Learning styles

Learning is a life long process and doesn't cease after schooling. But as adults, learning takes on new and different dimensions. We are aware of what we are interested but many a times, we are not aware of learning styles.


Each one of us has a different way of learning. The study of learning began in earnest a few decades ago and since then, several experts have been developing theories of learning. These theories on learning styles tell us that we all learn in different ways - some of us prefer plain text, some of us understand better through graphs and charts, some of us learn better when another person explains it to us, some of us learn best through lectures and discussions. Learning styles depend on several factors, for example, which field we have chosen as our careers, our upbringing, our childhood environments and most importantly our attitude towards learning.


It is always good to know what your learning style is, it might also tell us whether we are doing well on the job at hand or whether it is time to rethink the way we work and learn It identifies our areas of weakness and also gives us the opportunity to work on becoming more proficient in the other modes. It helps us realize our strengths, which might be useful in certain situations in life and in the workplace.


Remember there is no right or wrong learning style, it all depends on which field you are in and whether your particular learning style is in sync with your job. Here we take a look at some of the theories in learning styles.


Learning Styles


The different types of learning are Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic:




Such learners:

  • Prefer audio-video presentations
  • Learn better by watching a speakers' body language and facial expression
  • Think better with diagrams and illustrations
  • Visualize information
  • Take detailed notes during presentations, highlighting points with different colors.



Such learners:

  • Learn best through discussions and by talking to people
  • They understand better through voice nuances
  • They are comfortable with making presentations and lectures
  • Prefer tape recorders and when text is read aloud for better understanding
  • Create mnemonics to aid memory
  • Use verbal analogies



Such learners

  • Lean best through the hands-on approach
  • They explore the physical world by taking breaks and walking around 
  • Prefer to work in a standing position
  • Liven up the workplace with pictures and posters
  • Like to listen to music while working
  • Skim through copies to get a rough idea before settling down to read it in detail

Experiential Learning Theory (ETL)


David A Kolb, an expert in learning theories explains that there are four principal types of learning styles. They are Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization and Active Experimentation. He elaborates his Experiential Learning Theory (ETL) thus:


  • Concrete Experience: Being involved in a new experience. They are intense learners and learn best by interacting with others.
  • Reflective Observation: Watching others or developing observations about their own experience. They generally have a holistic picture and are creative in their approach.
  • Abstract Conceptualization: Creating theories to explain observations. They are good at making inferences when given a set of conditions, like mathematicians.
  • Active Experimentation: Using theories to solve problems or in making decisions.

Hartman (1995) took Kolb's learning styles and gave examples of how one might teach to each of them:

  • For the concrete experiencer - offer laboratories, fieldwork, observations or trigger films. 
  • For the reflective observer - use logs, journals or brainstorming. 
  • For the abstract conceptualizer - lectures, papers and analogies work well. 
  • For the active experimenter - offer simulations, case studies and homework.

In general most people fall under some combination of learning styles. You can take a test here to find out what combination you are. The table of combinations is:


If you are a AE and CE then you are a Doer : Concrete Experience and Active Experimentation


If you are a RO and CE then you are a Watcher :Reflective Observation and Concrete Experience


If you are a RO and AC then you are a Thinker :Abstract Conceptualization and Reflective Observation


If you are a AE and AC then you are a Feeler :Abstract Conceptualization and Active Experimentation




Similar to the above, the learning styles identified here are Visual, Aural, Read/Write and Kinesthetic (hence VARK). This inventory was developed in 1987 by Neil Fleming; Lincoln University, New Zealand, who was the first to systematically present a series of questions with help-sheets for students, teachers, employees, and others to use in their own way.




Such learners prefer depiction of information in charts, graphs, flow charts, symbolic arrows, circles, hierarchies and other devices that are mainly visual.




These learners prefer spoken language; they learn best through lectures, tutorials, discussion and talking to other students.




These learners prefer information that is displayed as words; most academics have a strong preference for this modality.




