Where teachers meet and learn

ETAS Journal Editors' Choice, Number 13 (September 2016)

Learning styles

Marjorie Rosenberg

ETAS Journal, Volume 31 Number 1 (Winter 2013), pp. 23-25

Marjorie Rosenberg takes us on a journey – a journey that may change your view of your learners and inspire your teaching. It allows us to catch a glimpse of a number of interesting facets of learning styles. Her goal is to “open a window into learning which perhaps had not been considered before” (p. 24).

Rosenberg sets out by taking us back to her personal experiences as a learner when she had serious difficulties in learning French using the audio-lingual method. It is no wonder that her first encounter with the idea that there are different types of learners immediately kindled her interest in learning styles. She considers herself a visual and kinesthetic learner, and in fact she was more successful later when she was learning German, taking this into account.

After giving definitions of the term learning styles from four different experts, Rosenberg points out that being aware of learner types does not mean that teachers can or should try to “reach each and every learner all of the time” but rather that they offer a mix of methods to “provide learners with new possibilities and resources” (p. 23).

In what is perhaps the most illuminating passage of her article Rosenberg then tackles common myths about and misconceptions of learning styles. She identifies four of them and asserts that (1) learning styles are not an excuse for giving up learning, (2) learners can stretch out of their styles, (3) identifying learning styles of individual students does not mean to put them into pigeonholes, and (4) there are no generally right or wrong, better or worse styles (p. 23). She explains each assertion and it becomes clear that learning styles are not meant to be irrevocable truths that draw lines which cannot be crossed. Their whole point, when interpreted appropriately, is to build awareness both on the side of the teacher and of the student of a certain aspect of the learner’s mental make-up. Learning styles should be taken into consideration and made use of sensitively and astutely, in a similar way that a tennis coach and his player will take into consideration, next to other things, the player’s physical and mental weaknesses and make use of his strengths to improve his performance in the court and perhaps reach a specified goal.

In the second half of her paper, Rosenberg distinguishes three different areas within which it makes sense to identify learning styles: sensory channels of perception (visual, auditory, and kinesthetic modalities), cognitive processing (global and analytic), and behaviour based on perception and organisation (mind organisation). She then gives us an excellent overview of style types within each area with an explanation and the typical activities that the respective learners will learn best with.

Personally, I’m very skeptical about categories because I believe they often simplify – not necessarily too much but – inappropriately and thereby prevent insights rather than foster them. I learned from Marjorie Rosenberg’s article that learning styles can be understood in a different way. So no matter if you’ve always been interested in learning styles or have your reservations about them, the journey will be enriching for you and your teaching.

What are you waiting for? Set your sails and enjoy the trip!

Markus Jürgen Dietz

ETAS e-Newsletter Editor

Member, ETAS Journal Editorial Board

Learning Styles

Marjorie Rosenberg

ETAS Journal, Volume 31 Number 1 (Winter 2013), pp. 23-25

The journey

The concept of learning styles is often debated in the field of education. Although research has been carried out for more than 50 years, it is still considered by some to be controversial. Those who argue against the existence of learning styles can point to a number of websites and scholarly articles while proponents of learning styles can find a selection of journal articles and research results attesting to the validity of the theories. My interest in this field began in the early 1990s in a course on Superlearning techniques where I heard about visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learners for the first time. It was as if a door had opened for me and I finally understood why my years of trying to learn French through the audio-lingual method had been so resoundingly unsuccessful. As a visual and kinaesthetic learner, being told “not to picture the words in my head” was the wrong way for me to be confronted with a language. Just listening to the sounds and answering with automatic responses or sitting in a language lab with no visual input did not help me at all. Years later, when I learned German, I wrote words down myself, carried a dictionary around to look up words, and made use of visual aids. This method was more rewarding for me and discovering differences in the two experiences began my journey into this fascinating area. As a language teacher, I set out to find out how I could help my learners have positive experiences both inside and outside the classroom and discovering ways to do this became a mission.


Looking at definitions by experts in the field, we learn:

  • “The way we perceive the world governs how we think, make judgments, and form values about experiences and people. This unique aspect of our humanness is what we call ‘style’” (Guild & Garger, 1998, p. 23).
  • Styles are “characteristic cognitive, affective and psychological behaviours that serve as relatively stable indicators of how learners perceive, interact with, and respond to the learning environment” (Keefe, 1979, p. 4).
  • “Learning style refers to an individual’s natural, habitual and preferred ways of absorbing, processing and retaining new information and skills which persists regardless of teaching methods of content area” (Kinsella 1995, p. 171).
  • “Learning style is the way each person begins to concentrate on, process, internalize and retain new and difficult academic information. More than three-fifths of learning style is biological; less than one-fifth is developmental” (Dunn & Dunn 1992, 1993; Dunn, Dunn, & Perrin, 1994, p. 11).

