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Is It a Learning Disability or a Learning Style?

Updated on June 30, 2017
Joan Dragonfly profile image

Through life experience, Joan is committed to raising awareness about how people who think differently perceive and interact with the world.

Venn diagram of 3 major learning styles.
Venn diagram of 3 major learning styles. | Source

Everyone Thinks Differently

Thinking differently than others is not a bad thing. It just means that the brain processes information in an alternative way than what is traditionally taught in school and those methods of teaching do not work for everyone, yet schools continue to shape students out of the same cookie-cutter mold, which can leave parents and students frustrated. In upper-grade levels, public schools primarily focus on catering to auditory learners, which leaves kinesthetic and visual learners at a disadvantage, as they struggle their way to make sense of the material being thrown at them at a faster pace than they can keep up with. There is an unfair balance in the way students are taught, and it comes as a surprise that more schools aren’t trying to find new ways to teach every student in more fulfilling ways. There is hope; however, with our ever-advancing technology and the modern ways teachers are expected to teach (especially with the advent of Google Classroom). To make learning easier for everyone, the focus should be on how a teacher is taught to teach in the first place—beginning at the college level. Before reading about each learning style, please keep in mind that a person can have more than one type of learning style (or a combination of styles, as illustrated in the Venn Diagram above). Every individual should try to figure out for themselves which learning methods work best for their own learning styles. Hopefully, this article can help steer anyone who may be confused or frustrated about this topic in the right direction. For information regarding learning disabilities, please reference the "Disabilities or Conditions That Affect Learning" chart in this article.

Three fidget spinners.
Three fidget spinners. | Source

The Kinesthetic Learner

A kinesthetic learner is often told to settle down. Teachers demand that students are quiet and listen to instruction, but this doesn't come easily to a kinesthetic learner. They are not necessarily trying to be disobedient or disrespectful, but the motions that they are making help them learn. Kinesthetic learners tend to...

  • fidget and seem to have a lot of energy.
  • have a habit of knee-bouncing and pencil-tapping.
  • be good at sports.
  • be very handy.
  • be very interested in how things work.
  • enjoy manipulating objects with their hands.

It is possible that the best type of school for this learning style is a vocational school, where each student learns by doing and finds a trade that suits their interests (such as metal shop, woodworking, electrical, auto mechanics, HVAC, etc…). Another option is a Performing Arts School (which may be better suited for spatial-visual learners), but those schools are few and far between and may either have waiting lists or use a lottery systems for a student to gain admittance. Instead, it would be best if public schools (in general) could teach in a way that appeals to all types of learning styles, so that everyone has a fair chance to succeed.

Helpful Tips for Kinesthetic Learners:

Usually, homework and study time should be uninterrupted and distraction-free whenever possible, but when a kinesthetic learner start feeling restless, it may help to try any of the following tips...

  • Use a stress ball, fidget spinner, or wiggle a pencil up and down (and in different directions to signify different ideas or topics), while studying to help retain information.
  • Between memorizing lines, play fetch with a dog, dribble, or toss a ball, while repeating the lines out loud in an appropriate location (such as outside).
  • Take short breaks often (homework: 25 minutes / breaks: 5 minutes).
  • Play drums (or something drum-like) and use a different beat, pace, or speed for each different idea to be learned.
  • Try using “V-A-K flashcards” (see "Classroom Exercises" below for details).
  • Stand up and sit down in different places between topics to keep the ideas separated out in your mind (learn a section, stand, relocate, sit, and repeat).
  • Fix something build a puzzle, broken, or stack blocks while learning facts.

Listening carefully.
Listening carefully. | Source

The Auditory Learner

An auditory learner does well when focusing on information being spoken in a classroom or lecture hall because they learn best through hearing. They may have trouble coming up with ideas for creative writing projects, unless a clear example has been provided. Auditory learners tend to...

  • do well by listening and following verbal instructions.
  • pick up on background sounds that others may not notice.
  • work well in groups.
  • does better with reading comprehension, if the story is read aloud.
  • usually has average to above average grades (depending on the teacher).
  • understands speech through staticky intercoms better than others.
  • become a leader in group discussions.
  • be able to keep up with what a teacher is asking the class to do.
  • be more apt to ask questions, if something isn't properly explained.

Over all, an auditory learner does very well in a regular school environment, since most teachers cater to this type of learning because they are likely to be auditory learners themselves, unless they teach Physical Education (which may be more kinesthetically oriented).

