What kind of learner are you?

If you ask most adults, they’ll tell you—“I’m a visual learner,” “Definitely an auditory learner,” “A kinesthetic learner for sure.” In fact, this general understanding of how people learn is so ingrained in public perception that many parents even apply their understanding to their children. For example, “Tommy isn’t an auditory learner because when I tell him to do something, he doesn’t listen, but when I display a sticker chart on the wall, he responds. He must be a visual learner.”

Though this example might make intuitive sense, it doesn’t tell the whole story. According to Dr. James Witte, Auburn University Associate Professor of Adult Education, there are several types of learning styles, including: cognitive (how we think about learning), affective (how we feel about learning), and perceptual (how we perceive our environment and how it relates to learning). When we talk about someone being a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learner, we’re talking about the perceptual learning style.

In fact, according to Witte, there are four other perceptual modalities: print (seeing written words); interactive (verbalization); haptic (sense of touch or grasp); and olfactory (sense of smell and taste). Witte, who established the Institute for Learning Styles Research Journal in 2006, explains that perceptual learning has to do with the five senses and the way in which people extract information from their surroundings.

“There’s nothing restrictive about a learning style,” Witte says. “Just because you prefer to read for informative purposes doesn’t mean you can’t learn through lecture.” This is where many people get it wrong, Witte explains. It’s not that someone is specifically one type of learner over another; it’s that individuals have preferred learning styles.

Witte does not advocate testing perceptual modalities with children, however. “You have to read over and over again before you decide you like reading,” Witte says. “I’m not sure that the child has sufficient neural network based on repetition to legitimately establish a modality preference. If a kid is just learning to read, why would you expect him to have a preference for reading?”

So is there such a thing as a kinesthetic learner (a person who learns best when involving the whole body)? Many parents have been told or have deduced that their energetic child who is constantly in motion, who must be “doing” at all times, is a kinesthetic learner. Witte would tend to agree that these children might be kinesthetic learners, though he admits that there’s still a lack of evidence to demonstrate this with certainty. “I’m a very, very conservative researcher,” Witte says. “I believe the learning styles investigation involving perceptual modalities are primary designed for adults. But even if we look at our high school students, if you are wiggling in your seat and showing a lack of attention, the odds are that you will not be identified as a ready-for-college student. And yet all the student wants to do is to learn by doing! It’s amazing what students can produce if we can meet that kinesthetic need.”

Witte’s conservative approach to research is likely regarded as appropriate in the fields of education and educational psychology, particularly given the ongoing debate about whether there’s any evidence that perceptual modalities and learning styles exist.

Dr. Daniel Willingham, Professor of Cognitive Psychology at the University of Virginia, says “kinesthetic learners don’t exist, and learning styles don’t exist.” Willingham explains that the notion of children learning differently (that some learn better if you read a story aloud, act out a story, etc.) is just a prediction. “It’s been tested over and over again, and no one can find evidence that it’s true,” Willingham says. “The idea moved into public consciousness, and in a way it’s perplexing. There are some ideas that are just sort of self-sustaining.”

It’s understandable, though, why this particular idea is self-sustaining. The Dunn-Dunn Learning Styles model is one of the more popular learning styles models, developed in 1967, and widely used U.S. schools. The model incorporates the following premises:

  • Everyone has strengths, but different people have different strengths.
  • Most individuals can learn.
  • Instructional environments, resources, and approaches respond to diversified strengths.
  • Individual instructional preferences exist and can be measured reliably.
  • Given responsive environments, students attain statistically higher achievement and aptitude test scores in matched, rather than mismatched treatments.
  • Most teachers can learn to use learning styles as a cornerstone of their instruction.
  • Many students can learn to capitalize on their learning style strengths.

This model, though researched in more than 90 higher education institutions across the United Stated, has its share of criticism. Dr. Frank Coffield, Professor of Education at the Institute of Education, University of London, assessed the Dunn-Dunn model along with other learning style models and came to the following conclusion, detailed in his report “Should We Be Using Learning Styles? What Research Has to Say to Practice." "Despite a large and evolving research program, forceful claims made for impact are questionable because of limitations in many of the supporting studies and the lack of independent research on the model.”

Willingham explains the criticism this way: “One problem is that nearly all of the empirical work that is supposed to support the Dunn and Dunn model are masters and PhD dissertations of students who worked with her [Rita Dunn], and were not published in peer-reviewed journals. This makes people suspicious that these studies are not methodologically rigorous enough to stand up to scrutiny.”

Witte agrees that most methods for testing learning styles have not demonstrated validity. “The vast majority of learning styles instruments do not seem to report validity and reliability,” Witte says. “That’s not to say that learning styles don’t exist, but I would say that they’re very difficult to measure.”

Willingham suggests that we think about differences in material and what is to be communicated rather than thinking the differences lie in children. “Let the material be the guide,” Willingham says. “There’s no doubt that seeing something in different ways is going to be a good thing.”

In response to the suggestion that learning styles do not exist, Witte says, “Well, we still have people who are convinced that IQ tests are nothing more than vocabulary tests. This should not be a debate over whether learning styles exist, but how we measure them.”

Visit the American Educator to read Willingham’s article, “Do Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Learners Need Visual, Auditory, and Kinesthetic Instruction?”