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Kinesthetic, Visual, Auditory, Tactile, Oh My! What Are Learning Modalities and How Can You Incorporate Them in the Classroom?

Monday, September 25, 2017 -- Madison Michell

In education, learning modalities (also known as learning styles) are defined as the ways in which students use their senses throughout the learning process to acquire new skills. There are four main modalities that educators often consider: kinesthetic (moving), visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), and tactile (touching). Most students can learn through any of the following, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have preferences (as we all do) to make instruction more meaningful and engaging. When you think about a specific lesson, chances are, as an educator, you use a combination of these approaches every day.

Let’s take introducing two-dimensional shapes to kindergarten students as an example. You might begin by explaining that there are different kinds of shapes and then define the qualities of 2D shapes aloud before transitioning into drawing pictures of these shapes on your whiteboard. To help students apply what they’ve learned they may break into groups and make “human shapes” on the carpet or perhaps collect shapes around the room to share with a partner and record in a math notebook. Just like that you’ve touched all four learning modalities without breaking a sweat.

But, before we get too deep into implementation of these four learning modalities, we must first ask the question—do learning modalities even matter? Let’s take a closer look at what some of the research and commentary on this topic says to determine how much value can be gained by weaving these styles into your instruction.

  • Recommendations from Teaching as Leadership acknowledge that you shouldn’t build in a kinesthetic activity for the sake of adding motion to instruction, but rather rotate through the modalities as they make sense in the context of what you’re covering for a more varied, exciting approach.
  • Read Write Think also notes the power of reaching students in different ways using varied instructional approaches. By asking students to talk about their learning, create visual representations, utilize new media, and write in many modes, they are given more ways to build new skills and actively apply learning to deepen understanding.
  • There are many educational researchers that believe utilizing preferred learning styles to support specific students is not based on sound scientific research. While some site that each learner activates instruction by converting it into a preferred representation, therefore enriching processing and recall ability through this process others simply say learning modalities are more focused on the content, not the individual student and their ability to consume information. If you’d like to read more excerpts from additional research findings, we suggest you take a look at this Edutopia article: Are Learning Styles Real and Useful?

So, maybe leveraging learning styles in the classroom is more of a best practice than a science? We can work with that. Either way, evaluating modalities can open up a wealth of ideas you can incorporate into your lesson planning right away. Take a look at this infographic from our Personalized Learning Plans How-To Guide to learn more about the four primary learning styles.

Learning Styles Infographic

Ultimately, you have to decide for yourself what’s best for students. And, we’re willing to bet your students are more than happy to weigh in and let you know how you’re doing. Looking for more ideas to help your students learn in the way that’s best for them? Check out this blog on powering personalized learning experiences with the Universal Design for Learning approach!