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Learning styles

Learning styles

This article explores methods to help you absorb information, explaining the theories behind them and why learning methods are important study tools in themselves.

Much has been written about learning styles and in the world of education the very idea that there might be one "good way" to learn remains controversial. The term which refers to the many ways in which we learn is often used interchangeably with 'thinking styles', 'cognitive styles' and 'learning modalities'.

However, a number of researchers have attempted to break down the concepts and processes that underlie the term into three inter-related elements:

  1. How you process Information – How you perceive, store and organise information, for example: VAK - Visually, Auditory, Kinaesthetic.
  2. The environment in which you learn – Your preference towards learning in a certain way, perhaps with others or on your own or in a certain setting or at a particular time of day.
  3. Learning Strategies – Your use of differing methods to learn specific subject matter in a particular way. For example, making notes, using mind maps rather than in a linear format.

I want to concentrate on the first of these, how we process information, in particular VAK, however the observations are just as relevant to other learning styles.

VAK – a preferred learning style

The argument is simple, everything you have learned at some point has come to you through your senses but... have you got a preference? Is there one method that you as an individual are more receptive to than another? Do you, for example, prefer to look at pictures and diagrams (visual) rather than listen to someone explain how it might work (auditory)? Or would you like to do something rather than talk about it (kinaesthetic)?

Find out your learning style by taking a simple VAK style learning test like the one at

Learning styles

  • Visual - Seeing and reading - Use mind maps and colours
  • Auditory - Listening and speaking - Make an audio recording of your notes
  • Kinaesthetic - Touching and doing - Practice questions. Build it... fix it..

But do learning styles work?

Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford University and ex Director of the Royal Institution has even been brought into the debate. Writing in the Times Educational Supplement Magazine (29th July 2007) Susan Greenfield described the learning style approach to teaching "from a neuroscientific point of view is nonsense".

Susan continued to explain: "Humans evolved to build a picture of the world through our senses working in unison, exploiting the immense interconnectivity that exists in the brain. It is when the senses are activated together that brain cells fire more strongly than when the stimuli are received apart." [abridged]

Learning about learning does matter

So, given this lack of consensus amongst researchers, why bother to consider learning styles at all?

The reason I would suggest that knowing about learning styles is helpful is not so that you can label yourself an "auditory learner", "theoretical learner", etc, as this can narrow your ability to learn and even provide an excuse for poor performance. "I did not do very well at that because I am not that theoretical". No, instead it is to broaden your horizons and give you alternative ways of learning should you get stuck when trying to understand something.

Understanding more about how you (might) learn can really help

Imagine you are sat there at night reading and re-reading a chapter in a book, clearly getting nowhere, becoming more frustrated at your own abilities. What if you stopped reading to yourself and begin reading out loud, thus changing a visual internal auditory style to a visual external auditory one.

Susan Greenfield is right, we learn best when we stimulate the brain with all our senses and not just one of them. Understanding about learning styles is about creating more choice and flexibility, if one method isn’t working then change to another.


Stuart Pedley-Smith, Head of Learning for Kaplan Financial, has been involved with training and educating finance professionals for over 20 years. He is especially interested in the process of learning and the exam skills and techniques that contribute towards success in the classroom and in life. Stuart has written two books – The E word – Kaplan’s Guide to Passing Exams and A student’s guide to writing Business Reports.