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You might consider yourself a visual learner, but is there really a way to categorize different types of students?

Hosted by: Hank Green
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Hank: Have you ever had someone try to explain something to you a dozen times with no luck – but, then, when you see a picture, the idea finally clicks? If that sounds familiar, maybe you might consider yourself a visual learner. Or, if reading or listening does the trick, maybe you feel like you’re a verbal learner.

We call these labels learning styles, but is there really a way to categorize different types of students? Well, it actually seems like multiple presentation formats, especially if one of them is visual, help most people learn.

When psychologists and educators test for learning styles, they’re trying to figure out whether these are inherent traits that affect how well students learn, instead of just a preference. Usually, they start by giving a survey to figure out what style a student favors, like visual or verbal learning. Then, they try to teach the students something with a specific presentation style, like using visual aids, and do a follow-up test to see how much they learned. That way, the researchers can see if the self-identified verbal learners really learned better when the information was just spoken aloud, for example.

But, according to a 2008 review, only one study that followed this design found that students actually learned best with their preferred style... And it had some pretty big flaws. The researchers excluded two-thirds of the original participants because they didn't seem to have any clear learning style from the survey at the beginning. Plus, they removed outliers from the data if they thought they were “extreme,” without defining exactly what that meant.

And, they didn't even report the actual test scores in the final paper. So... it doesn’t really seem like learning styles are an inherent trait that we all have. But, that doesn't mean that all students will do amazingly if they just spend all their time reading from a textbook.

Instead, most people seem to learn better if they’re taught in several different ways – especially if one is visual. In one study, researchers tested whether students remembered lists of words better if they heard them, saw them, or both. And everyone seemed to do better if they got to see the words in print, even the self-identified auditory learners. That preference didn't seem to matter.

Similar studies tested whether students learned basic physics and chemistry concepts better by reading plain text or viewing pictures, too. And everyone did better with the help of pictures. So the question of whether or not you're a visual learner could best be answered with: "Well, yeah, kinda. But so are most people."

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