Learning Styles vs Dual Coding

The education theory of learning styles suggests that we each have a preferred mode of learning (visual, auditory, reading/writing, or kinesthetic – VARK for short) and that we learn best when the learning conditions match that mode.

Another theory, dual coding, suggests that learning outcomes are improved when there’s a blend of verbal and visual processing of new information.

A 2018 study pitted those two theories against each other, as discussed in an episode of The Learning Scientists podcast.

I’d like to summarize that study and explore what it means for us as visual note-takers.

Researchers Josh Cuevas and Bryan Dawson began by using the VARK methodology to identify each study participant’s learning style, with particular interest in comparing the experiences of visual learners and auditory learners.

Those study participants were then presented with a series of statements that involved novel scenarios. One group was asked to rate how easily they could “form a mental picture or image” of the scenario (prompting visual processing) and another group was asked to rate how easily they could pronounce the words (prompting verbal processing). Each of those two groups included visual and auditory learning styles.

After hearing and processing 20 different scenarios, they were quizzed to see if they could recall specific details from each scenario. Here’s how each group performed on that task:

The learning styles theory suggests that auditory learners should learn better when processing information with a linguistic approach. In this study we see that’s not the case, that even auditory learners achieve better learning outcomes when processing new information visually, which adds support to the theory of dual coding.

As it turns out, there’s a growing amount of evidence that discredits the learning styles approach to instruction.

For another (more informal) study, you might enjoy this video from science educator Derek Muller on his YouTube channel Veritasium:

As Muller points out, certain areas of study lend themselves to certain modes of learning (auditory in a music class, visual in a geography class, kinesthetics in shop class). So it’s more about matching the learning mode to the skill the student is acquiring, rather than trying to match the learning mode to that student’s preferred learning style.

The danger of trying to focus on a singular learning style is that it puts you into a box, and might make you reluctant to take on activities that live outside of that supposed limitation.

Another takeaway from the study we started with: you’re not a visual learner, we all are. We all learn better when given the opportunity to process new information with a blend of verbal and visual elements. That’s what dual coding is all about.

So, it looks like we’re on the right track with visual note-taking!

While certain skillsets lend themselves to hands-on experiences or audio-only exercises, when it comes to processing and remembering new information, taking notes that merge together words and sketches seems to be well-supported by the research.

But don’t use that as an excuse to shy away from learning experiences that don’t involve pen and paper!

There’s lots to explore beyond the notebook too.