Helpful Tips for Auditory Learners:

  • Memorize material by reading it out loud to yourself or with a study partner.
  • Listen to background music (not too loud or distracting and should probably be lyric-free), while doing homework.
  • Interact in a discussion group to help verbalize ideas.
  • Listen to lectures and jot down notes to read back to yourself later.
  • Use audio books or relevant (expert) videos to help sharpen your skills.
  • Record yourself reading notes out loud and repeat playback until the material is memorized.

Envisioning in the mind's eye.
Envisioning in the mind's eye. | Source

The Visual Learner

A visual learner craves visual representation in any subject, since they learn best through seeing. It may seem as if a visual learner is not paying attention, but instead... they may be trying to visualize what is being said, which takes extra time to process in their minds. To a visual learner, people seem to speak too fast for them to keep up with the words being said. The result is that only a limited amount of information gets retained. Visual learners tend to remember (nouns) people, places, and things the best, since they are what can be seen, identified, and reimagined in their minds. Visual learners tend to...

  • struggle with verbal instruction or communication.
  • take a lot of notes.
  • doodle in their notebook.
  • have a photographic memory.
  • color code using colored pens, markers, and highlighters.
  • be very creative.
  • think of themselves as having a bad memory (after listening).
  • "think out of the box" with fresh ideas.
  • relate to the phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words."

When a teacher lectures in class, a visual learner's only chance of remembering information is to take copious notes and rewrite them later in a neater and more condensed format that is also color coded and emphasized using all caps, bold, and italicized words, while doodling on the side of each idea or section, as a visual representation of the content. Doodling may seem like a distraction to others, but it actually helps a visual learner to remember. For a visual learner, a doodle on a notebook page is similar to having a bookmark inside a book. It is a placeholder or focal point to refer back to (in the visual learner's mind). They may use their photographic memory to recall in their notes where they doodled next to an important piece of information. They will associate the doodle with that adjacent content.

Helpful Tips for Visual Learners:

  • Color code important information (using thin markers, colored pencils, pens, and highlighters in multiple colors)
  • Use flashcards that also show a visual representation that they can associate with text (see the "K-A-V flashcards" exercise in this article for more details).
  • Take notes during lectures then rewrite later and add doodles or other visuals (and emphasize words using bold, italic, all caps, and different color text). If a concept isn't sticking in your mind... draw an icon, doodle, or arrow next to a important word, phrase, or sentence to be learned and try to visualize that image associated with that particular word or block of text.
  • Visualize a story when reading for better comprehension (focus on characters, setting, actions, theme, plot, climax, and resolution).
  • Use online video tutorials to help visualize concepts on different topics.
  • Use a dry-erase board at home to work on examples of material using different color markers and then take a photograph before erasing to reference later on.

How I Discovered My Own Learning Style

It wasn’t until I became a mother myself and watched my daughter struggle through the same things I did, that I understood what it meant to be a visual learner. I always used to think there was something wrong with my brain because I couldn't understand why I thought so much differently than everyone else that I knew. When I was a child, my mother had me tested for any conditions that may cause learning problems, but nothing was ever found, and the tests came back "normal." Parents, teachers, and eventually even my husband would always tell me, “You never listen or pay attention!” It isn't that I don't pay attention, but since I think visually, it takes my brain too long to come up with images in my mind about what is being said. I manage to pick up bits and pieces of conversations, but I never seem to get a full picture. I used to believe that I had a terrible memory because I couldn't remember much of what was spoken. I always had to write everything down during lectures. However, if I see something and think deeply back to the picture of it in my mind, then I am able to recall a lot of what I saw. In college, I would rewrite my class notes and add doodles to certain sections of the pages in my notebook, so I could remember which doodle went with which section of text, to help my brain map out the various sections of the page in my mind. My photographic memory wasn't perfect, but I could recall enough of what was on a page to keep my grades up. Since I figured my daughter’s brain would work in a similar way, I used to color code each of her spelling words on a piece of paper and gave it to her to review. When I quizzed her later, she not only knew how to spell the word correctly, but she could also tell me what color the word was written in (referencing the picture of the page that I color coded, in her mind).

QUIZ: What is Your Learning Style?


view quiz statistics

TEACHERS: Classroom Exercises for All Learning Styles

Students may benefit from these fun classroom activities (mentioned below) that encourage and inspire all different types of learners to do projects in a way that comes naturally for them. Give these projects a try for a more interactive classroom!

