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Types of Learning Styles: The Value in Holistic Strategies

Traditionally, learning styles were broken into four main groups: visual, aural/auditory, read/write and kinesthetic. But some are taking a more holistic approach, using models that help learners uncover strategies that work best for them.
An educator writing on a white board and appealing to various types of learning styles.

Everyone has a different style of learning. Some people do well with reading the written word. Others learn better through audio. For some, sitting in a quiet library or home office space is key. For others, being physically active or engaged in hands-on activities is best.

Through understanding how you learn and applying different strategies for activating your education, you can maximize your overall study experience.

Traditional Learning Styles

Traditionally, there were four main learning styles: visual, aural/auditory, read/write and kinesthetic, known collectively as "VARK."

  • Visual learners do well with information in graphic form. Maps, graphic organizers and charts are just a few ways that a visual style of processing information helps some people learn.
  • Aural/Auditory learners tend to learn best when materials are accessed out loud, such as with live lectures, listening to podcasts or engaging in group discussions.
  • Read/Write learners prefer information in written form. Accessing content via reports, essays, books, manuals or even websites tends to work best for people with this predominant style.
  • Kinesthetic learners tend to learn best when physical movement is involved in the lesson or activity. For example, hands-on laboratory experiments or experiential activities help people with this dominant learning style engage with information.

While the VARK learning styles differentiate into four distinct types, a 2014 study published in the Journal of Postgraduate Medicine (JPM) revealed that most people learn best with a combination of styles.

According to the study, auditory and kinesthetic learning are the most common among participants, with visual learning being the least common.

Nearly 87% of participants identified as having a multimodal style of accessing information, with audio-kinesthetic and audio-read/write as the most common combinations, according to JPM. Some participants identified as trimodal, with audio-read/write-kinesthetic as the most common combination.

Why Traditional Learning Styles are Changing

The JPM study highlights an important point: How you learn is rarely static. In fact, most people learn in different ways, and those ways can change throughout their lives. While having a general understanding of the types of learning styles that exist and how you learn best as an individual can be helpful, a holistic approach to your education is key.

Alison Johnson with the text Alison JohnsonAlison Johnson, an academic coach with Academic Support at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), cautions that adhering too closely with traditional learning styles such as VARK leads to applying the concepts of those styles incorrectly.

“Students will take a free online quiz to learn their style, and what often happens then is that I hear people say, ‘I’m a hands-on learner,’ for example, which in their mind equates to a belief that they can’t learn any other way,” Johnson said.

While traditional styles such as VARK provide a sound starting point to understanding how you learn as an individual, Johnson and the Academic Support team at SNHU advocate for a more holistic approach.

What are Some Different Learning Strategies in Education?

There are many different learning strategies available to help students. As noted in the aforementioned JPM study, most people favor a blend of two or three or possibly more styles.

Understanding different learning strategies can help you best leverage those that apply to you. In addition to VARK, two popular and effective strategies, according to Johnson, are:

  • Appreciative Inquiry: describes appreciative inquiry as a strengths-based holistic strategy that focuses on metacognitive (learning how you learn) strategies and capabilities. By combining positive psychology and storytelling, a coach can help students feel empowered in the learning process.
  • Growth vs. Fixed Mindset: According to Psychology Today, a growth mindset is when a learner knows that if they work hard and put in the effort, they can succeed at anything they put their mind to. A fixed mindset is when a person believes that no amount of hard work can help them learn a particular skill or subject.

Johnson's coaching is centered on helping students apply a growth mindset to their education. “We want students to be aware that every class, regardless of discipline, has the opportunity for them to engage in learning through multiple modalities,” she said.

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What are Learning Approaches From a Holistic Perspective?

Academic Support at SNHU favors a strength-based, holistic model called appreciative coaching. “This method of coaching focuses on metacognitive strategies and capabilities,” Johnson said. By asking questions and activating prior knowledge, the Academic Support coaches guide students through an inquiry-based process to discover the study methods that suit them best. This process is known as appreciative inquiry.

