Learning & Thinking Styles

by Valorie King

There are approximately 127 different factors identified by researchers as contributing to "learning styles." When we talk about an individual's "learning style" we think we're all talking about the same thing. But, are we really? There is a lot of confusion about terminology and techniques because we _think_ we're talking about the same concepts yet we're not. So, hold onto your hats for a whirlwind tour of "learning styles."

Most individuals develop a preference for one perceptual channel over another. The vast majority of individuals in our western culture prefer the "visual" channel. The second most preferred perceptual channel is auditory. Tactile (touch) and kinesthetic (body movement) are preferred perceptual channels for a small percentage of the population (sometimes labeled "learning disabled" due to the fact that schools rarely teach to their preferred learning styles). Note: "preference" in this case does not mean a conscious, willful act. It means that for whatever reason the individual is "wired" in such a way that this perceptual channel gets "preference" in the brain. The individual learns most easily via this channel.


  • Textbooks and pictures are useful and effective learning tools for individuals preferring the visual perceptual channel.
  • Lectures and songs are useful and effective learning tools for individuals preferring the auditory perceptual channel.
  • Tracing diagrams or using textured examples (or touching models) is useful and effective for those preferring the tactile channel.
  • Pacing or dancing while learning new material is effective for individuals preferring the kinesthetic perceptual channel.

Individuals with good eyesight and preference for the visual perceptual channel will do well with textbook based instruction. Individuals with good hearing and preference for the auditory perceptual channel will do well with lecture based instruction. Thus, most K-12 teaching methods involve a combination of lecture/textbook (or other written material) since that hits about 85% of the population's preferred perceptual channels for learning.

Difficulties arise when an individual's preferred perceptual channel runs into a physical roadblock, e.g. visual problems (either focusing or problems in the eye-brain connections, some of which are easily corrected and others are not), hearing problems (again, some are correctable and some aren't), or an external situation which prevents the optimum use of the preferred perceptual style, e.g. child is required to sit still for long periods of time or a school which has eliminated textbooks in favor of discussions and lectures.

Brain researchers have studied "left hemisphere" and "right hemisphere" dominance. With the advent of MRI and PET scans they are able to study the intact, living brain to determine "where" certain types of thoughts are centered. From these studies and studies of individuals who have lost certain abilities due to head injury or stroke the researchers have formed and tested theories about how we think (in words or in pictures) and where these thoughts are located (hemisphere).

What form do your thoughts take inside your mind? Stop for a moment and try to determine how you think about concepts -- verbally or visually. Do you _think_ in terms of verbal concepts (things you can represent in your native language)? Or, do you _think_ in pictures and images and translate into verbal concepts before you can talk about something? The _way_ you think about things can tell you something about _where_ in the brain your thought processes are most likely to be centered. Individuals with a high number of connections between the two hemispheres (in the corpus collosum) may process thoughts equally in both
hemispheres. Usually, however, one hemisphere or the other is dominant and thus plays a large role in determining the internal format of ones thoughts. (Read "Unicorns Are Real" or "Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain" for a GOOD layman's explanation of these concepts.)

Individuals thought to be "left" dominant seem to think about things in terms of verbal concepts. Individuals thought to be "right" dominant seem to think in images which are then translated into verbal concepts (when necessary). Many individuals are able to flip between the two; some do it consciously but most make the switch unconsciously.

Individuals may be either predominantly "verbal," which means that their thought processes take place in the verbal domain, or they may be predominantly "visual," which means that their thought processes take place in the image domain and must be translated into words. Funny, but we don't usually think of difficulties in translating verbal thoughts into pictures as problems or disabilities ... our culture seems to say that's just the way things are unless you're supposed to be an artist.

When individuals talk about "visual" learners versus "spatial" learners it's important to find out how they are defining their terms. Many times, they're just repeating something they've heard but don't really understand or their child has been given a test which purports to measure "visual vs. spatial" learning styles. The experts I've consulted have expressed concerns over the use and misuse of these terms and tests since there is question as to whether or not these tests are measuring what they purport to measure and whether or not what is measured is "useful."

