Learning Styles: The Cognitive Side of Content

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You and I are different. It’s obvious, but has a profound impact on fulfilling the needs of disparate users. Not only do you and I have different accents, hairstyles, and musical tastes, but even our cognitive processes — the very building blocks of being human — are substantially different. I recently wrote about individual differences in expertise and cognitive style, but there is a third dimension: learning style. Understanding how people learn is fundamental to delivering desirable content, a prerequisite of any good user experience.

From 5 senses to 3 modalities

We experience the world through our senses. While we know from grade school that there are 5 senses, psychologists have distilled these into 3 “sensory modalities” relevant to learning: verbal, visual, and kinesthetic. Though everyone learns through all three modes, we each favor one over the others, resulting in three different styles of learning:

  • Verbal learners are best at absorbing written and spoken information. Since most learning is either text-based (reading a book, searching online) or auditory (a classroom lecture or personal conversation), verbal learners have ready access to content in their preferred medium.
  • Visual learners, on the other hand, digest information from charts, diagrams, timelines, maps, and other concrete images more easily than from the written or spoken word. In contrast to their verbal counterparts, visual learners are relatively underserved with appropriate content.
  • Kinesthetic learners enjoy hands-on activities involving movement (think dancing, pottery, woodwork). While kinesthetic learning is minimally involved in desktop computing, it plays a much more significant role in gestural and mobile interfaces, a discussion best saved for another article.

Dual Coding Theory

While our sensory modes courier outside stimuli into our brains, their role is much more pervasive than simple conduits. Once we acquire new knowledge, our brains encode that information onto our long-term memory in the vernacular of our sensory modes. In other words, our brains use two different formats for text and images, just like a computer.

Dual Coding Theory

Dual Coding Theory

But because verbal and visual concepts are stored separately, translating a semantic idea into a visual concept is a taxing, though ubiquitous process. When someone tells you driving directions, for instance, you probably construct a simple visual map in your mind. If you’re putting together a bookshelf using Ikea’s pictogram instructions, on the other hand, your mind works to decode those images into verbal steps of what to do next.

Ikea Instructions

A parody on the infamous Ikea instruction manual.

Dual Coding Theory, developed by Allan Paivio in the 1970s, unearthed an important discovery: people learn best when information is presented in two modalities at the same time. That is, providing a verbal and a visual explanation in parallel enables the mind to encode information in both modes as well as to build referential links (similar to hyperlinks on the web) between the two representations. Paivio’s research has profound implications upon designing websites that maximize learning.

Creating content for verbal and visual learners

Long-form articles are back in vogue. UXers love advocating calmer reading experiences while services like Instapaper and Readability help us compile and consume our own digital magazines. But as you read these words on your Kindle from the comfort of your favorite chair, millions of people around the world are frantically looking for information at this very instant, and they want it now! Learning styles and dual coding theory deliver a resounding message: pithy content is more important than ever before.

Use text and images

While we each have a preferred learning style, we all benefit when information is presented both textually and visually. A study by the University of California found a 30% rise in effective problem solving when verbal and visual instruction were given at the same time (compared with providing one followed by the other). An eyetracking study by Jakob Nielsen validated that users spend a significant amount of time looking at information-carrying images. For best results, invest in both textual and visual content.

 Pottery barn eyetracking

Pottery barn eyetracking

A photograph can sometimes be more important than the text, such as in this product list from Pottery Barn studied by Jakob Nielsen.

Visualize complex information

Presenting aggregate data in visual form helps the user understand the information landscape more quickly and intuitively than could text. The UK Treasury, for instance, releases a yearly summary of government spending, presented to the public as data tables within a PDF. When The Guardian designed an infographic visualizing the proportion of one department’s spending to the others, it was so incisive that the Treasury themselves requested printed copies to hang within their office. Does your website have information that could be made more powerful by visualizing it?

Guardian Infographic

Use concrete language

Words can also be visual. Concrete language (“juicy watermelon”, for example) evokes a much stronger sensory response than does abstract language (like “agricultural produce”). A study by Sadoski et al asserts: “Concrete words, phrases, sentences, and texts have been found to be more imageable, comprehensible, memorable, and interesting than abstract language units.” So, there you have it: use concrete language.

Sagrada Familia

Sagrada Familia

While these words on the door of the Sagrada Família are literally concrete, using vivid rather than abstract language makes for better writing.

Be concise

English teachers, editors, and experienced writers alike often give out a single piece of advice: be concise. Clearly expressed, succinct content increases comprehension and enhances usability. A study by Riding and Sadler-Smith found that together, a 40% reduction in word count, when combined with an increased use of visual illustrations, improved student’s test scores from 67% to 82% (out of 100). Take the time to make content concise.

Put it into practice: write a style guide

Now that you’ve learned a bit about how people learn, what are you going to do about it? Enter content strategy, the discipline of planning the purpose, message, and style of content. One tool from the content strategist’s toolbox is particularly useful in applying the implications of learning styles to your own content: the style guide.

A simple document casting a comprehensive vision of a website’s (or an entire organization’s) content, the style guide establishes a consistent point of reference for content creators. When writing or revising your style guide, consider these implications of learning styles:

  • Is your audience more likely to be verbal or visual learners?
  • Is there currently enough visual content on your website?
  • Are there parts of your website that would be more useful if better data visualization were used?
  • How should writers be expected to work with designers, illustrators, and photographers to pair text with communicative images?
  • Is your website’s style of language concrete and sensory, or is it too abstract?
  • Is your website content concise, or is there fluff that needs to disappear?