As mentioned above, appreciative inquiry is an approach to coaching that combines principles of psychology and storytelling to empower learners to develop their strengths. An appreciative inquiry coaching model focuses on encouraging the exploration of strengths while grounded in the belief that:

  • Imagination drives action
  • Inquiry creates change
  • Life is expressed through story
  • Positive questions enact positive change

What are the Best Ways of Learning?

What’s best for one person’s learning style may not be what’s best for another. That’s why it's critical to understand yourself first. From there, you can take what you need from a variety of study techniques.

Johnson lists 5 essential steps to identifying those techniques, in school or at home:

Step 1: Activate Prior Knowledge

What a person already knows is important for making connections to anything new. “There are two levels to this,” said Johnson. “Learning in general and learning course-specific content.”

For learning in general, it’s most important to think about a time when you deeply learned something outside of school, such as with a skill or a hobby.

For learning course-specific content, the process starts with recognizing what looks familiar, what terms and vocabulary stand out from prior classes and how this information relates to what you already know. This knowledge serves as a foundation for acquiring and understanding new course content.

Step 2: Apply the Right Mindset

The concept of a growth versus fixed mindset is key, according to Johnson. “It’s important to have a mindset that serves learning," she said. When you are poised to have an open mind about how you study and engage with your classes, the better able you are to apply a growth mindset and expand your knowledge.

Step 3: Be Aware of Barriers and Brain Differences

There are a number of types of barriers that students find along the way to learning. “Barriers can be lack of time, technology, lack of support and lack of essentials,” Johnson said. “These barriers can be significant.”

SNHU's Academic Support team helps all students, including those with both diagnosed and undiagnosed learning differences, such as ADHD and autism. All of these barriers have potential solutions.

“Many neurodivergent individuals have done amazing work all their lives to come up with solutions to work with these challenges,” Johnson said.

Step 4: Learn About Different Learning Strategies and Technologies

“One thing that VARK can help a student understand is that there are many modalities and strategies that a person can use to learn,” Johnson said. Some of those strategies include:

  • Changing the scenery and studying in a new location
  • Doing more than just reading the assignment, such as:
    • Adding voice-to-text to your reading session
    • Drawing as a form of note-taking 
    • Writing a letter to a loved one summarizing what you've learned
  • Spacing out study sessions with breaks in between
  • Taking notes in different ways

The overarching goal of these strategies is to help people become aware of their own preferences and potential. “There are many different strategies for learning, and the best I’ve seen are often those that students come up with themselves,” said Johnson.

Step 5: Learn With Others and Share What You Learn

For many people, it can be challenging to learn new things alone. “Working and engaging with others while learning helps new knowledge stick and builds confidence,” Johnson said.

Several ways that Johnson suggests sharing what you learn and reinforcing new knowledge are:

  • Joining student clubs. Whether in a brick-and-mortar or online program, seek out clubs, peer groups and workshops in addition to one-to-one tutoring and coaching services.
  • Engaging with others in your household or friend groups. Even if you’re learning different things than a partner, family member or friend, that doesn’t mean you can’t help each other. “There is a lot of power in parallel work to help keep focus and motivation,” Johnson said.
  • Explaining something to someone else. If you can explain something to someone else, that’s when you know you really understand a new concept. “I hear many great stories of parents having their children sit side-by-side with them and do homework together,” Johnson said. “At certain points in studying, they’ll take a break to summarize to each other what they’ve learned.”

What's Your Learning Style?

The best way to determine your own learning style is to take a similar holistic approach. Research VARK, but use that information as a place to start rather than as a way to define how you think.

Be open to the fact that you likely learn according to multiple styles. Activate prior knowledge as you work on incorporating new study habits and strategies into your university journey.

By taking a true holistic approach to learning, you may find that your own learning style is uniquely special to you.

Online. On campus. Choose your program from 200+ SNHU degrees that can take you where you want to go.

Marie Morganelli, Ph.D. is an educator, writer and editor.

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