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Should Math Cater to Learning Styles?



Do you know your learning style?


Chances are you can harken back to a time in grade school when someone handed you a quiz: Which Learning Style Are You? You may have found out you’re a visual learner, or a kinesthetic one. You might be prefer to intake information auditorily, or recite through writing and reading.


Maybe you took the test and you were convinced that you were through and through a visual learner. You understood math best with diagrams and history best with pictures. But then, the next year, you stepped into your first science lab, and all of the sudden, your comprehension shot through the roof as you began to engage your hands in duplicating the experiments. The diagrams on the board seemed confusing at best, compared to the kinesthetic experience you were getting with the equipment. Does that make you a kinesthetic learner, then? And if that’s the case, why did you find it so easy to listen to the sports game from the other room and formulate a mental arena that mimicked exactly what you were hearing auditorily?


One thing you might remember from your test is that you probably didn’t score zero for any of the learning styles. Chances are you had a style, or perhaps two, that seemed to be dominant, along with points in all the other categories. It’s even possible that you experienced receiving different results for your dominant style over different test-taking instances.


What a mess! Is there no hope for a clear-cut answer as to whether it would be best for me to watch through my YouTube list with no sound, or to listen behind a wall?


It’s important to point out that with self-diagnostic tests always carry more inherent bias and inaccuracy than blind scientific trials. Even with that aside, however, it turns out that the criticism of the “messy science” of learning styles is shared by some in the science community as well.


The criticism comes from the lack of standardized definitions and testing for learning styles. A quick Google search will reveal a few the discrepancies. There are tests for four learning styles, tests for seven, tests for categories unique to adults, and just about every other categorization you can think of. No wonder scientists don’t agree, and can’t agree to disagree.


Perhaps, however, the untidiness of learning style sorting is actually, in some senses, a true reflection of the learning style phenomenon. Perhaps in some senses, we all experience learning in such uniquely individual ways that it’s hard to categorize. At the same time, maybe we learn more similarly than we originally thought when we first looked at our results in grade school: “You’re a Visual Learner!”


“But,” you say, “I promise! I am a visual learner! I learn much better with pictures and diagrams, or even better, with a 3D model. In fact, if I’m watching a video and seeing the pictures and objects move, that’s even better!”


And here’s what we run into the real magic about learning styles. It turns out that human brains learn relatively similarly to one another, in that we take aspects of all kinds of learning methods into account when we intake and process information. Therefore, the best kind of learning integrates them all.


If you think of a video, it might start with a narrator, explaining a general concept. Maybe this is proceeded by a few interviews with experts as they shed a bit more light on the idea. Then a diagram is shown on the screen, and as different parts move and interact, the narrator explains what’s going on. We talk to another expert, and then eventually, we get to see a genuine example of the situation in the real world. The video is concluded by the narrator drawing implications from what we just witnessed.


Think of all the different learning styles that are at play in that one video. You have a consistent auditory output. The animated diagrams would probably be much more difficult to understand if they were instead a series of still images with no one to explain them. You have different experts talking, so you’re employing a bit of social intelligence, watching for body language cues and inflections. Simulations and real-world visuals give your brain the sensation of actually being there, much like how dreams, movies, and novels can make us feel kinesthetically activated.


You might find you get a different quality of understanding from certain parts of a diverse learning experience like this, which could depend on your personal cognitive inclination, the quality of the content, the environment you’re in, or how you’re used to taking in information. There is something to be said for learning preference. The reality is, most of us are engaging all parts of our brain at all times and it’s not always easy to create clear-cut distinctions between learning styles. Perhaps this lends itself to the “creative” nature of learning style categorization. It’s not a perfect science, but an experiential one.


Should math cater to learning styles? For sure it should. But that’s not to say that incorporating visual elements and auditory explanations are going to specifically cater to different students. Layered approaches, such as our video example, offer a well-rounded approach to a concept that consistently engages each student as they use all kinds of strategies to internalize and understand the information. Tackling multiple learning styles at once also allows teachers to cast wide nets and continuously capture the attention of several unique brains in one room.


This is the approach we take at Mentorhood. Our materials are chock full of visuals, text explanations, loads of practice, and a caring teacher to animate them all. Our mixed approaches to learning are powerful because they enable students to develop a more thorough and nuanced intuition and understanding, enabling a three-dimensional appreciation for how mathematics flows into every aspect of daily life. We want our students to see mathematical concepts from all angles―whether acute or obtuse, which not only heightens their understanding but multiplies its depth as well.


References

Romanelli, Frank et al. “Learning styles: a review of theory, application, and best practices.” American journal of pharmaceutical education vol. 73,1 (2009): 9. doi:10.5688/aj730109


Fournier, Mikelya. “7 Major Learning Styles and the 1 Big Mistake Everyone Makes.” LearnDash, 14 Jan. 2020, https://www.learndash.com/7-major-learning-styles-which-one-is-you/.

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