learning styles!!


Learning Styles: The Cognitive Side of Content

by TYLER TATE on June 16, 2011

You and I are different. It’s obvious, but has a profound impact on fulfilling the needs of disparate users. Not only do you and I have different accents, hairstyles, and musical tastes, but even our cognitive processes — the very building blocks of being human — are substantially different. I recently wrote about individual differences inexpertise and cognitive style, but there is a third dimension: learning style. Understanding how people learn is fundamental to delivering desirable content, a prerequisite of any good user experience.
From 5 senses to 3 modalities

We experience the world through our senses. While we know from grade school that there are 5 senses, psychologists have distilled these into 3 “sensory modalities” relevant to learning: verbal, visual, and kinesthetic. Though everyone learns through all three modes, we each favor one over the others, resulting in three different styles of learning:
Verbal learners are best at absorbing written and spoken information. Since most learning is either text-based (reading a book, searching online) or auditory (a classroom lecture or personal conversation), verbal learners have ready access to content in their preferred medium.
Visual learners, on the other hand, digest information from charts, diagrams, timelines, maps, and other concrete images more easily than from the written or spoken word. In contrast to their verbal counterparts, visual learners are relatively underserved with appropriate content.
Kinesthetic learners enjoy hands-on activities involving movement (think dancing, pottery, woodwork). While kinesthetic learning is minimally involved in desktop computing, it plays a much more significant role in gestural and mobile interfaces, a discussion best saved for another article.
Dual Coding Theory

While our sensory modes courier outside stimuli into our brains, their role is much more pervasive than simple conduits. Once we acquire new knowledge, our brains encode that information onto our long-term memory in the vernacular of our sensory modes. In other words, our brains use two different formats for text and images, just like a computer.

Dual Coding Theory

But because verbal and visual concepts are stored separately, translating a semantic idea into a visual concept is a taxing, though ubiquitous process. When someone tells you driving directions, for instance, you probably construct a simple visual map in your mind. If you’re putting together a bookshelf using Ikea’s pictogram instructions, on the other hand, your mind works to decode those images into verbal steps of what to do next.

A parody on the infamous Ikea instruction manual.

Dual Coding Theory, developed by Allan Paivio in the 1970s, unearthed an important discovery: people learn best when information is presented in two modalities at the same time. That is, providing a verbal and a visual explanation in parallel enables the mind to encode information in both modes as well as to build referential links (similar to hyperlinks on the web) between the two representations. Paivio’s research has profound implications upon designing websites that maximize learning.
Creating content for verbal and visual learners

Long-form articles are back in vogue. UXers love advocating calmer reading experiences while services like Instapaper and Readability help us compile and consume our own digital magazines. But as you read these words on your Kindle from the comfort of your favorite chair, millions of people around the world are frantically looking for information at this very instant, and they want it now! Learning styles and dual coding theory deliver a resounding message: pithy content is more important than ever before.
Use text and images

While we each have a preferred learning style, we all benefit when information is presented both textually and visually. A study by the University of California found a 30% rise in effective problem solving when verbal and visual instruction were given at the same time (compared with providing one followed by the other). An eyetracking study by Jakob Nielsen validated that users spend a significant amount of time looking at information-carrying images. For best results, invest in both textual and visual content.

Pottery barn eyetracking

A photograph can sometimes be more important than the text, such as in this product list from Pottery Barn studied by Jakob Nielsen.
Visualize complex information

Presenting aggregate data in visual form helps the user understand the information landscape more quickly and intuitively than could text. The UK Treasury, for instance, releases a yearly summary of government spending, presented to the public as data tables within a PDF. When The Guardian designed an infographic visualizing the proportion of one department’s spending to the others, it was so incisive that the Treasury themselves requested printed copies to hang within their office. Does your website have information that could be made more powerful by visualizing it?

Guardian Infographic
Use concrete language

Words can also be visual. Concrete language (“juicy watermelon”, for example) evokes a much stronger sensory response than does abstract language (like “agricultural produce”). A study by Sadoski et al asserts: “Concrete words, phrases, sentences, and texts have been found to be more imageable, comprehensible, memorable, and interesting than abstract language units.” So, there you have it: use concrete language.

Sagrada Familia

While these words on the door of the Sagrada Família are literally concrete, using vivid rather than abstract language makes for better writing.
Be concise

English teachers, editors, and experienced writers alike often give out a single piece of advice: be concise. Clearly expressed, succinct content increases comprehension and enhances usability. Astudy by Riding and Sadler-Smith found that together, a 40% reduction in word count, when combined with an increased use of visual illustrations, improved student’s test scores from 67% to 82% (out of 100). Take the time to make content concise.
Put it into practice: write a style guide

Now that you’ve learned a bit about how people learn, what are you going to do about it? Enter content strategy, the discipline of planning the purpose, message, and style of content. One tool from the content strategist’s toolbox is particularly useful in applying the implications of learning styles to your own content: the style guide.

A simple document casting a comprehensive vision of a website’s (or an entire organization’s) content, the style guide establishes a consistent point of reference for content creators. When writing or revising your style guide, consider these implications of learning styles:
Is your audience more likely to be verbal or visual learners?
Is there currently enough visual content on your website?
Are there parts of your website that would be more useful if better data visualization were used?
How should writers be expected to work with designers, illustrators, and photographers to pair text with communicative images?
Is your website’s style of language concrete and sensory, or is it too abstract?
Is your website content concise, or is there fluff that needs to disappear?

We learn through our verbal, visual, and kinesthetic senses, and our memories are encoded in these different formats. Each of us likely favors one style of learning over the others, but pithy, concrete text coupled with informative images is a potent content cocktail for people of all learning styles.
The author would like to thank Jonathan Kahn for his helpful input on this article.