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Copyright Melanie Spiller 2011. Do not copy without permission.
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The Five Ways of Learning

Have you ever felt that other people seemed to be collecting more information than you, and learning it faster and retaining it longer? Or maybe that you were the only one following along and everyone else seemed to be scratching their heads? Or have you felt that your explanation was clear and concise, and then your readers gave you bad reviews and your editor lobbed dry cereal at you?

 

The reason for this is that people learn in different ways. Oh, itís not obvious, and teachers certainly donít address all the ways in school. If you donít happen to learn the way your teachers do, youíre on your own trying to figure out what was covered in class. And if youíre one of those people who says, ďI never learned to study until I got to college,Ē itís because youíre a Verbal learner, as were most of your teachers. They taught you in a way that was easy for you to follow along. Then you got to college and you had to form another strategy.

 

Iíll talk about the specifics in a minute, but most people are Verbals. That doesnít mean that a Verbal person only learns in one way; it means that their predominant trait is Verbal. Itís also possible to have one dominant trait and more than one secondary trait.

 

You canít really change which way you learn and one way isnít better than any other, although sometimes itís more convenient to be one way over another. But you CAN use your knowledge of how you learn and how that differs from how other people learn to write clearlyóand to interact with other peopleís writing.

 

There are five ways that people learn. Here they are, in order of popularity: Verbal, Visual, Tactile, Kinesthetic, and Aural.

 

Verbal people need to put everything into language. These are the copious note-takers (that is, in college; in earlier schooling, most Verbalsí needs are addressed in the classroom and they often seldom study and still manage decent grades) and will even copy their own notes over. These people are not the ones who put nasty yellow highlighter all over their books, but they ARE the ones who write (nearly) as much in the margins and on the flyleaves as is printed on the pages of the book itself. Verbals tend to paraphrase things back to people, not so much to verify that theyíve understood but because they need to translate into their own language in order to truly understand. Most people are Verbal or have a smattering of Verbal. Verbals can be found in most professions. You canít recognize them by talkativeness, though. Verbalism is a learning style and not a presentation style.

 

Visuals make pictures of things in their heads. They draw on the whiteboard while they talk, they make symbols for things on their notepads, they think in terms of a kind of timeline rather than a list of dates or facts, and they highlight salient bits in the books they read. Visuals donít need to be told why this bit of code differs from that bitóthey can SEE the difference. Visuals find patterns on pagesóthatís why they use the highlighter and why they donít need comparisons detailed for them. Where Verbals are happy to have something new described to them, Visuals need to be shown. Visuals give directions by landmarks and donít necessarily know the names of the streets or programs or methods. Visuals can be found dominating professions where insight is useful, like technical management, marketing, research and development, and in entrepreneurial endeavors.

 

Tactiles need to touch things. These are the risk-takers; itís not that they bungee jump, itís that they need to dive right in and try things rather than have it described or shown to them. Tactiles are quite likely to take things apart in order to see how they work, and theyíll insist on ďdrivingĒ when they want to show you something new on the computer or when you show them something new. Tactiles often make logical leaps about how a project will evolve because they find building blocks among the premises and construct the thing in their heads. Tactiles learn early to be intuitive about how things work because, for the most part, schools are directed at Verbals and Visuals. The most common trait for mechanical engineers and those wow-style coders is to be predominantly Tactile. You definitely want the guy who works on your car to be a Tactile, too.

Kinesthetics need to manipulate things. These are the people who need to take two things and add them to two other things to know that there are four things. Kinesthetics donít like to work with theory or hyperbole as much as they like to take physical objects and change them. Kinesthetics have the hardest time in school because they need to make the changes to words and objects themselves rather than watching the teacher do it. Kinesthetics who have a scientific bent are likely to be drawn to the physical sciences where the changes they effect are apparent. People who are Kinesthetic are almost always also Tactiles.

 

Aurals remember everything they ever heard or read. These people seem to have an encyclopedic knowledge, because something their second grade teacher said is still vividly recollectable. Aurals seldom understand that other people donít have this magnificent memory and often assume that other people are either not as bright as they are or are deliberately placing obstacles into an obvious path. Aurals often studied hard, even in grammar school, but once they learn something, they own it forever. You definitely want your doctor to be an aural.

 

Thereís no way to tell what style people learn in from listening to them, although you can sometimes ferret it out by reading their writing or having them teach you something. Sometimes, even people who know about the five ways of learning think theyíre one type but manifest all the indications of another. It doesnít matter much, really, unless theyíre trying to write educational materials.

 

Itís useful to identify which way you learn so that you can make sure the other ways are attended to in your writing. If youíre a Tactile, for instance, youíll write excellent step lists or code, but you might have trouble providing context for why someone would follow it. If youíre an Aural, youíll have a hard time providing building blocks so that other people can follow complex ideas. If youíre a Verbal, youíre so used to information being directed at you, you might have to deliberately remember that other people learn less verbally and provide contrived interruptions to your text to allow resting places for less verbal people.

 

Of course, most people are combinations. Iím a Verbal with a strong Kinesthetic bent. That means that Iíll take things apartóthatís almost the only way I can learn thingsóbut Iíll reassemble them verbally. I might quote the professor in the notes I take in class, but when I copy the notes over, Iíll put it in my own words and combine it with something else. I usually come up with all my most interesting questions when Iím copying my notes over, because I need to interact with the language to truly understand it, and once Iíve rebuilt it in my own words, I can make dandy logical leaps. I suppose thatís why I enjoy editing so much. I do like to build things (quilts, meals, musical instruments, and so forth) because I like to see how things work as a tactile would, and I can picture the finished result like a Visual, but I canít remember what I had for lunch unless I built it myself and named it.