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How to Teach the Way Students Learn and Remember

Years ago, I began listening to my children. I mean—really listening. As they grew up, I began noticing the language they’d use and observing what it taught me about their learning preferences. As a teacher, I began applying this to the students in my classroom and saw the same positive results. Once I modified my teaching style to accommodate the young people in front of me, I saw measurable results.

I am now a fan of listening and observing.

When my daughter, Bethany, wanted to engage in learning, she’d say things like:

  • “Can I talk to you?”
  • “Can I say one more thing?”
  • “Listen to this…”
  • “Let me just tell you something.”

She would drop hints that she was an auditory learner. She liked to talk, and that was her preferred manner of learning something new. My son, Jonathan, was a bit different. He’d engage with a subject by dropping different hints:

  • “Can I see that?”
  • “Can I show you something?”
  • “Would you look at this?”
  • “I just don’t see what you mean…”

He was dropping clear hints that he was a visual learner. Although the subject may be the same, my two kids learned better through different means.

Learning Preferences for Memory

Thanks to educational researchers like Howard Gardener, parents and teachers have known about the variety of learning styles in kids for more than thirty years. Our assumptions, however, about the three most common learning preferences have hindered us from leveraging them to help students remember. We have assumed:

  1. Auditory Learners – Learn best through hearing our words.
  2. Visual Learners – Learn best through our visual aids.
  3. Kinesthetic Learners – Learn best through experiences.

While those three descriptions are true to a degree, they are incomplete. If we want students to remember what we’ve taught, we must take it a step further. Over the years, I’ve tweaked my conversations with students as I perceived there was more to these learning styles than my superficial understanding. If they were going to remember my instruction, I had to adjust my approach:

1. Auditory – They need to talk, not just listen to my words.

While they do like your words more than kinesthetic learners do, they like their own words even more. Teachers and parents often shush these kids for talking so much, but the kids are usually not trying to be annoying. They just need to process what they’re learning out loud. I had a student tell me once, “I actually understand what I think by hearing myself talk.” Believe it or not, these kids actually engage better and more deeply when leaders offer them a chance to do so. If the teacher is also auditory, this can lead to a showdown. Both of them want to talk. For instance, a teacher might announce the subject for class today is about animals and how they reproduce. An auditory student immediately tells whoever is next to her that her dog just had puppies. She’s excited. The teacher quiets her down because she doesn’t have time for everyone to talk about their love of animals, but this student will actually have a difficult time listening because her puppies have just bubbled to the surface of her brain, and there is not room for anything else until she talks about them. At some point, we must find time to let these auditory learners process their thoughts out loud.

2. Visual – They need to picture something, not just see my pictures.

While these learners do like the visual aids you offer, the key is for them to lock the images into their own minds. This can take some time. You can accelerate this by utilizing pictures on a screen, but don’t assume that is all that’s needed. For example, let’s say you ask your child to run downstairs and grab the plate of small tools on the counter and take it out to the garage for Dad to use to fix the lawnmower. Simple instructions, right? A visual learner will run downstairs, but if you relayed your directions too quickly, he didn’t have time to envision each step along the way. He doesn’t want to ask you to repeat them because he feels dumb doing that, but he’s now laboring to remember what he’s supposed to do. What if you had said, “Do you remember that blue plate in the kitchen, the one with a seahorse on it? (Pause and let your kid picture it.) It’s on the corner of our kitchen counter. (Pause.) Will you please grab it, take it out to the garage (Pause) and set it next to the lawnmower for dad to use when he’s working on it? By slowing down, visual kids can picture exactly what you’re saying and see themselves following through.

3. Kinesthetic – They need to move, not just see activity.

These learners are all about movement, not just observing movement. So, while videos and experiential learning are superior, what makes them even more valuable is to leverage them to get students moving themselves. Kinesthetic learners are often the most annoying to adults, because they have a tough time sitting still. What if you let students stand or move around (as long as they’re not disturbing others), while they are learning a concept? What if you went outside and shot some hoops with your kid as they review their math equations? What if they climbed up and down the stairs as they memorized spelling words? What if you simply drove with them in the car as they spouted off what they learned for tomorrow’s test? This activity can ignite metacognition in students where they begin to “own” the subject because they are not passive but active. For many of the kids who are under our influence, student engagement may begin with student movement. Activity equals engagement.

Mark Ellis Ph.D. said, “When students are given an opportunity to think about and attempt a problem, they have greater ability to make connections and develop greater conceptual understanding. Through student-led discourse, students become active thinkers and learners.”

2 Comments

  1. Roslyn Barnes on May 1, 2018 at 1:44 pm

    Thanks for this article Tim. As I read it I was struck by one common theme: time. Learning takes time. In my efforts as a teacher to use class time efficiently (which is not a bad thing) I forget to allow time for the kind of processing you are describing here. It also takes time to listen to the clues students are giving about their learning style.

  2. Luke Henke on July 18, 2018 at 12:17 am

    While I agree with the premise that we must approach different people differently, these learning styles have been debunked https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/learning-styles-debunked-there-is-no-evidence-supporting-auditory-and-visual-learning-psychologists-say.html

    Peter Brown explains how it can actually be detrimental when people are identified as being primarily one of those learning styles in Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, and he shares other proven research methods the have a more practical application. Knowing you like to read – it is a practical and informative book!

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How to Teach the Way Students Learn and Remember