Educators are constantly trying to evolve their teaching strategies to improve student outcomes. This has resulted in a movement away from simply presenting information in front of the class in hopes that students will retain it. . It has been theorized that there are different learning styles for kids, and they’re often broken down into four basic categories: visual, auditory, reading and writing, and kinesthetic.
Let’s say you’re searching the internet for some important information, and you find the perfect website with everything you need in one nice, neat place. How would you make sure you could get back to the same site in the future?
Bookmark it? Take a screenshot? Write it down in a notebook? Use a mnemonic device to remember it?
Whatever your preference for recalling the website in the future is, you will be more likely to find it again if you employ a method for remembering it. However, you may prefer one method over another for a variety of reasons unique to your experience.
The same, of course, is true in the classroom. In this article, we’ll focus on visual learners. What is considered visual learning, and how can teachers and parents optimize the visual learning environment?
What Is a Visual Learner?
A visual learner prefers to retain information when it’s presented in a graphic depiction, such as arrows, charts, diagrams, symbols, and more. They grasp ideas and concepts much quicker when they see them in pictures, images, film clips, colors, maps, graphs, etc. They can picture what they’re learning in their head, and this is how they absorb and retain information. It is usually more challenging for a visual learner to focus on verbal instruction.
How Can You Identify a Visual Learner?
To identify a visual learner, look for certain cues or indications in how they respond or react to information that is presented. Some questions to ask are:
- Does the child understand charts and graphs easily?
- Do they show a preference for color-coded material?
- Can they easily pick out small differences between pictures and objects, and do they remember details in graphic images they’ve seen?
- Do they love to draw and doodle?
- Does their mind stray during verbal activities?
- Are they a good speller?
- Do they have good handwriting?
- Do they sometimes close their eyes in an attempt to visualize something?
- Are they quiet, neat, and clean?
All of these can be indications that a child identifies as a visual learner.
According to Laurie Guyon, Sphero Hero and Coordinator for Model Schools at WSWHE BOCES, it’s important to identify those who prefer a visual learning style because “when you think deeper into visual processing, students need support in spatial and sequencing activities. Learners that need support in visual processing do well with guided practice, inquiry, and visual aids.” She adds that they do well when they can “showcase their thinking.”
Three Teaching Strategies for Visual Learners
Educators, then, can tailor lesson plans to engage visual learners. In what ways?
1. Develop Hands-on Activities To Support Visual Processing
“Lessons that support and engage students include using interactives, allowing for free exploration, and guiding the practice,” says Guyon. “To support their visual processing, it’s important to include rich resources like games, manipulatives, and physical activity to help support the learners.”
Manipulatives can come in any shape and size. Blocks, shapes, cut and folded paper, clay, puzzles, play money and coins, clock dials, markers, and more can be effectively integrated into hands-on activities. For young learners, manipulatives can teach such concepts as shape, size, color, time, letters, spatial relationships, and problem-solving skills. And for older students, they’re especially effective in teaching mathematical concepts.
Manipulatives represent ideas in more than one way and promote communication. They add a tactile element and create a multisensory educational experience, and that’s a fertile learning environment for the visual learner.
2. Make Liberal Use of Props and Visual Teaching Aids
These can include bar graphs, flow charts, pie charts, concept maps, multimedia, flashcards, educational videos, timelines, dioramas, picture vocabulary, visually rich books, maps, color-coded worksheets — you get the “picture,” right? Basically, anything that can be called a graphic representation is your ticket to reaching the visual learner and keeping them locked into your lesson.
Even during verbal instruction, educators can tailor their teaching for visual learners. For example, Guyon recommends using metaphors, descriptions, and prompts during lessons. And visual learners can be allowed free exploration with STEM tools like programmable robots, such as Sphero indi. Also, Guyon notes that “setting clear goals that are displayed, and asking questions to deepen the learning, will support all students.”
3. Employ the “IKEA Effect” Through Tasks and Challenges
All of these hands-on activities aren’t just there to entertain, though. They should always be teaching aids, and they’ll be especially effective if the student feels a sense of accomplishment when they’re completed. “Allowing for students to feel a sense of ‘I did that’ through challenges can be critical in supporting our students’ visual processing,” Guyon observes. This has been called the “IKEA effect.”
Now, if you’ve ever wandered through the IKEA maze and bought a piece of you-put-it-together furniture, you can relate to this. Sure, it’s frustrating when trying to follow the instructions — especially when they’re full of impossible-to-pronounce Swedish words — but once it’s finished, you want to beat your chest like Tarzan and let out a jungle yell, right?
Well, give your students tasks and challenges that will make them feel like Tarzan. That sense of satisfaction and accomplishment goes a long way in reinforcing what they learned during the experience. Guyon suggests letting them create something using Lego, littleBits, or a Sphero robot. “Have them create a challenge and then have them overcome it using only the items they have in front of them,” she says. “Then, have them discuss what they created, how it works, and how it applies to whatever it is you are studying.” If you want to extend the activity even further, have the students create a short video about their challenge.
But Remember: There Isn’t a One-Size-Fits-All-Approach to the Visual Learning Style
Although the theory of learning styles is generally broken down into four basic categories, it’s important to remember that every student is different and has unique needs. Forward-thinking educators understand that learner variability precludes a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Unfortunately, many school systems are slower to embrace change and do many things the same way they did twenty or thirty years ago. Rigid curricula that don’t focus on social and emotional skills — or different learning styles — are fairly common.
Experience shows, however, that a cookie-cutter approach to education is woefully insufficient. So then, our parting words of wisdom come from Ignacio Estrada, director for grants administration at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. He said, “If a child can’t learn the way we teach, maybe we should teach the way they learn.”
If parents and educators embrace that simple principle, each student will thrive and reach the full potential of their own special and unique abilities.