Importance in learning

This topic inspires debate from all corners of the globe. Several educators argue that it is impossible to change instruction to suit every learner and it would have no particular effect on the success of the learning outcome anyway. While this may be true, it is only one part of the equation. According to Harmer (2007):

The moment we realise that a class is composed of individuals (rather than being some kind of unified whole) we have to start thinking about how to respond to those students individually so that while we may frequently teach the group as a whole, we will also, in different ways, pay attention to the different identities we are faced with. (p. 85)

This does not mean that we need to constantly change our instruction in order to reach each and every learner all of the time. But a mix of methods can provide learners with new possibilities and resources for them to explore outside the classroom. In addition, encouraging learners to try out unfamiliar methods for themselves can encourage them to become more independent and autonomous learners.

According to Cohen (2010):

Indeed we learn in different ways and what suits one learner may be inadequate for another. While learning styles seem to be relatively stable, teachers can modify the learning tasks they use in their classes in a way that may bring the best out of particular learners with particular learning style preferences. It is also possible that learners over time can be encouraged to engage in ‘style-stretching’ so as to incorporate approaches to learning they were resisting in the past. (p.162)

Myths and misconceptions

There are a number of misconceptions about learning styles which need to be addressed. For one thing, learning styles are not an excuse. Giving up just because someone is not good at something is not particularly helpful. The goal is to create a mindset in which the person is made cognizant of their particular strengths and use them to grow. Another misconception is the assumption that learners cannot stretch out of their styles. Although the style can be seen as a foundation, most learners have incorporated methods ascribed to other styles to learn and acquire knowledge. Being aware of the wide range of possibilities can help a learner to achieve a particular goal. If the learner is successful, motivation may improve resulting in a positive self-fulfilling prophesy.

Labelling or pigeon-holing learners is also not the point of learning styles. It is interesting to observe students and become aware of their styles as it makes giving learning tips easier, but we must always assume that learners can continue to grow. Teachers can reassure learners that ANY strength or strategy which will help them achieve a goal is fine and there is no need to use only those most commonly employed by the style. However, they also need to have the self-confidence to use strategies comfortable for them, even if they have been told in the past that these strategies will not help them to learn. 

In addition, styles are not ‘right’ or ‘wrong’— they are valueless. No style is ‘better’ than another style; one may be more suited to learning a particular skill than another, but each of the styles has its strong and weak points. Style and competence should not be confused. In a language class two people with similar learning style profiles may have different commands of the language. It could even happen that a learner is enrolled in a programme which is not the right one for him or her. Discoveries about style can lead to making a change but also to finding new ways to learn material.


There are a variety of ways in which learning styles can be implemented in the foreign language classroom. In Spotlight on Learning Styles (Rosenberg, 2013), teachers are provided with checklists which they can do with their students. Characteristics of styles are given as well as tips and strategies for both learners and teachers. As many of us teach in the way we prefer to learn, we may overlook learners’ needs whose styles are very different from our own. Spotlight on Learning Styles has been written to remind teachers about the diversity we are faced with and provide tips and ideas to ensure that teachers can reach as many of their students as possible.

Style types

In writing Spotlight on Learning Styles (Rosenberg, 2013), it was necessary to decide which styles to cover. Drawing from other studies on learning styles (Reid 1995; Ehrman, 1996), Cohen (2010) suggests: “Although numerous distinctions are emerging from the literature, three categories of style preferences are considered particularly relevant and useful to understanding the process of language learning: sensory/perceptual, cognitive, and personality-related preferences” (p. 163). This concept led to choosing three distinct areas: visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic modalities (sensory channels of perception), global/analytic thought processes (cognitive processing), and Mind Organisation (behaviour based on perception and organisation of information). By adding to the knowledge provided by one style, a composite picture of a learner can be made. After doing all three surveys, the individuality and uniqueness of each of the learners becomes more apparent and suggestions for strategies can be tailored to the particular learner and situation.

VAK Learners

The standard VAK model includes visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learners as researched by Walter Barbe and Raymond Swassing (1979), who defined modalities as “any of the sensory channels through which an individual receives and retains information” (p. 1). However, my findings in adult education and teacher training have indicated that adults tend to be either kinaesthetic motoric (tactile) learners or kinaesthetic emotional ones. When this split takes place has not been determined, but it seems to show up in the later years of high school and is certainly apparent by the time learners reach tertiary level education or take on a job. For this reason, Spotlight on Learning Styles (Rosenberg, 2013) looks at these two areas separately and provides ideas for working with both types.

Visual learners generally remember best when they can see something or write it down. Examples of activities include noticing things about them, using colours, drawing or creating pictures in their minds, and recognizing shapes and written descriptions.

Auditory learners remember what they hear or say. Therefore, helpful activities include passing on sentences orally, telling stories or ordering them through listening, describing people, asking questions, and matching beginnings and endings of jokes they hear.

Kinaesthetic emotional learners need to feel comfortable with others. Therefore, they are encouraged to work together in groups to plan joint events, predict horoscopes for each other, find positive adjectives to describe classmates, or express feelings within a safe setting.

