What’s Your Preference? Young Adolescents and Learning Styles

Learning styles are an integral part of each student’s learning process, so to provide effective instruction, every teacher should be aware of the variety of learning styles represented in their classrooms.

When I start the new school year, I administer a 70-statement learning styles survey that asks students to respond to questions about themselves and their learning preferences. I then know how many students prefer each type of learning style: visual (spatial), aural (musical), verbal (linguistic), physical (bodily-kinesthetic), logical (logical-mathematical), social (interpersonal), and solitary (intrapersonal).

With results in hand, I can plan the best ways to present my science curriculum to these diverse learners.

During the past few years, several other middle grades schools in my district have used this survey, and I noticed that the scores per school and per grade level for each of the learning style categories are similar to the preferences of my own students. I wondered if this was true nationwide.

Going Nationwide

Working under the auspices of my graduate studies university, I solicited the participation of middle schools in 16 states: Alabama, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia.

Not only were the schools in diverse areas of the country, they represented diverse populations. Two of the schools had a large Hispanic enrollment; two others had large Native American populations. Predominantly white and predominantly black schools were also represented. One school had a considerable number of students with Middle Eastern ethnicity.

Teachers in these schools administered my learning styles survey to their students and shared the results with me. Interestingly, students ages 11–15 nationwide had essentially the same preferences, in the same rank order, for each learning style: social, aural, physical, visual, verbal, logical, and then solitary. Of course, these results are snapshots of a student’s learning style on a given day, but they are amazingly consistent.

Let’s look at each learning style, in order of student-identified preference.

  1. Social: Middle school is a social place, and the hundreds of students grouped together throughout the day cannot help but interact with each other. This interaction should continue in the classroom activities with plenty of small-group projects.
  2. Aural: To learn by listening, students must be able to filter distractions. Teachers should ensure a learning environment conducive to aural learning by minimizing peripheral noises.
  3. Visual: Is seeing believing? Too often, what students see in the classroom is repetitious or taken for granted. Teachers should realize that in the classroom, visual learning is tied to physical learning and include hands-on activities.
  4. Physical: Hands-on is the catchword here. From my observations, most students would much rather “play” with an instructional device than watch, listen, or write about it.
  5. Verbal: Although young adolescents are social beings and can easily communicate to their peers what they want and need, relating new knowledge orally or in writing is sometimes a trying task—partially because the young adolescent’s brain has not fully developed. This may explain why students ranked verbal close to the bottom of their preferences.
  6. Logical: Logic requires brain power, and physiologically the young adolescent’s brain is still developing. With Piaget’s cognitive learning theory in mind, we understand that young adolescents are still moving from concrete operations to formal operations, and their ability to think abstractly is developing slowly. Thus, it may need some nurturing.
  7. Solitary: The survey results indicated that those students who scored higher in social almost naturally scored lowest in solitary, and vice versa. We all have at least a handful of quiet, introspective students we overlook because they are so “well behaved.” However, will they always learn best independently? That’s something teachers need to investigate.

Knowledge Is Power

Regardless of the school environment, middle grades students on the average prefer to learn in the same ways. If we know how most young adolescents prefer to learn, we are armed with a valuable instructional strategy. The question is this: Should we direct our teaching efforts exclusively to the preferred learning styles or to all those styles in order to raise the cognitive levels of each student within each style?

One Lesson: Several Styles
Presenting content in a variety of ways is relatively easy. Let’s use an instructional unit on magnets as an example.

First, I have the students work alone (solitary) and jot down some notes (verbal) that express how they have experienced (physical) magnets. Then I give a short demonstration on magnets (visual) and explain (aural, verbal) how the magnets and magnetism interact. Then the students perform an activity (physical, visual) in small groups (social, aural, verbal). Each of the students describes the activity with a written recap (verbal, logical).

At the end of the activity, an individual student (solitary) or group of students (social) share their magnet activity results with the rest of the class (verbal) leading to intense comparative discussion (logical). Each of the learning styles is used at least once and will enhance the overall cognitive experience. As a teacher, you are prodding, questioning, and enhancing the “magnetic” exercise all along.
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, April 2010

Terry O’Gorman teaches middle school science and social studies at Bonaire Middle School in Bonaire, Georgia. E-mail: terry.ogorman@hcbe.net