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Learning Styles

What are learning styles?

The styles we prefer as students are usually the ones we prefer when we teach. Teaching styles and learning styles are like two sides of one coin. The work of Bandler and Grinder in the field of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (1975) produced the following categories: visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), kinesthetic (moving) or tactile (touching). Whether you are a student or a teacher, you will be more drawn to one or two of these categories as a method of teaching or learning. That doesn’t mean you will be unable to learn using other modalities, it just indicates your preferred method.

A visual style suggests:

  • facial and body movements are important
  • viewing posters, images, and graphics help learning
  • often recognize words by sight & shape
  • prefer lists and boxes/tables to organize thoughts
  • recall information by remembering how it was set out on a page

 An auditory style suggests:

  • verbal instructions are the primary way of comprehending
  • a preference for dialogue, discussions and plays/theatre
  • problems are analyzed/solved by talking about them
  • spoken rhythms and sounds (tone) act as memory aid

A kinesthetic style suggests:

  • action is important
  • we need to “do something” as a key part of instruction or learning
  • sitting still for long periods is hard
  • using movement as a memory aid

A tactile style suggests:

  • writing/note-taking and drawing are key elements in processing and remembering
  • hands-on activities like projects and demonstrations are preferred

Combining the Categories

From the above descriptions it is easy to see that these categories are not easily isolated in the classroom. Most teachers will find it impossible to instruct using only one category. Students who are severely dependent on one category are often diagnosed with learning disabilities.

Nonetheless most instructors will find that they lean heavily on one or two of the above while rarely using some of the others. For example, we have all at one time fallen into near sleep while listening to a lecturer drone on without the benefit of visual aids, breaks or dialogue.

Successful teachers recognize that learners require a variety of methods. Regardless of their own teaching style, they introduce elements that represent all categories as part of their practice.


  • Use visuals in the classroom. For example, wall displays, posters, projected images (PowerPoint), flash cards, graphic organizers, models etc.


  • Use audio tapes and videos, storytelling, music (songs, chants), memorization and aural drills
  •  Enable learners to work in pairs and small groups


  • Use physical activities, competitions, board games, role plays etc.         
  • Intersperse activities which require students to sit quietly with activities that allow them to move around and be active


  • Use demonstrations, projects, role plays etc.
  • Use “while-listening and reading” activities. For example, ask students to fill in a table while listening to a talk, or to label a diagram while reading (often referred to as “guided notes”). 

Considerations when addressing Learning Styles

  • Vary your teaching activities and assignments so that certain learning styles are not constantly disadvantaged.
  • Allow students to choose, if possible, how they demonstrate competence in some assignments, e.g., paper or project, written or oral exams.
  • Provide appropriate support when you know that an activity or assignment requires behaviours to which one style is unaccustomed. Techniques for doing this could include additional tutorials, group assignments and peer support.
  • Determine your students' learning styles as much as possible. In other words, try to understand not only what your students know or don't know, but also how they came to know it. Techniques for doing this could include observation, discussion, or asking students to write a mini-paper on "How I learn best" or "My most rewarding learning experience." 
  • By introducing a variety of appropriate teaching styles into your classes, you will be more likely to engage students and address their different learning styles.

Deep vs. Surface Learning

Another way to think of learning styles, in the educational literature, is in terms of what has been called deep or surface learning. Originally articulated by Marton and Sarjo (1976), deep and surface learning has been a very influential concept for more than three decades. It has been found over years of research that some students experienced material they encounter in their classes as a collection of discrete units of information that should be memorised in order to answer anticipated questions faced on exams or assignments, which has been termed the ‘surface approach’. Other students treated the material as something that contained a structure of meaning. They searched for its underlying concerns, its implications, and its meaning to themselves, which in turn helped them address questions on exams or assignments, and has been termed the ‘deep approach’.

Characteristics of Deep Learning and Surface Learning

Deep approach            

Knowledge transforming

Surface approach

Information reproducing

An intention to understand material for
Vigorous and critical interaction with
knowledge and experience
Relating ideas to one’s previous knowledge
and experience
Discovering and using organizing principles
to integrate ideas
Relating evidence to conclusions
Examining the logic of arguments
An intention simply to reproduce parts of the
Ideas and information accepted passively
Concentrating only on what is required for
Not reflecting on purpose of strategies
Memorizing facts and procedures routinely
Failing to distinguish guiding principles
or patterns

There are a few important qualifications that must be made with respect to deep and surface approaches to learning. First, the deep and surface approaches are not personality traits or fixed learning styles. Students adopt an approach that is related to their perceptions of the task. Second, memorisation can be a feature of both the surface and the deep approaches, but it plays a different role in each. Third, the deep approach and surface approach are a manifestation of the intentions that the student possesses.

In the educational literature there is a rather obvious bias towards teaching techniques that encourage deep learning by participants (which is primarily focused on active and student-centred approaches to teaching), which research has shown leads to better overall learning outcomes for students, in terms of the retention knowledge, ability to apply knowledge, ability to integrate knowledge with previous and future learning, etc. (Entwistle, 2009).