The idea of learning styles is a teacher-and-researcher favourite.
Because curriculums worldwide have shifted to standardised tests to measure both students’ progress and teachers’ effectiveness in teaching, it’s easy to see why learning styles provide a similarly reliable framework.
While as many as 96% of educators believe that preferred learning styles are a true phenomenon that exists, helping teachers map out lesson plans according to a diversity in styles, others say that the idea needs to be less rigid.
While there is no doubt that learning styles make both educators and parents feel better about the content being delivered, the issue might be that the framework is too fixed.
To help create better teaching strategies for different learning styles, it might, in fact, be useful to say that learning styles do indeed change.
These changes might come from a variety of factors — which we’ll explore here — but it also shows us, more broadly, that learning itself is not a fixed endeavour but, rather, a lifelong undertaking.
We never stop learning.
Changes Due to Age
Do learning styles changes? Absolutely. That’s assuming that learning styles themselves don’t blend in on one another. There’s no rule, in fact, that says that a visual learner isn’t also somewhat a reading/writing learner or that a kinesthetic learner doesn’t also display a penchant for auditory learning.
In other words, these ‘types’ are not bound and students themselves shouldn’t be bound by typology. That would defeat the very purpose of the preferred learning styles framework.
At first, learning styles change due to a change in age and, when they do, these changes often follow developmental milestones in a child’s life as they turn toward teenage-dom and on into adulthood.
Changes in learning styles due to age are, again, not a neat little linear line. However, the trajectory roughly goes as follows:
- Most pre-schoolers begin as kinesthetic and tactile learners
- As they develop into elementary school-aged children, their learning style shifts to being visual learners
- Progressing into teenagers, these students start to demonstrate a preference for auditory learning
- From here, students gain the self-consciousness to either use a blend of styles or pick a primary and secondary mode of learning
Some teachers who do create courses or lesson plans based on incorporating various learning styles together will say that their years of experience has taught them that foundational or fundamental styles don’t change.
However, over time, when students encounter new forms of learning — such as eLearning — or come into contact with the learning styles of others in a classroom, they can’t help but begin to evolve.
Changes Due to Practical Training
It is definitely, widely agreed upon that learning styles not only exist but that to fail to respond to a variety of these styles could mean to risk ‘losing’ a student, perhaps even pushing them to develop negative attitudes to learning.
Perhaps the trickiest form of evaluation is understanding what the student has learned before, how much, and how well. To be able to cater to their individual learning experience, instructors or teachers must understand where the student comes from in their own learning journey and where they are now.
For example, if a student is an active, kinesthetic learner but needs to have a little more balance with the visual or the auditory (and, indeed, there are characteristics of a kinesthetic learner that are complementary with visual and auditory learning), then the instructor must form a lesson plan that responds to this.
This might look like:
- evaluating a kinesthetic learner,
- determining that this is their ‘preferred’ learning style, and then,
- introducing more debate and discussion (an auditory learning feature that kinesthetics’ preference for activity will work well with) or more demonstrations and experiments (aspects of visual learning that kinesthetics share).
In a study about learning styles and practical training, researchers focused on finding out if learning styles changed after a transition from theoretical to practical training.
‘It can be concluded that in medical students initially a more activist learning style is seen. A more reflective style develops during the clerkships…Clerkships add to the individual repertoire of learning style/personality features.’ — ‘Changes in learning styles induced by practical training‘, Henk van den Berg
Clearly, practical training does transform one’s preferential learning style. The specifics of the practical training also help modulate that transition more, helping students to essentially pick the learning style that best responds to the moment.
Changes Due to Learning Delivery
They say that technology is changing us.
But what if it’s actually helping us to adapt rather than change entirely?
With the advance of eLearning environments and online course platforms, methods of traditional learning are being disrupted. Now, this is not to say that preferred learning styles are being likewise hijacked.
The framework is alive and well. And, yet, again, it’s important to stress that these are not fixed — and, in the digital space, nothing can be fixed anyway.
Online courses and digital or eLearning opportunities are shifting our expectations of the way information and knowledge are delivered as well as how we expect to access this education and connect with fellow students.
Some students still say that they are ‘uncomfortable’ with learning online, even though many individual students are themselves, digital natives. This means they have grown up, at least in part, with digital screens and in digital environments enough to intuitively understand user flows.
And, yet, ask them to read from a PDF or absorb information from an online lecture and they’re likely to walk away with their eyes crossed from the former, or distracting themselves on social media because of the latter.
Not only do pedagogical approaches have to be carefully considered and re-thought in the face of eLearning, there is also a need to take a look at how students are going to adapt to this entirely new environment of learning.
The ‘digital’ classroom is not simply the physical classroom but online. It’s an entirely different way of delivering information and communicating. Instructors are not so much teachers passing on information as they are coaches guiding the learning experience.
Couple this with the fact that a visual learner, for example, may prefer face-to-face interaction with peers and instructors and a change in learning styles due to the method of learning delivery is inevitable.
To adapt, it’s entirely possible for a visual learner to rely on guided notes, form their own diagrams and pivot to being a blend of reading/writing and auditory learners when faced with eLearning opportunities.
Changes From a Growth Mindset
In 2006, Carol Dweck put together her decades of research on young students and gave it a very memorable term: a ‘growth mindset’. This is the term used to define students who were willing to learn, make mistakes, ‘fail’, and yet see it as a step in the right direction — towards knowing the truth.
On the surface, the ‘growth mindset‘ seems to be all about a sort of ‘can do’ attitude that students can (and should) take to their learning. But, rather than being prescriptive, the growth mindset is actually quite revealing.
Defined by Dweck, the ‘growth mindset’ is the idea that intelligence can be developed, rather than being set in stone. While a study in China of 222 students showed that there was little connection between improved academic attainment and mindset, research also shows that a growth mindset can be applied more broadly to a willingness to be open to transition.
This means that a visual learner might be more open and willing to try to tackle a new concept with tools that a reading/writing learner might resonate with — just to make sure they’ve tried the problem from all angles.
What they find, of course, could pleasantly surprise them and they may have a new learning style or tool in their arsenal to pull out later on.
Instead of a learning phenomenon, the ‘growth mindset’ is actually a psychological concept. And this could help change students’ perceptions of what they’re not only capable of but the modes in which they absorb information.
Changing learning styles, then, helps us move forward and adapt to the knowledge coming in as life progresses. If we know what’s good for us, we’ll never truly stop learning because, as the growth mindset demonstrates, to stop is to cease engaging with the life around us.
If speed and prevalence of eLearning is any indication, this constant learning is beginning to become a mainstay. It’s not only the way we’ll better engage with the world around us. It will become a much-needed way to stay relevant and competitive in what is going to be an increasingly AI-dominated world.