What Are Learning Modalities and How Can You Incorporate Them in the Classroom?
The theory of learning styles is widely popular in education. It claims that learners have preferences about how they receive and process information. In education, we usually categorize these preferences into styles such as visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. These theories are alluring because they are low lift for the classroom and promise better results for students, but research has shown that they lack scientific support.
Challenging Learning Styles Theory
The problem is our understanding of the theory. We often see learners as fixed within one of the styles. Kozhenvnikov, Evans, and Kosslyn found that cognitive preferences are actually a matrix between all of a learner’s processing strategies matched with the task at hand. For example, a single student may choose visual methods to process science and kinesthetic methods to process English. What’s more, students may use more than one style at once and choose different styles even within a given subject.
This understanding dispels the thought that learning styles are static and can categorize students. Research also highlights other issues of learning styles theory. Let’s unpack just a few of the questions that are difficult for learning styles to answer:
- Why are some learners’ styles not consistent across subjects and situations?
- How can we reliably determine a student’s learning style, especially if variation exists across subjects and situations?
- How can we explain the brain’s ability to adapt throughout life if we have a fixed processing style?
In summary, there is no evidence that supports sorting learners into learning styles improves achievement. Despite widespread acceptance, learners would be better served by teachers focusing on evidence-based strategies to improve learning.
If not learning styles, what theories describe learner processing differences in a meaningful way? One answer could be multiple intelligences.
Exploring Multiple Intelligences
Developed in 1983 by Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner, the theory of multiple intelligences defines intelligence as a humans’ ability to solve problems in multiple contexts. Compare this definition to an IQ test, which suggests that there is a single score for intelligence and that the score is measured outside of natural activities and contexts. It may stand to reason that learners have more than one dimension of intelligence that is best measured within real-world contexts. Combine this with Kozhenvnikov et al.’s idea that learners have a range of skills to apply across contexts, and we might begin to reframe the idea of intelligence altogether.
Could multiple intelligences be like learning styles: popular but lacking support? After all, Gardner’s research required each intelligence to meet eight stringent criteria to be defined as an intelligence. Through his research process, Gardner identified eight intelligences: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist. Like learning styles, these categories have been scrutinized because it is difficult to prove that intelligence types are the sole cause of learning outcomes and that they are fully separated from other factors. It is hard to find compelling research supporting specific Intelligences as the cause of success, but, unlike learning styles, multiple intelligence theory offers some key ideas that have been supported by research (Armstrong, 2017):
- Everyone possesses some degree of each type of intelligence.
- Almost everyone can develop competency in each type of Intelligence.
- The intelligence types are intertwined in complex ways.
- There are multiple ways to demonstrate each type of intelligence.
Applying Theory to Classroom Learning
Educators want to understand their students in an effort to best serve them, so theories that categorize learners to improve classroom practice are enticing. However, in making a complex theory practical for the classroom, we often define a learner in fixed, static ways. Imagine a student being told that he or she is a kinesthetic learner, having that label reinforced, then having to sit in a two-hour long college lecture. Conceptualizing learners as fixed and static is neither helpful to the learner, nor does it improve results. Rather, we should remember that learners’ abilities and preferences vary in different contexts and on different tasks.
Here are some practical steps that capitalize on learners’ multidimensionality in the classroom:
- Approach all students knowing they have multidimensionality ability and can raise any dimension to proficiency through expert instruction, effort, and practice. Verbally remind your students of this, as it will increase their self-efficacy.
- Foster a growth mindset for all, and challenge fixed mindsets, even ones that appear helpful on the surface.
- Provide different ways for students to learn materal and different ways to demonstrate their understanding and mastery. Include different modalities for written expression, and offer interpersonal opportunities to demonstrate proficiency.
- Remember that students process information differently as the subject, context, or task changes. Avoid believing in static labels or ability levels.
- Avoid catch-all strategies that promise the answer. Thinking is complex. Learners are complex. Deeply understand your learners and fine-tune strategies to meet their needs.
At Edmentum, we are committed to unpacking and applying learning theory to our high-quality, rigorous curricula and assessments and then partnering with educators to help them implement current research in practical ways.