For many years, educators maintained a firm belief in learning styles. The theory was that people in general have distinct learning styles, for instance: visual learning, auditory learning, read/write learning and kinaesthetic learning. In other words, while people with a bias towards visual learning prefer to learn visually, other people may prefer to learn auditively or kinaesthetically. The concept was introduced in 1984 as the VARK (Visual, Aural, Read/write and Kinaesthetic) learning styles, though many alternative models have also been proposed.
Traditionally, placing people into these categories has been carried out using the results of questionnaires in which respondents effectively self-select their preferred style. The proposal was that teaching using materials and methods tailored to an individual’s preferred learning style is an efficient and correct approach that makes it easier for people to learn.
A problem with this is that there is a lack of objective evidence that the theory is correct; studies that report otherwise fail to satisfy most of the criteria necessary to establish scientific validity. Just because someone might prefer to learn in a particular way doesn’t mean that this is the most efficient way for them to learn.
However, let’s not throw the baby away with the bath water. All four leaning styles do exist; they all have something positive to contribute to learning. However, recent contributions to the field from evolutionary neurologists and evidence provided by fMRI studies on the way we learn, indicate that visual learning is the most efficient, even amongst people of similar intellectual abilities who express a preference for auditory, read/write or kinaesthetic learning.
Next, we look in a little more detail at each of these styles with the focus on visual learning. The ways in which we learn have their roots in our evolutionary history and in how we instinctively process information. Fundamentally, we remember far more of what we see than of what we perceive with any other of our senses, and we process visual information many of orders of magnitude faster than we process text.
Auditory learning is a learning process in which one learns through listening. It is fundamental; for instance, most mammals can distinguish between threatening and non-threatening sounds. The brain makes sense of auditory information by first initiating a frequency analysis in the cochlea which is then continued through various neural structures. The way in which the information flows through the brain is significantly more complex than that of visual information which we describe later, and involves four times as many sub-cortical processing stages.
Recognition of the spoken word is highly complex and involves many processes, most of which are poorly understood. However, the human mind evolved to solve problems that were critical to survival, consequently children instinctively learn the spoken language, but considerable training is required before they master the written word.
Auditory learning is surprisingly inefficient. We forget most of what we hear, retaining around only 10%. It has, however, some advantages. Multi-taking is one of them; we can learn audibly when engaged in a whole range of other activities such as driving a car or preparing a meal.
Kinaesthetic or tactile learning is a learning process in which people engage in physical activities, rather than receiving auditory and visual information. Kinaesthetic learners prefer to learn this way, but that doesn’t mean they learn more efficiently this way, although many people maintain the myth that it does.
Certainly, some people have much greater kinaesthetic intelligence, or tactile abilities, than others; for instance, dancers, football players and brain surgeons all fall into that category. They gain new knowledge from their body movements.
Some people prefer to learn from information displayed as words by reading and writing. There appears to be little published evidence on the efficiency of this style or with associated information retention. Certainly, the way in which we read and write in the connected age is different from what it was when the VARK model was initially proposed. People, and particularly millennials, read and write far more than they used to. In a US survey, 88% of people under 30 reported having read a book in the last year compared with 79% of those over 30.
We can process and correctly identify images within just a few tens of milliseconds, and possibly as quickly as 13 milliseconds; a talent that helped our ancestors avoid being eaten by predators on the Savanna.
Processing visual information is complex. Once it has been sent through the optic nerve, it is transmitted to different areas of the brain. First is the lateral geniculate nucleus, close to the centre of the brain. It then goes to the to the primary visual cortex (V1) in the occipital lobe located at the centre back of the head. This identifies simple shapes and lines and contrasting light levels. Next it passes to several other visual centres (V2, V3, and V4) which assemble the basic visual forms into complex shapes and include colour and motion. The information passes on to other areas of the brain which are responsible for recognising and locating the information.
All this happens in less time than the blink of an eye, and 60,000 times faster than we can process text. We are also far more likely to remember what we see than what we hear. Various studies have indicated that 10% of people are likely to remember what they hear; 20 % remember what they read; but 80% remember what they see. Overall it is thought that 83% of learning is visual.
Studies have shown that combined or mixed-modality presentations, for instance combining auditory and visual inputs, improve learning. Other work indicates that combining visuals with text improves learning by up to 89%.
Communicating complex information efficiently in a way that anyone can understand is challenging. Based on decades of research on learning styles, even though the original concepts have been largely discredited, clearly a combination of visual learning and text is most efficient approach.
People can retain images more than any other form of information; simplifying complex ideas in the form of images and icons backed up by text where appropriate will make it easy for your audience to understand your message. As Albert Einstein was supposed to have said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”.