Conclusion

We learn through our verbal, visual, and kinesthetic senses, and our memories are encoded in these different formats. Each of us likely favors one style of learning over the others, but pithy, concrete text coupled with informative images is a potent content cocktail for people of all learning styles.
The author would like to thank Jonathan Kahn for his helpful input on this article.

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Sagrada Familia photo by joelrbrandt

Tyler Tate

Tyler is a London-based user experience designer who is currently building a CRM at Nutshell and designing search user interfaces at TwigKit.

13 comments on this article

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  2. There are many conclusions to be drawn from cognitive research, and I really appreciate the suggested applications in this article.

    However, I would like to take this opportunity to strike a blow for a more contextual and situated approach to learning (e.g. Jean Lave & Etienne Wengers situated learning model, the etnomethodological approach, etc.).

    Quite often I meet people in my work that see cognitive learning styles as a convenient checklist to ensure maximum learning in any given situation and for any given individual.

    In my view no one is preferably verbal, visual or kinesthetic in all contexts and in relation to all learning matters. Every given context and sets of individual(s) has it´s own conditions for learning, I think.

  3. Hi Jonas,

    Thanks for taking the time to post your response. The situated learning model and ethnomethodology are new to me, so I look forward to reading more about them. Thanks for the advice,

    Tyler

  4. Hi Tyler,
    I think your article offers a lot of good information. The whole idea of Learning Styles, however, seems to be getting debunked. For example, Dr. Ruth Clark has done a review of the research and can’t find much supporting evidence. I have read this elsewhere too. http://clarktraining.com/blog/?p=26
    Something to think about and explore in more depth.
    Best regards,
    Connie Malamed

  5. LPH on

    The original work in defining learning styles is consistently taken out of context. Change learning styles to learning skills – and you end up with the original intent of the descriptions for learning. The idea that we have preferences is actually a filter and not a benefit.

  6. I think that each method of studying depend on your own and your capacity to get adapted to your courses. When I studied online at UNED university, a spanish online university I have to create new styles of studying due to I did all my courses online. It was a little bit compicated in order to attend all online classes, but it gave to me various advantages in order to schedule my own time to combine my studies with my work.

    Interesting article,

    best regards,

  7. Hi there,

    I was just wondering if you can point to any evidence (a) that learning styles exist and (b) that using someone’s preferred learning style actually improves their learning and/or engagement with the material. So far, all the research I am aware of suggests that there is little to no evidence of these things (see Paschler et al, 2008 and also Coffield et al., 2006, both of which are pretty thorough meta-analyses).

    Everyone’s brain encodes semantic/auditory and visual information separately, but I’m not totally clear here how that in itself would support the existence of learning styles (or whether you intended it to read that way). Tickling both pathways is definitely a great way of ensuring that people take in information more efficiently, though.

    Concreteness is a really interesting area — again, there’s some pretty compelling evidence that concreteness and specifics help information gel in the mind of the learner. And again, that’s probably true for pretty much everyone and doesn’t necessarily demonstrate the existence of learning styles per se. Putting these bits of information side by side doesn’t actually build any kind of compelling argument that one is related to the other, or that learning styles exist; I think you need to work on your argument here because these are interesting and valuable points in and of themselves, but they do nothing to support the existence of learning styles.

    Finally, lest the above comes across as a bit snippy, I think there’s loads more research to do here and it’s a really interesting space. I taught undergraduate students for nine years and anecdotally it makes complete and intuitive sense to me that learning styles exist (and many educators would probably say something similar), yet objectively we just don’t have evidence for it. So we really shouldn’t be too hasty to talk brain stuff, which we know impresses and persuades people even when it’s totally irrelevant, in the same breath as talking about things for which there is no evidence. As a cognitive scientist, this stuff is important to me to get right.

    Kind regards,

    Chris

  8. There seems to be a bit of contention about the validity of learning styles and whether they’re backed by evidence. I think the first point worth mentioning is that there are many different takes on learning styles, including:

    * Gregorc’s abstract and ordering dimensions
    * Kolb’s model of concrete experience vs. abstract conceptualization and reflective observation vs. active experimentation
    * Dunn and Dunn’s environmental, emotional, sociological, physiological, and psychological dimensions
    * Felder’s inventory of 32 learning styles over two dimensions (one of which is the input dimension of visual vs. auditory)

    In reality, verbal, visual, and kinaesthetic learning are treated less as learning styles and more as a form of cognitive style in much of the literature (though there is some overlap). What I’ve presented here is much more centred around Pavio’s dual-coding theory, which has significant empirical backing. All the conclusions I drew in this article, for example, are based on empirical research by Mayer and Sims, Riding & Sadler-Smith, Sadoski et al, and Jakob Nielsen.

    I think the real issue here is that verbal vs. visual learning should be discussed under the banner of cognitive style rather than the baggage-laden label of learning styles.

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  12. Bob on

    Great post. There’s a recent white paper written by Brandon Hall Research that covers the topic of different learning modalities. Check it out here:
    http://ow.ly/5z7Bx