To me, the term "visual" learner means someone who learns well from stimuli presented to the visual perceptual channel. The person learns by looking. The stimuli is two dimensional, e.g. a book, a flat drawing, a video, or "watching" as an onlooker. As I understand things, the term "spatial" learner means "someone who learns well from stimuli presented in three dimensions." The presentation may be model which is handled and touched by the individual or it may be experiential, learning by doing (moving the
body through space and time). Some individuals use "spatial" learner to mean an individual who learns better from diagrams and images than from the spoken or written word (verbal language).

There are lots of other "factors" which are taken into account when attempting to assess an individual's preferred learning style. Many of these "factors" are conscious, willful choices or preferences (note that the term preference is now used with a second meaning). Preferences may include: size and type of group, independent vs. dependent, discovery vs. didactic vs. Socratic teaching methods.

Learning styles assessments also take into account such environmental preferences as:

  • lighting & noise levels (bright/dim, noisy/quiet, talk/music/silence)
  • freedom of movement and type of study area (enclosed vs. wide open)
  • freedom to decide when/where to learn/study (told vs. choose)
  • temperature & air movement (warm/cold, breezy/still air)
  • time of day (morning/afternoon/evening/late-night)
  • food intake (eat during/before/after study time)

Just as it is rare to find someone who thinks totally in one form or another (verbal or image) so too it is rare to find someone who can only learn via one perceptual channel. By adulthood, most of us are a combination of learning styles and thinking styles. We have our preferences but we can usually "make-do" with the others. Some recent studies found that college students actually scored higher in coursework where the teacher's teaching style did not match the students' preferred learning style, e.g. the course was lecture based and the student preferred textbooks. This does not appear to hold in grades K-12; students in those grades appear to do best when the teaching method matches their preferred learning style. The match of learning style to teaching method is most important in the early grades and becomes less important as the student develops the ability to learn independently.

Our "preferences" usually arise from our strengths. Individuals who are primarily "verbal" thinkers tend to be able to convey their thoughts better and to better understand what is said/written -- because they are thinking in the same format as the mode of information transfer. Individuals who are primarily "image" thinkers must either convey their thoughts in images (e.g. drawing or painting or building models) OR they must translate their thoughts into verbal language ... with the risk that some concepts will not translate well. Our culture tends to overlook the inability of many verbal thinkers to draw well or conceptualize ideas in 3-D. Yet we denigrate those "spatial" or "image" thinkers who are "less" able to put their thoughts into complex verbal statements.

The terms "right brain" and "left brain" have come to be associated with "image" (spatial) thinkers and "verbal" thinkers because, in our western culture, verbal abilities (language acquisition) occur primarily in the left hemisphere of the brain and "spatial" (image) abilities occur primarily in the right hemisphere of the brain. There are other abilities, notably music and mathematics, which appear to be resident in the "right" side of the brain. Holistic or gestalt reasoning and problem solving
strategies seem to be used more frequently by individuals who exhibit other "right" brain characteristics. Linear or sequential reasoning and problem solving strategies seem to be used most frequently by individuals who exhibit strong tendencies to dominance by the left hemisphere.

It's all on a continuum. We are not either/or. Most of us can move from one thinking style (verbal/image) to another. Most of us can move from one learning style (visual/auditory/tactile/kinesthetic) to another. We can learn how to use one problem solving strategy or another (linear vs gestalt). But, we PREFER some ways and methods for thinking, learning,
and solving problems (or being creative) over other methods. Some of us make it through our entire lives believing that we CAN'T learn simply because we've never experienced learning and teaching in our preferred perceptual and thinking styles. Some of us think that, just because we learn better one way that we cannot learn via other channels or methods. Finally, some of us are not aware that there are both unconscious and conscious reasons for the styles of learning which seem most natural to us and which are most effective for us. We need to learn what our styles are and how to take advantage of our strengths.

Good books to read: Left Brain, Right Brain. (Springer?), Unicorns Are Real (Barbara Vitale), Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain (Betty Edwards) Using Both Sides Of Your Brain (Tony DeBono)

Valorie King

1996 by Valorie King

This article printed from Hoagies' Gifted Education Page, www.hoagiesgifted.org 
Original URL is www.hoagiesgifted.org/optimum_intelligence.htm