At SchoolSphero Team
Students who prefer tactile learning like to get hands-on with projects in the classroom.

Thomas Edison was one of the most prolific and accomplished inventors of all time. He is credited with inventing the incandescent light bulb, phonograph, motion picture camera, mimeograph machine, and much more. At the time of his death, he had over 1,000 patents. But did you know that Edison was expelled from school at age 12 because he couldn’t learn math and was unable to focus on the lessons?

One can only surmise that, had the school employed the tactile learning style — that is, if young Tommy Edison was able to learn by tinkering and puttering around with his hands — he would have been at the top of his class and probably would have graduated with honors.

What Is the Tactile Learning Style?

Tactile learning, sometimes called kinesthetic learning, is considered one of the four main methodologies in the theory of learning styles. The others are auditory, visual, and reading and writing. So-called tactile learners are considered those who learn best by physical touch or by trying to do something themselves. They first hear or see something new; then they engage other senses — in essence, they become participants in the learning exercise — to bring the learning process full circle. This differs from students who are considered auditory and visual learners, who may not need this additional step to fully process and understand new ideas and concepts.

Tactile and Kinesthetic Learners — Are They the Same?

While the two terms are often used interchangeably, there are subtle differences. It’s thought that tactile learners best learn through the sense of touch. The idea of “hands-on” is quite literal, as they want to touch and feel things to absorb new information and concepts. Sometimes it is enough for them to have a pencil and paper to write things down while they are learning. While the notes may come in handy later, it is the act of writing — feeling the paper and pencil — that initially facilitates learning.

On the other hand, those who are considered to be kinesthetic learners may prefer to learn by doing, by engaging their whole body in the learning activity. They usually have a high level of gross motor-skill controls. That’s why kinesthetic learners often excel in sports, acting, and dance. They find auditory and visual instruction difficult and often fidget in their seats during such lessons. They’re not “hyperactive,” they just want to move!

For the sake of this article, though, we’ll use the word “tactile” when speaking about both of these learning styles, as the classroom strategies, activities, and assignments are essentially the same for both.

How to Identify Tactile Learners

How can you tell if a student is a tactile learner? Clearly, if a student thrives in a “hands-on” environment and does well when physically engaged in learning, that student is likely a tactile learner. But there are other, more subtle, indications of the tactile learning style as well.

Does the student bear down excessively hard when writing? Remember things well when taking notes? Play with coins, keys, or other items in pockets? Chew gum or snack during studies? Do well at puzzles and mazes? Not like to read directions before starting an activity? Prefer not to study at a desk? Need frequent breaks when studying? Not give verbal instructions well?

While all kids manifest at least a couple of these characteristics, these are some of the main indicators that a student is a tactile learner. You get the picture, right? Visual and auditory instruction doesn’t light their fire. They need to engage more than just their ears and eyes. They want to touch, try, do, and move.

Tactile Learners: Tips for Teachers

How can teachers design their lessons to best reach tactile learners? With a little forethought and creativity, a classroom can be a place where these students not only stay engaged but also enjoy the learning process and thrive.

Get Their Hands Involved

As mentioned, this may be as simple as asking them to take notes. What kind of notes? Maybe just words, but they can also draw pictures to help them remember what they’re learning, or you can teach them how to take notes using a mind map. If they’re reading text, they can use a colorful highlighter to mark areas that are important or that they find interesting. Depending on the lesson, they can use calculators and computers to keep their hands busy.

Use Props for Math

Some sort of manipulative device keeps hands busy while tactile learners are working out math problems. For example, they can use tiles or other small pieces when doing addition and subtraction. For geometry lessons, tactile learners will absorb the concepts much more quickly if they can pick up and hold the shapes being discussed — a square, rectangle, right or isosceles triangle, parallelogram, trapezoid, etc.

Provide Options for Tactile Learners

If you’re giving students an assignment, think of different ways they could do the assignment, and then let each student choose the method they like best. For example, a book report could be either written or recorded on video. A science lesson could include simple experiments they can do at home or in class. A specific historical event under discussion could be handled by a written report, drawing, or even a diorama. Imagine — if students make a cool diorama of the Boston Tea Party, an ancient civilization, or prehistoric animal habitat. This is one lesson they will never forget!

Use Flashcards

Flashcards are an excellent aid when students simply need to memorize. And you don’t have to buy them or make them. Instead, have the students make them and be as creative and original as they can. Use lots of colors. Decorate them with glitter, cotton, macaroni, paper clips, shells, or almost anything! Making and then displaying flashcards is a great way for tactile learners to absorb and retain information.

Let Them Move!

When our grandparents went to school, they were expected to sit quietly and listen. For students showing a tendency to favor the tactile learning style, that’s counterproductive. So let them bounce their leg, stand instead of sit, or even take a quick walk around the room. If you’re teaching a lesson, give them something related to it so their hands have something to do. Depending on the material, a worksheet, map, picture, mind map, or something else will help to keep them engaged. Also, you can ask tactile learners periodically to pass out or collect papers or other materials or write something on the board.

Incorporate Play-Based Learning

Play is hardwired into us. So while there is a time to sit at a desk and listen, the desire and need to play is real and can be leveraged effectively in a classroom. If, for example, younger kids are playing with blocks, you can introduce vocabulary involving shape, size, numbers, and color. Simple questions about how tall, how heavy, and how many will stimulate thinking and reasoning skills. And simple instructions regarding block placement can teach motor skills, balance, and spatial awareness.

More advanced learners may benefit from play-based learning by getting hands-on with a programmable robot, like Sphero BOLT. While the actual programming is happening through code on a computer or tablet, building a maze, cityscape, or map for the robot to travel through allows tactile learners to create something physical and bring it to life. 

Tactile learners thrive when they can do instead of just see or hear, and play provides the ideal opportunity.

Utilize Unplugged Coding

Computers and computer technology are inextricably woven into everyday life, and today’s kids are growing up in a world where they need to grasp coding concepts at an early age. Unplugged coding is a way to teach them the basics of coding without actually using devices. Activities and games with paper, markers, and other manipulatives are tactile ways to teach kids the four pillars of computational thinking — decomposition, pattern matching, abstraction, and algorithms — without the distraction of having to negotiate an actual computer.

Here are a few unplugged coding activities teachers can use in the classroom:

  • Sudoku puzzles require a sort of “algorithm” to solve them, and the process involves decomposition, pattern matching, and abstraction — all main elements of coding.
  • Stacking cups, where one student is given a picture of stacked cups and must write directions on how to do it. Another student follows the written directions without seeing the picture.
  • The same as above, but use simple Legos. One student builds something — a robot, car, or airplane, for example — and then instructs another student to build the same thing using only verbal instructions.
  • Students can use a code (such as Morse Code, Binary Code, or Caesar Code) to send secret messages to one another.
  • A screenless programmable robot, like Sphero indi, can be programmed by color and driven around in a maze or obstacle course. This teaches students valuable computational thinking skills and problem-solving skills.

Create a Learning Environment that Embraces Everyone

Today’s forward-thinking educators realize that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching just doesn’t work. Every child is different, and it’s important to recognize and adjust to the various ways that kids take in, process, and retain information.

When it comes to tactile learners, perhaps it would be fitting to conclude with some words of wisdom from good ‘ole Benjamin Franklin: “Tell me, and I forget. Teach me, and I remember. Involve me, and I learn.”

At school