Understanding the 4 Types of Learners = Smoother Seas for Educators
This has been an oddball year when it comes to teaching and learning. With restrictions and fear, our schools and teachers have had the unpleasant task of reconfiguring their classroom, teaching tools and how to reach their students on that interpersonal level that’s so necessary for a productive learning environment. Understanding the 4 types of learners can be a helpful compass in these rough seas.
Many families have turned to homeschooling for the first time as a way to address the uncertainty that looms this 2020-2021 school year, stepping into the role of primary educator. Those who have decided to go with their school district’s programs or private schools are finding their own set of challenges as well.
Whether you have decided to homeschool this year for the first time, go back to homeschooling after a break, work through distance learning with your school district, or do a mix of distance learning and in-class learning, learning how to reach the 4 types of learners can help ameliorate some teaching challenges this year
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The History of Studying Learning Styles
*In the 1970s, psychologists and academic minds started really looking at how each student acquired and retained information.
*In 1986, Honey and Mumford, two theorists, published their theory on learning styles, stating that there were four learning preferences: activist, pragmatist, theorist, and reflector.
*The VARK model, originally proposed by Neil Fleming in 1987, has undoubtedly been hailed as one of the best models so far.
*In 2004, Professor Frank Coffield from The University of London carried out an in-depth review of literature and models on learning preferences and has some insight on learning styles and the bigger picture. (We’ll go back to him in a moment.)
Even though theorists, psychologists and educators have been studying and working with these models, some people still believe that there isn’t enough research to prove or disprove that each person has cultivated or naturally-acquired learning styles. However, those of us who have been teaching for lots of years can tell you that there is definitely something to all of these theories.
What is VARK? 4 Types of Learners Explained
VARK is an acronym for Visual, Aural (auditory), Read/Write, and Kinesthetic. It attempts to address the different modes that one prefers to absorb and retain new information.
According to Teach.com, Visual learners prefer images, maps, graphs and graphics to help understand new information. They are the LEGO architects who can put together complex LEGO structures with just the graphics provided in those detailed booklets. They prefer to use a map or GPS to learn how to get somewhere, not just write down directions. Give them a Venn diagram to understand their writing assignment and it’ll click for them.
Don’t let the title trick you; Aural learners don’t just learn by listening to lectures, they are also the students that need to bounce ideas off of the wall verbally. According to Teach.com, they benefit greatly from group discussions that follow up a lecture and from repetition as a study technique. They also do best with mnemonic devices. These are the kids that love audio books and can repeat them back word-for-word, the child that needs to relate every detail of a story or future invention at the dinner table.
Read/Write students are great note-takers. They learn best through words and tend to be avid readers. They are more likely to translate abstract concepts into reports or essays. These bookworms don’t just love to read, they actually absorb information by reading. These are the ‘Read-the-instructions-before-starting-the-project’ kind of students. They enjoy doing worksheets and work well on their own. Lists are a good way to help these students digest information.
The Kinesthetic learners of the world learn by doing, plain and simple. “Don’t tell me how to do. Let me figure it out, please!” They want to just get into the board game and learn as they go, not listen to a ton of instructions beforehand. (Talk about going glassy-eyed.) These students prefer to learn about rocks and minerals by going on a hike and finding them. Math makes more sense when they have manipulatives (colored bears, building blocks, counters) to work with. Talking about time? Give them a clock model and let them work the hands.
How Do I Know My Learning Style?
There is a free online quiz that can be taken to see where learners might fall in those categories. It’s by Neil Fleming (1987) and is found at https://vark-learn.com/. The higher the score, the stronger the preference. It can be both useful and interesting to know which of the 4 types of learners most closely resembles your learning preference. However, it’s important to note that most people are multi-modal, which means that their learning style is a composite of more than one preference. The questions in this online quiz are definitely geared toward older teens and adults. So, if you are trying to figure out what your little learner might be, try this instead: https://vark-learn.com/the-vark-questionnaire/the-vark-questionnaire-for-younger-people/.
Making Teaching Work For The 4 Types of Learners
Oftentimes, we educators like to teach in the style that we absorb new information best. While that’s a natural tendency, it’s important to remember that there are 4 types of learners, so it’s not really wise to focus on just one learning style. It’s always best to teach to as many learning styles as possible. And more importantly, be willing to adapt quickly when you see your lesson isn’t exactly working like you’d hoped.
As a professor for over 11 years (and a tutor before that), one of the things I learned early on was to structure my subject to try to reach as many of the 4 types of learners as possible. But the other thing that I have learned, both as a seasoned professor and as a homeschooling mom, is something that Professor Frank Coffield mentions in his study. (See? I told you he’d pop back up again.) He talks about taking into consideration “the whole teaching-learning environment” [Just Suppose Teaching and Learning Became the First Priority, 2008]. The “teaching-learning environment” is broken into the learning environment (user-friendly learning tools, home vs. classroom, distractions), the subject matter (certain subjects are just not fun for some students), and the learner’s motivation (around our house, that’s known as “attitude”). Knowing how your students prefer to learn and retain new information is, in my professional and personal opinion, incredibly enlightening and helpful. But, it can’t just stop there. There needs to be a quick follow-up assessment when you see your students struggling. Sure, it might be a different learning style issue. Or…it could be that your student is filtering this lesson through other things: feelings of being overwhelmed, exhausted, hungry, stressed. (Note: this applies to the older students, just as much as to the little learners.)
With all of the new and different (not necessarily better) ways that our kids are having to learn and retain information this academic year, it’s not surprising that we’ve got plenty of rough moments ahead of us. Seasoned educators trying to teach via Google Meets or Zoom, teachers relegated to teaching everything from a predetermined square in their classroom and new homeschooling parents or grandparents might be facing different hurdles, but they have all something in common; they are trying to help students learn and retain new information outside of their normal teaching comfort zone. There are bound to be some rough seas ahead. So, any navigational tool we can use to guide us through those waves and inspire our students to learn deserves a designated spot on board. In the meantime, remember, smooth seas never made a skilled sailor. So, embrace the challenge and let it make you a better educator.
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