V-A-K flashcard
V-A-K flashcard | Source

EXERCISE 1: V-A-K Flashcards:

Teachers: print and fill out most of the information (except definitions and icons) on the flashcards. After creating a master set, (so letters are assigned terms for consistent answers), make copies, give a set to each student, have students fill in definitions and icon (optional) and cut out the individual flashcards to be used in a classroom exercise (NOTE: Make sure to have plenty of scissors handy, unless students are to fill out and cut out as homework the night before). After reciting the terms with correct corresponding definitions, students will break up into groups and recite and practice correct term/definitions sets together. Finally students will return to their desks with their own set of flashcards, reshuffle flashcards to make sure they aren't still in order, and test their own memory matching up the correct terms and definitions, while recording answers on a separate piece of paper to hand in to the teacher when finished. Students should set up answers as follows (by finding numbers on term cards and corresponding letters on definition cards). Example: term card with letter A(term: “Tactile”) matches up with its definition number “6” (definition: “Able to perceive by using the sense of touch”), so answers should appear similar to this format: A-6, B-10, C-5, D-7, etc...

  • HANDS-ON (Kinesthetic Learner-Friendly Method): Play a matching game by matching a term on one flashcard with its definition on another flashcard (to be clear… a term flashcard should not appear on the back of a definition flashcard, as flashcards are typically made). Next, line up (side-by-side) the correct term and definition pairs.
  • USING PICTURES (Visual Learner-Friendly Method): Using the same "hands-on" approach (as mentioned above), add in an illustration, icon, shape, or emoji (doesn't have to be relevant and shouldn't take long to draw) on each definition card, so that visual learners can have an easier way of associating a term and its corresponding icon with definition. Visual cues are how this type of learner remembers best.
  • LISTEN and REPEAT (Auditory Learner-Friendly Method): After sitting quietly at their own desks using the “hands-on” approach (mentioned above, cutting up and setting up flashcards), the teacher should recite (verbally so students can listen) the entire set of flashcards terms with corresponding definitions to the class to make sure they all know the correct answers before they begin. Next, students should be asked to break up into groups. The students should take turns having one person in the group recite the definitions out loud to the group, as the rest of the group recites the corresponding terms. Hearing the right answer repeatedly by different voices will help the auditory learner remember the material better.

(Alternative: QUIZLET is a great hands-on, visual, and auditory option, as well).

EXERCISE 2: V-A-K Oral Presentations: (Option-based)

  • HANDS-ON (Kinesthetic Learner-Friendly Method): Allow students the option of giving a demonstration of how to do something (with an appropriate pre-approved topic), instead of doing a basic run-of-the-mill oral report (In high school, I once demonstrated how to do a paper mache project in front of the class).
  • USING PICTURES (Visual Learner-Friendly Method): Allow students the option of working on a slideshow presentation (this can be done using Google Slides), so they can show pictures along with their spoken words. The pictures will help get the student through the lecture easier and relieve anxiety about being the center of attention.
  • LISTEN (Auditory Learner-Friendly Method): These students may prefer to use the traditional “oral report” method of standing still in front of the class (with paper in hand) and present to the class purely through speaking, but don't be surprised if they'd rather choose one of the other mixed media options.

EXERCISE 3: Act Out Scenes: Great for lessons in history, reading, etc...

  • HANDS-ON (Kinesthetic Learner-Friendly Method): Learn actions done by individuals long ago (example: churning butter, tilling the farm, tilting hat, etc…) and may have a short line to remember to say aloud, if necessary.
  • BEING CREATIVE (Visual Learner-Friendly Method): Let the visual learners' imaginations run wild with finding pictures online and printing them out to post around in the classroom (or map out on the floor) to “set the stage.” If time allows, they can add drawings or paint backgrounds. When they are done, they can “learn by watching” the others in the class act out the scene (while the others learn by “doing” and “listening,” as they interact with each other). Even while they are watching, the visual learners may have their own lines to recite, also... to further contribute to the team environment.
  • RECITING QUOTES (Auditory Learner-Friendly Method): These students can read sections from a book to the class (or memorize and recite lines), and help act out a scene in class (this while the kinesthetic learners gesture, as they “work” in the background and may also have a few small lines to recite, themselves).

Compare Learning Styles Vs. Learning Disabilities/Conditions

Please reference the different learning disabilities (or conditions that affect learning) in the chart below after reading about the three types of learning styles in this article and see if you notice any similarities, but also note the differences. This observation is not to suggest that anyone with a particular learning style has a developmental or learning disability, but it certainly seems as though it may be easy for caregivers to confused one with the other.

