Visual, Auditory, And Kinesthetic Learners (page 2)

By — John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Updated on Dec 31, 2010

Visual, Auditory, And Kinesthetic Learners

Now we're getting to the heart of the visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory. It is true that some people have especially good visual or auditory memories. In that sense there are visual learners and auditory learners. But that's not the key prediction of the theory. The key prediction is that students will learn better when instruction matches their cognitive style. That is, suppose Anne is an auditory learner and Victor is a visual learner. Suppose further that I give Anne and Victor two lists of new vocabulary words to learn. To learn the first list, they listen to a tape of the words and definitions several times; to learn the second list, they view a slide show of pictures depicting the words. The theory predicts that Anne should learn more words on the first list than on the second whereas Victor should learn more words on the second list than on the first. Dozens of studies have been conducted along these general lines, including studies using materials more like those used in classrooms, and overall the theory is not supported. Matching the "preferred" modality of a student doesn't give that student any edge in learning.

How can that be? Why doesn't Anne learn better when the presentation is auditory, given that she's an auditory learner? Because auditory information is not what's being tested! Auditory information would be the particular sound of the voice on the tape. What's being tested is the meaning of the words. Anne's edge in auditory memory doesn't help her in situations where meaning is important. Similarly, Victor might be better at recognizing the visual details of the pictures used to depict the words on the slides, but again, that ability is not being tested.

The situation described in this experiment probably matches most school lessons. Most of the time students need to remember what things mean, not what they sound like or look like. Sure, sometimes that information counts; someone with a good visual memory will have an edge in memorizing the particular shapes of countries on a map, for example, and someone with a good auditory memory will be better at getting the accent right in a foreign language. But the vast majority of schooling is concerned with what things mean, not with what they look like or sound like.

So does that mean that the visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory is correct some small proportion of the time, such as when students are learning foreign language accents or countries on a map? Not really. Because the point of the theory is that the same material can be presented in different ways to match each student's strength. So what the teacher ought to do (according to the theory) is this: when learning countries on a map, the visual learners should view the shapes of the countries but the auditory learners should listen to a description of each country's shape; and when learning a foreign accent, the auditory learners should listen to a native speaker but the visual learners will learn more quickly if they view a written representation of the sounds. It seems obvious that this approach won't work.

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