Learning Styles

March 2010

I've been mildly intrigued by the amount of debate that the topic of learning styles seems to spark. There's a collection of links on the topic if you want to learn more. I expressed my opinion there that that's a danger that the idea of learning styles has a limiting effect on people in terms of discouraging folk from learning to learn in new ways. However I wanted to elaborate on the topic in a slightly more personal way. 

The most common type of learning style that you hear about is the split between visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners. I fall nearly as far as you can get into the visual category and as a result, I don't find the concept that learning styles implausible. However, another consequence is that I'm also not sure that most of the advice on how to adapt to different people's learning styles quite hits the mark.

I'd better describe a little bit about what it's like, for me at least, being an extreme visual person. The most obvious thing is that I have a limited form of photographic memory. I have to consciously use it and it doesn't have quite as many bytes storage as I'd like, but I've nonetheless got an extremely good visual memory, something that was incredibly useful in school exams. It came as quite a shock to me when I first discovered that some people spell words by going through each sound in turn, rather than just seeing the word flash up in front of them.

This is all compensated for by a complete lack of auditory memory. My scores on any tests of musical ability are about as low as you can get and I can't tell the difference between notes a semi-tone apart. I do like certain types of music, but I'm aware that it's not as important to me as it is to most people and I don't really notice its absence. Occasionally, I get it into my head to try to learn to be more musical, but it always turns out that I'm fundamentally just not interested enough to put the required effort in.

When it comes to learning things, the thing that is most obvious is that when people speak to me, I turn what they say into a visual buffer as they speak. This works perfectly fine for normal conversation. However as soon as the content gets complicated, this process slows down. If you're talking about something very technical to me and you see me glaze over, then I've hit a buffer overflow error. This translation process also takes mental energy with more complex content, which means my attention span will be a lot shorter than if I am reading and I can't think hard at the same time as listening.

This doesn't mean that I don't value spoken content. You can convey emotions in speech far more easily than in writing. In particular, in the case of teaching, that ability to convey enthusiasm is worth an enormous amount. People will also often use much more informal language in speech than in writing. I actually really like podcasts because I can replay them as many times as I like, whereas in real life I only get one shot at taking everything in. Even in more everyday life, you can have far richer spoken conversations than written, and the extra energy is takes is often well worth that.

It also doesn't mean I prefer non-verbal to verbal visual communication. A lot of things need the nuances of language and if somebody tries to communicate them without those nuances, it's just frustrating. Sure, don't spend time describing something that a picture could communicate better, but at the same time, realise that diagrams have their limits and that language was invented for a reason.

Likewise, give me a good spoken lecture over a badly written book any day. The differences that it makes for most things is small enough that other factors are far more important and trump any 'learning style' I may have.

So having said that, I think there are three main things that are indeed useful to me:

I realise that I also have a responsibility to figure out how to learn to live in a world where lots of information does come in an auditory form and will continue to do so. Any tips for this, beyond yet more sheer practice, are very welcome!