Such learners prefer the perceptual model and they learn best through the use of experience and practice (simulated or real). Though they may also take in other modalities, the key is that they are connected to reality, either through experience, example, practice or simulation.


Index of Learning Styles (ILS) 


This theory of learning proposes four types of learning styles. They are active/reflective, sensing/intuitive, visual/verbal, and sequential/global. This model was formulated by Richard M. Felder and Linda K. Silverman, while the instrument is being developed by Barbara A. Solomon and Richard M. Felder of North Carolina State University.


The promoters of this theory explain


Active and reflective learners:

  • Active learners tend to retain and understand information best by doing something active with it - discussing or applying it or explaining it to others. Reflective learners prefer to think about it quietly first. 
  • "Let's try it out and see how it works" is an active learner's phrase; "Let's think it through first" is the reflective learner's response. 
  • Active learners tend to like group work more than reflective learners, who prefer working alone. 
  • Sitting through lectures without getting to do anything physical but take notes is hard for both learning types, but particularly hard for active learners.

They further explain that "everybody is sensing sometimes and intuitive sometimes. Your preference for one or the other may be strong, moderate, or mild. To be effective as a learner and problem solver, you need to be able to function both ways. If you overemphasize intuition, you may miss important details or make careless mistakes in calculations or hands-on work; if you overemphasize sensing, you may rely too much on memorization and familiar methods and not concentrate enough on understanding and innovative thinking."


Sensing and intuitive learners

  • Sensing learners tend to like learning facts; intuitive learners often prefer discovering possibilities and relationships. 
  • Sensors often like solving problems by well-established methods and dislike complications and surprises; intuitors like innovation and dislike repetition. Sensors are more likely than intuitors to resent being tested on material that has not been explicitly covered in class. 
  • Sensors tend to be patient with details and good at memorizing facts and doing hands-on (laboratory) work; intuitors may be better at grasping new concepts and are often more comfortable than sensors with abstractions and mathematical formulations. 
  • Sensors tend to be more practical and careful than intuitors; intuitors tend to work faster and to be more innovative than sensors. 
  • Sensors don't like courses that have no apparent connection to the real world; intuitors don't like "plug-and-chug" courses that involve a lot of memorization and routine calculations.

They further explain, "Everybody is active sometimes and reflective sometimes. Your preference for one category or the other may be strong, moderate, or mild. A balance of the two is desirable. If you always act before reflecting you can jump into things prematurely and get into trouble, while if you spend too much time reflecting you may never get anything done."


Visual and verbal learners

  • Visual learners remember best what they see - pictures, diagrams, flow charts, time lines, films, and demonstrations. 
  • Verbal learners get more out of words - written and spoken explanations. Everyone learns more when information is presented both visually and verbally.

They explain, "In most college classes very little visual information is presented: students mainly listen to lectures and read material written on chalkboards and in textbooks and handouts. Unfortunately, most people are visual learners, which means that most students do not get nearly as much as they would if more visual presentation were used in class. Good learners are capable of processing information presented either visually or verbally."


Sequential and global learners

  • Sequential learners tend to gain understanding in linear steps, with each step following logically from the previous one. Global learners tend to learn in large jumps, absorbing material almost randomly without seeing connections, and then suddenly "getting it." 
  • Sequential learners tend to follow logical stepwise paths in finding solutions; global learners may be able to solve complex problems quickly or put things together in novel ways once they have grasped the big picture, but they may have difficulty explaining how they did it.

They explain, "Many people who read this description may conclude incorrectly that they are global, since everyone has experienced bewilderment followed by a sudden flash of understanding. What makes you global or not is what happens before the light bulb goes on. Sequential learners may not fully understand the material but they can nevertheless do something with it (like solve the homework problems or pass the test) since the pieces they have absorbed are logically connected. Strongly global learners who lack good sequential thinking abilities, on the other hand, may have serious difficulties until they have the big picture. Even after they have it, they may be fuzzy about the details of the subject, while sequential learners may know a lot about specific aspects of a subject but may have trouble relating them to different aspects of the same subject or to different subjects."