Visual, Auditory, And Kinesthetic Learners (page 3)

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

If the visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory is wrong, why does it seem so right? About 90 percent of teachers believe there are people who are predominantly visual, auditory, or kinesthetic learners, and about the same proportion of undergraduates at the University of Virginia (where I teach) believe it too. There are probably a few factors that contribute to the theory's plausibility. First, it has become commonly accepted wisdom. It's one of those facts that everyone figures must be right because everyone believes it.

Another important factor is that something similar to the theory is true. Kids do differ in their visual and auditory memories. For example, maybe you've watched in wonder as a student has painted a vivid picture of an experience from a class field trip and thought, "Wow, Lacy is obviously a visual learner." As I've described, Lacy may well have a really good visual memory, but that doesn't mean she's a "visual learner" in the sense that the theory implies.

A final reason that the visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory seems right is a psychological phenomenon called the confirmation bias. Once we believe something, we unconsciously interpret ambiguous situations as being consistent with what we already believe. For example, suppose a student is having difficulty understanding Newton's first law. You try explaining it a few different ways, and then you give the example of a magician yanking a tablecloth off a table without disturbing the plates and cutlery that lie on top of the cloth. Suddenly the idea clicks for the student. You think, "Aha. That visual image helped him understand. He must be a visual learner." But maybe the example was just a good one and it would have helped any student, or maybe the idea would have clicked for this student after hearing just one more example, visual or not. Why the student understood Newton's first law from the example is ambiguous, and it is only your tendency to interpret ambiguous situations in ways that confirm what you already believe that led you to identify the student as a visual learner (Figure 5). The great novelist Tolstoy put it this way: "I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of the greatest complexity, can seldom accept the simplest and most obvious truth if it be such as would oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabrics of their life".1

I've gone into a lot of detail about the visual-auditory-kinesthetic theory because it is so widely believed, even though psychologists know that the theory is not right. What I have said about this theory goes for all of the other cognitive styles theories as well. The best you can say about any of them is that the evidence is mixed.

Earlier I drew an important distinction between styles and abilities. In this section I've addressed cognitive styles—biases or tendencies to think or learn in a particular way. In the next section I discuss abilities and how we should think about differences in them among students.

Visual, Auditory, And Kinesthetic Learners

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