Learning Modalities

It is common knowledge in education that knowing one’s, or one’s students’, preferred learning modality is important or at least helpful in designing learning strategies for ourselves or them. When I do a search of learning modalities I find dozens of articles in educational journals about how to use this information and why it is important. The interesting thing is that the empirical evidence does not support the claim, despite its popularity. And this lack of support is not for lack of investigation.


First, I want to be clear on what learning modalities are and are not. They are basically the receptive modes of taking in the world—most commonly aural (hearing,), visual (seeing), and kinesthetic (feeling, touching). These are not to be confused with learning styles (of which there are many versions such as field dependent or independent, liking to work alone or with others, risk-avoidant or risk-taker, introverted, extroverted). Nor is it to be confused with Gardner’s seven or eight Intelligences, which are ways of understanding, and really describe thinking about the world rather than how we receive information, which is what modalities are about.

We believe in our modality preference for the same reason humans believe many things that are not true. It just seems so intuitively true. We all have a sense of how we best take in information. Also, it is so often repeated – and even accepted and promoted by supposed experts – that it must be true. There are lots of tests designed by psychologists to measure our modality prefernces and help you figure out your strength. When I first took psychology in the 1980s this dichotomy between the common sense belief and the evidence was pointed out by one of my professors. Even then it had been studied and found to be false. In the 30+ years since then, the literature has continued to pour out on how to teach to modalities, and the evidence that such teaching does not actually enhance learning has also continued, and continued to be ignored by the practitioner side of the field. Special education teachers might say, “Well maybe it is true for regular education, but in special education these differences are real.” However, most of the research is with special education (as are most of the advise articles), and it is just as false in special education as in regular education.

It is a fact that in humans it is the visual area of the brain that is really the biggest—it is just the way that humans have evolved to take in the world. This is true of everyone unless they are blind or are brain damaged in some way. As social beings, however, we interact with other humans to a large extent though hearing and speaking. It is our verbal communication with others that to a large extent fulfills our needs as social animals. Many people claim that, although sight is our most central perception, being deaf is psychologically worse, because it isolates us to a greater extent than does blindness.

And whenever I ask about how people like to learn (not meaning modalities) virtually everyone says “Oh, I’m one of those people that needs to be actively involobved.” We are all kinesthetic, we all learn though doing, touching. And again, the humans have evolved to actually need, desire, touch. There is a famous experiment where a baby monkey will choose the artificial mother that provides soft embrace to the one that provides milk but no physical stimulation.

The fact is that the human brain is extremely interconnected, with each part constantly communicating with the other parts and it puts all the information together to make sense and act on the world. This misreading of the fact that we can divide the brain into parts that control certain functions and trying to then act is if they work independently reminds me of the other fallacy people used to talk about–being “right” or left” brained. Again, while different functions are controlled on the right and left hemisphere, unless we have had an old fashioned type lobotomy, both sides interact at every moment and our brain acts as a whole.

What I have discussed is that all of these modalities are central to being human. What the research has shown is that when you use all modalities all learners learn better! This is really a boon for teachers, since instead of feeling like you need to test each of your students for their strengths and then design separate lessons for each type learner, now what you are best off doing is designing lessons that utilize all modalities. The more modalities you use, the more all students do better. For all students relying on just one or two is exactly that—less.

I give the example of my getting directions. I could just hear it (or read it) (auditory) “Turn right here, turn left there….” Or I could look at on a map (visual). But getting both helps me remember it even better. And then what I like to do, to really get it down pat, is stand up and point the direction of each turn, in turn, maybe even turning my body as well, as I go over it (kinesthetic).

So take heart, the truth in this case makes our teaching easier, not harder.

As one researcher put it, “The contrast between the enormous popularity of the learning-styles approach within education and the lack of credible evidence for its utility is, in our opinion, striking and disturbing” (Pashler el at, 2009).

Some references:

Kampwirth, T. J., & Bates, M. (1980). Modality preference and teaching method: A review of the research. Intervention in School and Clinic, 15(5), 597-605.

Kavale, K. A., & LiFever, G. (2007). Dunn and Dunn model of learning-style preferences critique of Lovelace meta-analysis. The Journal of Educational Research, 101(2).

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.

Sanley, J. D. (1987). An examination of student learning styles and learning modalities on problem-solving success. Unpublished Dissertation, University of Nebraska – Lincoln.

Woolfolk, A. E. (2013). Educational psychology, 12th ed. Pearson.

10 thoughts on “Learning Modalities

    • Thank you Dr. Nick. Very interesting information and beneficial for my current position.
      Looking forward to reading more from your blog!


  1. Someone else will probably be writing this same paper in another ten years. In special ed I wonder if identifying a weakness in a particular skill was equated with a preference for another modality. Or from another point of view, a particular talent in one area was equated with a preference for one modality over another. When you think about it, learning is seldom through a single, isolated modality unless a person has extremely limited sensory input.

    • Yes, you point out another aspect I had wanted to include but forgot–the parts of the brain are so interconnected–they work in synchronicity with each other, not separately. While we can through dissection or experimentation artificially isolate parts, in real life the brain works as a whole.

  2. Okay, but where does the exclusionary distinction between receptive (“passive”?) and active learning come from? Is a human bean EVER only a sensor? Your interchange with ‘2Old’ highlights synchronicity, and your review of research on modalities discovers ‘the more the merrier,’ . Is there a similar conclusion for, maybe, whole learner. My guess is that gifted teachers necessarily work on that basis, constantly integrating and modifying–like a dancer in a group of dancers, or maybe a fireman in a burning building.

    • We are probably never wholly passive or active, though we can be at any moment more one then the other. For my ideas of what good teaching looks like, you can see some of my other posts that deal more specifically with that.

  3. Pingback: Learning styles myth revisited | Blogcollectief Onderzoek Onderwijs

  4. Hi Nick. I saw on Diane Ravitch’s blog that you are looking for educators focused on democracy. I am on the Oakland Unified School Board in Oakland CA, and Young Whan Choi in our district would be a great resource for you, I think. He is the History and Cuvic Engagement Coordinator for our district. If you Google him, you should be able to find his bio. He has done a lot of work on a project called Democracy in the Digital Age.

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