The kinaesthetic motoric learners need to move about and try things out for themselves. They are given the opportunity to walk around to gather information, create moving parts of a machine in a group, pass on a word by writing on someone’s back, or act out words.

The last section has mixed activities designed to appeal to all learner types such as describing, drawing, or ‘becoming’ pictures, playing memory in groups, remembering and repeating unusual definitions, and kinaesthetic bingo and gap texts. Students can contribute their own ideas to the activities and help fellow students or give personalised tips on how to remember things better.

Global / Analytic Learners

Moving onto cognitive processing, we look at the global /analytic learning style as researched by Herman Witkin (1981) who worked with fighter pilots to discover what influenced their decisions while piloting planes. His theory of field-dependent (global) learners and field-independent (analytic) learners is based on this research. He later developed the Group Embedded Figures Test, still used today to determine cognitive learner styles.

Global learners tend to process information holistically by remembering entire experiences rather than details. They are also relationship-oriented and may be emotional. The activities designed for them include a creative group drawing exercise, writing stories about each other, planning a class excursion, and playing games like ‘You-Robot’.

Analytic learners, on the other hand, like details and structure. They may prefer to work alone and are generally self-motivated and goal-oriented. The activities created for them include finding mistakes, solving logic puzzles, writing a detective story, and creating rules for activities.

Mind Organisation

The last of the styles looks at behaviour by combining two methods of perception, namely concrete (using the senses) or abstract (using ideas and feelings) with methods of organisation (systematic or non-systematic). This gives us four distinct styles identified by April Bowie (1998). She devised a learning style survey called Mind Organisation and used it as a basis for counselling high school students. Her four styles include:

  • Flexible Friends who perceive abstractly through ideas or feelings and organise non-systematically
  • Expert Investigators who perceive abstractly through ideas or feelings and organise systematically
  • Power planners who perceive concretely using their senses and organise systematically
  • Radical Reformers who perceive concretely through their senses but organise non-systematically

Flexible Friends like to work in groups of people they like. They are creative and value personalised learning experiences. They often express enthusiasm and empathy for others. Language activities for them include setting personal goals, writing down sentences which are true for them in a dictation, working with vocabulary of emotions and feelings, completing sentences about their partner, and finding things in common with others.

Expert Investigators are logical and systematic learners. They tend to be perfectionists and work at their own speed. In dealing with others they are generally logical and rational. They especially like to do research and to know where to find information. Language activities for them include working with facts and informative materials, finding errors and doing research for a class excursion followed up by a report.

Power Planners like to be organised and are generally detail- and task-oriented. In groups they may take on a leadership role. Language tasks which appeal to them include putting processes in order and explaining them to others, finding explanations and rules for difficult grammar points, using linking words correctly to create plans, and setting priorities.

Radical Reformers are risk-takers and often express curiosity about the world around them. They generally rely on their intuition to solve problems but pride themselves on finding unique ones by ‘thinking outside the box’. They also value real-life experiences. Activities for them include realistic role plays, acting out a scenario based on a true story, finding unusual uses for everyday items and selling them to others, and creating statements about themselves which the others guess are true or false.

Moving on

The information presented here is a start; the end of the journey is up to the readers and users of Spotlight on Learning Styles. As learning styles and the discoveries which occur when people become aware of them is a never-ending story, the goal of this article and the book itself is to open a window into learning which perhaps had not been considered before. Moving on to personal research or professional development, stretching outside your own comfort zone, or helping students to realise their true potential are only some of the places these ideas can take you. The excitement of discovery remains for those who use the information to delve into themselves and their teaching as well as their students and their learning in whichever way they choose. The impetus is here, the joy of further discovery is up to you.


  • Barbe, W. B., & Swassing, R. H. (1979). Teaching through modality strengths: Concepts and practices. Columbus, OH: Zaner-Bloser.
  • Bowie, A. (1998). Adolescent self-perceptions of learning styles: A qualitative study. Seattle, WA: Antioch University.
  • Cohen, A. D., Weaver, S. J., (2006). The impact of strategies-based instruction on speaking a foreign language (Research report). Minneapolis, MN: Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, University of Minnesota. Retrieved September 27, 2013 from https://sites.google.com/a/umn.edu/andrewdcohen/publications/language-le...
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Editor’s Note: Previously published on the Delta Publishing website http://www.deltapublishing.co.uk/content/uploads/2013/04/Author-Insights.... Reprinted with permission by the author and Delta Publishing and submitted to ETAS Journal by way of Vicky Loras. 

About the Author

Marjorie Rosenberg, originally from the US, has been living and teaching in Austria since 1981. Currently at the Language Institute of the University of Graz, she works with corporate clients and conducts teacher training workshops and conference presentations around Europe. Her publications include Spotlight on Learning Styles (Delta Publishing, 2013), Business Advantage Intermediate and Advanced Personal Study Books (Cambridge University Press, 2012), English for Banking and Finance 2 (Pearson, 2012), and In Business (Cambridge University Press, 2005). Marjorie is a Cambridge English Language Assessment oral examiner and is presently the coordinator of IATEFL BESIG.