Learning Styles – What They Are and Why They Matter

learning styles, kinesthetic, auditory, visual learning

Humans were made to learn and, like eating, sleeping, and moving, learning is essential for life. We are natural-born learners; right from the beginning we instinctively absorb vast amounts of information. But learning is more than just an instinct – learning is a pleasure.

Or at least it should be.

Admittedly, I haven’t always found learning a pleasure. I did well in school in the earlier grades but with each passing year, the task of assimilating information became more burdensome. In my final year of high school, my academic performance was witheringly ordinary. I put it down to burnout but carried with me into adulthood a secret suspicion that I was a bit dense.

However, when I was about 30, I stumbled across the concept of learning styles. I took a quiz and the results literally changed my life.

It has been known for centuries that there are different learning styles. However, in 1987, New Zealander Neil Fleming developed a questionnaire to determine an individual’s particular learning style. Or more accurately, an individual’s unique combination of learning styles since nobody has only one.

Learning styles refer to the dominant way or ways a person learns. It influences how their brain best absorbs and understands new information.

Learning styles are by no means an exact science. There is no consensus on how many types of learning styles there are or even what to call them. Different systems use three, four…even up to twenty separate styles.

It is fair to mention that there is scholarly disagreement on whether learning styles even exist or whether they genuinely make a difference in a person’s learning. That information is easy to locate using a Google search if you’re interested.

For me, though, identifying my dominant learning styles had such a powerful personal impact that I have no doubt of either their validity or their importance.

For the sake of simplicity and because it has served me so well, I’m going to focus on a system that uses three learning styles. They are:

  • Auditory
  • Visual
  • Kinesthetic

A word, first, on…

What learning styles are not 

They are NOT a measure of intelligence. Nor are they the only factor that determines how a person learns. Other factors are involved, including personality, motivation, the physical environment, and the nature of the activity.

Identifying our learning styles is also NOT about pigeonholing ourselves. It is not an excuse to slap ourselves with a label that could undermine the conviction that success requires effort, regardless of natural ability or lack of it.

Do learning styles matter? 

Let me tell you about a 7-year-old girl I’ll call Shelley. One day, Shelley’s mother, Ann, disclosed to me that she and her husband were finding Shelley’s behaviour particularly challenging. So were Shelley’s teachers. 

Shelley had an older sister who was the epitome of a well-behaved child. Shelley, on the other hand, couldn’t sit still, was fidgety, and constantly distracted. She appeared to be a slow learner. In every other way, however, she was a vibrant, engaging youngster.

I spoke to Ann about the concept of learning styles. She had never heard of them. We concluded that Shelley possibly had a different learning preference to how she was currently being taught at home and at school. 

See if you can identify her (and your own) learning style from the following summaries.

The first learning style is…


Auditory learners typically do their best learning through their ears. They benefit most from:

  • material that is presented verbally like lectures, podcasts, and audiobooks
  • class or group discussions, debates, and meetings
  • activities involving talking, listening, and music
  • oral question-and-answer formats
  • instructions delivered orally

Auditory learners tend to talk, hum, or sing to themselves. They remember what they hear rather than what they read. They memorize things sequentially and are good at remembering names. They often do well learning languages.

If you are a predominantly auditory learner, the key to learning most effectively is out loud. If you have to learn from written material, read it out loud to yourself or have someone else read it to you. If available, use an audio narration feature, like in this newsletter! Find ways to engage in group discussion or talk about what you learn with your friends. Ask questions. Learn using rhymes and songs.

I consistently score low for this learning style; it is my least effective mode of learning. In fact, in the most recent questionnaire I did, I scored exactly zero. (Thankfully, as I have already mentioned, learning styles have nothing to do with intelligence.) 

Far from being disappointed at my low score, I was immensely relieved. It explained a lot. I now understood why I struggled to learn well in a typical classroom environment; why, if there was a lot of talk or discussion, my brain simply became overloaded and shut down. I wasn’t dense, after all!

Instead, I’m heavily biased toward the next learning style…


Typically, visual learners absorb information best from visually appealing material. That includes:

  • diagrams, mind maps, graphics, and patterns
  • books and magazines, especially if they are well-illustrated
  • videos and whiteboard animations rather than oral presentations
  • taking notes using colour-coding, symbols, highlighting, and underlining

Visual learners are generally good at noticing details and remembering faces. They typically prefer quiet learning conditions or studying alone. They are easily distracted by visual ‘noise’ in busy learning environments. To minimize visual distractions in classrooms or auditoriums, it helps to sit near the front. Doing that also puts the visual learner closer to the speaker or teacher, where it’s easier to see the visual cues of facial expressions and body language.

If you are a predominantly visual learner, you prefer to read information rather than listen to it. You tend to find oral instructions difficult to remember. Therefore, when receiving instructions verbally, write them down if possible. If not, picture the information in your mind.

The first time I read that verbal instructions are challenging to other people – lots of other people – I was elated! I had always struggled with spoken instructions, more so if they contained numbers like dates, times, prices, or statistics. Actually, just normal conversation with lots of numbers does my head in. Now I know why. And now I can do something about it.

Without embarrassment, I now ask the speaker to repeat instructions or to slow down (I actually have to visualize numbers in my head to process them.) And now that I am aware of my auditory limitations and visual strengths, I can compensate in heavily verbal learning environments by taking notes, drawing mindmaps, sketching points, and making diagrams. Even doodling helps.

The third learning style is…


Kinesthetic learners could best be described as hands-on and practical. They learn best when information is concrete and useful. This includes:

  • real-life situations like case studies, examples, and experiences
  • demonstrations and practical learning
  • movement and sensory activities
  • using tools and building models
  • imitation and role play

The world of abstract ideas and theories doesn’t appeal to kinesthetic learners. They are drawn to practical information and want to know how to apply what they learn.

To focus, kinesthetic learners need to be actively engaged in some way. They become restless sitting still for long periods of time and start to fidget, which can sometimes be mistaken for hyperactivity.

If you’re a predominantly kinesthetic learner, break up study and learning sessions into smaller chunks. Take frequent breaks. Get up and move around between sessions. If that isn’t possible, take handwritten notes or type them.

So, back to Shelley. Did you pick her dominant learning style as kinesthetic?

With a bit of research, Shelley’s parents came to the same conclusion. Armed with their new awareness, they began to address Shelley’s need for hands-on learning. They accepted that she needed to move to concentrate and process information; that she needed to involve her own senses and emotions when learning; that she needed to do rather than simply be told.

I saw Ann again sometime later. She couldn’t wait to tell me how things were turning out. She had approached Shelley’s teachers, who agreed to adapt their teaching methods to Shelley’s needs. With that adjustment and the changes the family had made at home, Shelley was now thriving. According to Ann, Shelley was a completely different child.

If you want to drill down a bit more into this topic, there are heaps of resources on the internet. The VARK website has an online questionnaire that takes less than fifteen minutes. The questionnaire and the basic results are both free. Or if you wish, you can download a more comprehensive report for a reasonable fee.  

The VARK model works with four learning styles instead of the three I have covered here. I found the extra learning style (Reading and Writing) very informative – in fact, when I did the questionnaire it turned out to be my strongest learning preference. With that understanding, I have further refined the way I learn, study, and work.

Learning became a real delight once I understood my dominant learning styles. And when learning brings pleasure, it’s not work. It’s not something you have to do; it’s something you want to do.

If working in harmony with dominant learning styles can make such a difference for me and for a child like Shelley, could it make a difference for you, for your child, or someone you know?


Photo by Ben White on Unsplash



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