Imagine a friendly alien stops you on your way home. This little fellow has come to earth in desperate need of a good cup of coffee. The fate of millions on its home planet depends on whether it returns with a coffee machine and the knowledge of how to operate it. Of course, you are eager to help out. What do you do?
- describe in simple words how to brew a cup of coffee
- refer to an an article about coffee preparation on Wikipedia
- draw a diagram of a coffee machine
- take it home and show it how to make a coffee
The option you chose might say something about your preferred way of learning.
Have you ever heard or read about different learning styles? Do you remember having seen a figure or done a quiz? Advocates of different learning styles claim that even the way you pose this question hints at how you prefer to learn. They argue that by adapting new material to your specific learning style, it becomes easier to learn.
Teacher and researcher Neil Fleming advertises his popular VARK model (Visual, Aural, Reading, Kinesthetic) with the slogan “different, not dumb”. For example if you have difficulty memorising a new word when you read it, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid. Maybe you are an auditory learner. Or you might be a kinesthetic learner who needs to say the new word aloud. (If you’re too impatient, skip to the end of the article to take our test!)
If VARK doesn’t sound like your cup of tea (or coffee for that matter), there are plenty of other colorful theories to choose from. Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences theory partly overlaps with VARK, but his seven original intelligences such as ‘verbal-linguistic intelligence’ have been expanded to include ‘spiritual’ or ‘naturalistic’ intelligence, which seems dubious.
Other models focus on different approaches to learning. For example, do you prefer to learn as you go, or sit down and think something through first?
So much for beautiful theories but how do they apply to the real world? Thinking back to your extraterrestrial encounter, it was probably hard to settle on a single answer. Perhaps once you got over your initial shock at encountering alien life, you drew a diagram of your coffee machine and explained how it worked while the two of you sipped fresh coffee.
Even Neil Fleming admits that single-modality learners are rare. Most people who take a test are tagged as “multimodal learners”, leaving them none the wiser. Although the concept of learning styles seems intuitively right, it is hardly supported by research. No-one has yet proven that customizing material to your preferred style is any more effective than a one-size-fits-all approach. This video by psychologist Daniel Willingham from the University of Virginia explains why the idea of learning styles is seriously flawed.
But hang on… learning style tests are fun! And even without scientific evidence, they can help you develop an awareness of what you need in self-directed learning. A test might inform you how to better organize and present material you want to learn. Just don’t let yourself be trapped in a box marked ‘visual learner’, ‘right-brainer’ or ‘nature-smart’ – you might miss out on the benefits of combining multiple modalities. So enjoy this test. Just take it with a pinch of salt.
Quiz – Your preferred learning style
To take this quiz, just pick the answer which best applies to you – K, A, R or V. See if you tend to favour one of them.
- You visit the museum of natural science – what do you like best?
- Looking at water bugs under a microscope K
- A talk by the museum guide about why dinosaurs became extinct A
- The informative displays in the butterfly exhibition R
- A zoomable chart illustrating the sizes and distance of planets in space V
- You don’t know if it’s “comitee”, “commitee”, “comittee” or “committee”, so you…
- say each one out loud and settle for the one that sounds best A
- visualize the words in your mind and pick one V
- write them down on a piece of paper and go with your gut K
- look it up in a dictionary R
- You want to visit some friends, but you’ve only been to their place once before and you’re not sure if you can find it again. Would you:
- look at a map V
- write down the directions R
- follow your satnav A
- just get going – you’ve been there once, you’ll find it again K
- Browsing the internet, you particularly like websites that have:
- interesting articles and texts R
- videos or podcasts, music and other audible content A
- lots of images and a beautiful design V
- games and things you can click on K
- You’re having dinner with friends, and you’ve been asked to bring dessert. To decide what to bring, you…
- don’t worry about it. You’ll use that old family tiramisu recipe you always do K
- browse the web looking for pictures of delicious desserts V
- phone a good cook and ask them for ideas A
- read some recipes in a cookbook or on the web R
- You are working in an office. Which of the following would disturb you the most?
- a cluttered working environment V
- sitting still all the time K
- reading badly written emails R
- noise from the construction site outside A
Evaluation V –Visual preference
- Charts, diagrams and graphs are really helpful to you
- You like to underline and highlight important information
- You are good at spelling – words simply look wrong or right to you
- When learning with Babbel, you rely on picture cues to remember words and you notice whenever there are different images for the same word
- Handy hint: Try making diagrams out of sentences to help you remember them!
A – Auditory preference
- You learn by talking and discussing things with others.
- You love music and the ‘sound’ of a language.
- Listening to the recordings of natives in Babbel helps you tremendously, and you often notice subtle differences in their pronounciation.
- Handy hint: Speak along during reading.
R – Reading preference
- Dictionaries, glossaries and written instructions were made for you
- You read a lot and like to make lists
- You understand grammar better when you read the rule explanations on Babbel, and remember words best by spelling them out again and again
- Handy hint: Summarise and write down what you have learned in a lesson in one short statement
K – Kinesthetic preference
- You like real-life examples and things you can put into practice immediately
- You have a hands-on approach, and often try to speak a new language right away
- You really appreciate Babbel’s speech recognition.
- Handy hint: Imagine situations in which you can apply what you have just learned. And take frequent breaks!
An even spread – Multimodal preference
- Choose whichever of the above strategies that appeal to you.
- It is often necessary for you to use a combination of strategies.
- You benefit from the variety of interactive exercises on Babbel.
- Handy hint: If you really can’t remember a word, try these three approaches and see which one ‘sticks’: say it out loud, write it down, listen to it.
Do you think people really do have different learning styles? If so, what’s yours? Leave us a comment!