most of us process the information by hearing ourselves say the words. As a result, researchers identify people who prefer to process by reading as auditory learners.  Others label the readers ‘print-oriented,’ aligning them closely with visual learners.  Visual learners are more shape- and form-oriented.  Print-oriented people depend more on words or numbers in their images.

Auditory learners also fall into two categories.  Auditory learners prefer spoken messages. The less understood auditory learners need to hear their own voice to process the information. The more prevalent type, ‘listeners,’ most likely do well in school. Out of school too, they remember things said to them and make the information their own. They may even carry on mental dialogues and determine how to continue by thinking back on the words of others.

Conversely, those who need to ‘talk it out’ often find themselves talking to those around them. In a class setting when the instructor is not asking questions, auditory-verbal processors (talkers) tend to mutter comments to themselves. They are not trying to be disruptive and may not even realize they need to talk. While some auditory learners prefer to listen to both themselves and others, growing evidence suggests the two types are distinct and separate.

Kinesthetic learners want to sense the position and movement of what they are working on. Tactile learners want to touch and “get their hands dirty”.  Even if kinesthetic or tactile learners don’t get much from the discussion or the written materials, they may catch up and exceed the lesson plan by working through scenarios and labs. Often, they don’t thrive in traditional schools because most classrooms don’t offer enough opportunity to move or touch.

Learners can compensate when the instructional medium doesn’t match individual style. Kinesthetic learners may benefit from reading and auditory learners can improve their understanding by touching what they are working on. Possessing various compensating strategies allows us to benefit under all circumstances.  As parents, the most important thing we can gather from processing styles is to know our own kids’ physiological preferences and choose instructional media accordingly when possible.

When we talk about learning styles, we typically break these three main types down into further subcategories.  One of the most popular theories on learning styles is something called Multiple Intelligences developed by Howard Gardner.  He suggests that there are 7 to 8 different kinds of intelligence that link to our individual style, which is quite different from what we normally think of when we talk about IQ.

Gardner suggests humans can be:


  • sensitive to the meaning and order of words
  • like to read, write, tell stories
  • good at memorizing names, places, dates and trivia
  • learn best by saying, hearing and seeing words.


  • sensitive to pitch, melody, rhythm, and tone
  • like to sing, hum tunes, listen to music, play an instrument and respond to music
  • good at picking up sounds, remembering melodies, noticing pitch/rhythms and keeping time
  • learn best by rhythm, melody and music


  • able to handle chains of reasoning and recognize patterns and order
  • like to do experiments, figure things out, work with numbers, ask questions and explore patterns and relationships
  • good at math, reasoning, logic and problem-solving
  • learn best by categorizing, classifying and working with abstract patterns/relationships


  • perceive the world accurately and try to re-create or transform aspects of that world
  • like to draw, build, design and create things, daydream, look at pictures, watch movies and play with machines
  • good at imagining things, sensing changes, mazes/puzzles and reading maps/charts
  • learns best by visualizing, dreaming, using the mind’s eye and working with colours/pictures


  • able to use the body skillfully and handle objects adroitly
  • like to move around, touch and talk and use body language
  • good at physical activities (sports/dancing/acting) and crafts
  • learns best by touching, moving, interacting with space and processing knowledge through bodily sensations


  • understand people and relationships
  • like to have lots of friends, talk to people and join groups
  • good at understanding people, leading others, organizing, communicating, manipulating and mediating conflicts
  • learn best by sharing, comparing, relating, cooperating and interviewing


  • possess access to one’s emotional life as a means to understand oneself and others
  • like to work alone and pursue own interests
  • good at understanding self, focusing inward on feelings/dreams, following instincts, pursuing interests/goals, and being original
  • learn best by working alone, individualized projects, self-paced instruction and having own space.

For your interest, I am including a link to a free questionnaire that is available online of a learning styles inventory which is similar to what I’ve outlined above.  This questionnaire is geared more towards adults, but you can tailor it for your kids if you wanted to try to assess them as well.  If you’d prefer to print off the inventory in a paper-and pencil version, you can download the PDF document from this link.

While these types of questionnaires are great to give you a general understanding of different learning styles, if there are problems succeeding in school, your child may need a more in-depth assessment since there are so many variables to consider that aren’t always easily observable.  I will talk more next week in Part 5 about how to assess for learning problems that can impact academic and daily life functioning.  In the meanwhile, I would love to hear any comments or questions about learning!


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