CHART: Disabilities or Conditions That Affect Learning

Disability or Condition
Description:
Dyslexia
A learning disability in a person with normal intelligence, but may have difficulties learning to read with the inability to properly recognize letters, words, and/or special characters. Other problems may include confusion with directions (top, bottom, up, down, right, left), writing letters upside-down or backwards, problems with sequential order (spelling, reading, putting letters or whole words out of order, letter or word omission, and/or adding in words that aren’t there), and/or similar difficulties with math related content.
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
A developmental disorder that makes it difficult for an individual to give full attention to completing tasks and/or inability to control their behavior. This condition can have mild to severe cases. Problems may include: inability to fully pay attention (such as having trouble concentrating or remembering, being disorganized, or easily being distracted), hyperactivity (such as fidgeting, climbing, or too much loud talking), and/or impulsive behavior (such as stealing, punching, biting, or running away).
Audio Processing Disorder (APD)
A learning disability that affects a person's ability to listen, understand, and remember spoken language. An individual with this disorder has trouble following verbal instructions and may be easily distracted by background stimuli.
Visual Processing Disorder (VPD)
A learning disability that affects a person's ability to process information taken in through seeing (which is not a result of poor vision). An individual with this perceptual disorder has trouble processing and understanding what they are looking at, may have difficulty with spatial relationships between objects, and may even have trouble differentiating between similarly shaped letters, numbers, or special characters.
Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
A learning disability that affects a person's ability to accurately process sensory input and may experience hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity toward that input. An individual with this disorder may overreact (or underreact) to certain stimuli or situations. This disability affects how a person reacts to something they see, smell, hear, touch, and maybe even taste.
Dyscalculia
A learning disability that affects a person's ability to do or understand math calculations, quantities, concepts, or facts. An individual may have difficulty understanding number sense and may be unable to organize or remember step by step numbers to calculate in their mind. They may also have problems with: counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, multiple step calculations, reasoning, and place values.
Dysgraphia
A learning disability that affects a person's ability to write readable, clear, and coherent sentences. An individual with this disorder may have difficulty with legible handwriting, spelling, expressing ideas, knowing when to use capitals vs. lowercase letters, and properly organizing words in a sentence. They may even omit words and lack effective fine motor skills used in handwriting. A person with this disability may not write what they were thinking and may also have trouble with the following: writing left to right, word and letter-spacing, letter direction, keeping words lined up on lined paper, and may write inside the margins.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
A developmental disability that may impair a person’s communication, social skills, sensitivity to sensory stimuli (hypersensitivity or hyposensitivity), and may also cause the need for repetitive or ritualistic behavior (such as hand flapping or needing to do things in a certain order). Cases of this disability can range from mild to severe. In extreme cases, an individual may even have problems with seizures, outbursts, self-injurious behavior, and/or the inability to speak at all.

Learn How to Learn: Video (by Barbara Oakley)

Understanding Right Brain vs. Left Brain (top to bottom)

Right-Brain: Refers to a person who primarily thinks by using the RIGHT side of their brain. They think in a creative and visual way. They are typically Visual Learners and learn best by referring to pictures, charts, and any other visually appealing data. They may also have good intuition when it comes to recognizing other people’s feelings and emotions.

Left-Brain: Refers to a person who primarily thinks by using the LEFT side of their brain and thinks in an organized and logical manner. They are usually Auditory Learners and learn best by listening to information. They are often good at following instructions, rules, and schedules. They are also good at prioritizing and are usually efficient with their time management, especially when it comes to meeting deadlines.

Studies suggest that there may even be an alternative to the right-brain versus left-brain theory.

Conclusion

Every individual learns differently and it is possible for a person to have more than one type of learning style, such as being an Auditory-Kinesthetic Learner (may have interests in music), Visual-Kinesthetic Learner (may think three-dimensionally or in a visual-spatial way), or Visual-Auditory Learner (may have good reading and writing capabilities). I suppose it is even possible for someone to have a combination of all three learning styles, but I have never seen or heard of anyone who has that ability.

There will come a time in just about everyone’s life, when someone will become frustrated with that person because that person does not think the same way that they do. The more we know how and why our brains work differently, the more we can understand and increase our tolerance toward one another and appreciate what others are capable of, instead of focusing on what they are not capable of. As we all know... no one is perfect.

If we can improve how learners learn and how teachers teach by raising awareness of the three types of learning styles (or combination of styles) and by providing school material that caters to every learning style, then students’ grades will be more likely to improve (even on standardized tests) and students will be much more likely to have improved self-confidence, self-esteem, and may be inspired to do great things in life, as they strive for success.

Here's to learning in style!

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