Chapter 8: Personal Learning Preferences

Silver laptop with black keys, a mug full of coffee, two pencils, a small yellow pad of paper, and two crumpled up pieces of paper sit atop a wooden surface

The learning process is something you can incite, literally incite, like a riot. —Audre Lorde, writer and civil rights activist


By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Describe the theory of multiple intelligences and identify your strongest intelligences
  • Define sensory learning styles and identify your preferred style(s)
  • Define multimodal learning
  • Describe how you might apply your preferred learning strategies to classroom scenarios

Kyle was excited to take a beginning Spanish class to prepare for a semester abroad in Spain. Before his first vocabulary quiz, he reviewed his notes many times. Kyle took the quiz, but when he got the results, he was surprised to see that he had earned a B-, despite having studied so much. 

Kyle’s professor suggested that he experiment with different ways of studying. For example, in addition to studying his written notes, he might also try listening to audio recordings of the vocabulary words and repeating them out loud.

Many of us, like Kyle, are accustomed to very traditional learning styles as a result of our experience as K–12 students. For instance, we can all remember listening to a teacher talk and copying notes off the chalkboard. However, when it comes to learning, one size doesn’t fit all. People have different learning strengths, styles, and preferences, and these can vary from subject to subject. For example, while Kyle might prefer listening to recordings to help him learn Spanish, he might prefer hands-on activities like labs to master the concepts in his biology course. This chapter will explore some theories that take into account these different approaches to learning.

Multiple Intelligences

For nearly a century, educators and psychologists have debated the nature of intelligence, and more specifically whether intelligence is just one broad ability or can take more than one form. Many classical definitions of the concept have tended to define intelligence as a single broad ability that allows a person to solve or complete many sorts of tasks, or at least many academic tasks like reading, knowledge of vocabulary, and the solving of logical problems.[1]

One of the most prominent of these models to portray intelligence as having multiple forms is Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences.[2] Gardner proposes that there are eight different forms of intelligence, each of which functions independently of the others. Each person has a mix of all eight abilities—more of some and less of others—that helps to constitute that person’s individual cognitive profile. These eight intelligences are summarized in Table 1 below.

Since most tasks—including most tasks in classrooms—require several forms of intelligence and can be completed in more than one way, it is possible for people with various profiles of talents to succeed on a task equally well. In writing an essay, for example, a student with high interpersonal intelligence but rather average verbal intelligence might use her interpersonal strength to get a lot of help and advice from classmates and the teacher. A student with the opposite profile might work well on his own, but without the benefit of help from others. Both students might end up with essays that are good, but good for different reasons.

Table 1: Multiple Intelligences According to Howard Gardner[3]
Form of intelligence Examples of activities using the intelligence
Linguistic: Verbal skill; ability to use language well
  • verbal persuasion
  • writing a term paper skillfully
Musical: Ability to create and understand music
  • singing, playing a musical instrument
  • composing a tune
Logical-Mathematical: logical skill; ability to reason, often using mathematics
  • solving mathematical problems easily and accurately
  • developing and testing hypotheses
Spatial: Ability to imagine and manipulate the arrangement of objects in the environment
  • completing a difficult jigsaw puzzle
  • assembling a complex appliance (e.g. a bicycle)
Bodily-Kinesthetic: sense of balance; coordination in use of one’s body
  • dancing
  • gymnastics
Interpersonal: Ability to discern others’ nonverbal feelings and thoughts
  • sensing when to be tactful
  • sensing a “subtext” or implied message in a person’s statements
Intrapersonal: Sensitivity to one’s own thoughts and feelings
  • noticing complex or ambivalent feelings in oneself
  • identifying true motives for an action in oneself
Naturalist: Sensitivity to subtle differences and patterns found in the natural environment
  • identifying examples of species of plants or animals
  • noticing relationships among species and natural processes in the environment

This model can be useful as a way for students to think about how you approach your learning. Multiple intelligences suggest that there is (or may be) more than one way to be “smart,” and that you can benefit from identifying your personal strengths and preferences.

Watch this video for an explanation of the eight different types of Multiple Intelligences.

Next, complete the following acivity to help you identify your strongest types of intelligences.



  • Describe the theory of multiple intelligences and identify your strongest intelligences
  • Apply your strongest intelligences to classroom scenarios


  • Complete the Multiple Intelligences inventory and find your strengths. Multiple Intelligences Assessment
  • Review your scores for each type of intelligence.
  • Describe your two highest-scoring intelligences. How do these fit with what you know about how you learn best?
  • Think about the class you are taking right now. How can you use your highest-scoring intelligences to your advantage in these classes? How can you use these strengths to study and learn the material?
  • Follow your instructor’s guidelines for submitting your assignment.

Sensory Learning Styles

Learning styles are also called learning modalities. Neil Fleming’s VARK model[4] (which expanded on three modalities originally proposed by Walter Burke Barbe and colleagues) proposes four learning modalities, which relate learning to the senses:

  1. Visual learning
  2. Auditory learning
  3. Read/write learning
  4. Kinesthetic learning

Fleming claimed that visual learners have a preference for seeing information represented through visual aids that use methods other than words, such as graphs, charts, diagrams, and symbols. Auditory learners best learn through listening (lectures, discussions, tapes, etc.). Read/write learners have a preference for written words and gravitate toward readings, dictionaries, reference works, and research. Tactile/kinesthetic learners prefer to learn via experience—moving, touching, and doing (active exploration of the world, science projects, experiments, etc.). Additional examples of these modalities are shown below in Table 2.

Table 2: Sensory Learning Styles and Examples
Visual Auditory Read/Write Kinesthetic
Picture Listening Books Gestures
Shape Rhythms Articles Body Movements
Sculpture Tone Research Object Manipulation
Paintings Chants Take Notes Positioning

The VARK model can be a helpful way of thinking about different learning styles and preferences, but they are certainly not the last word on how people learn or prefer to learn. Many educators consider the distinctions useful, finding that students benefit from having access to a blend of learning approaches. Others find the idea of three or four “styles” to be distracting or limiting.

The following video will help you review the types of learning styles and see how they might relate to your study habits:

Now, complete the following activity to identify your own preferred learning styles and reflect on how these affect your learning.



  • Define learning styles, and recognize your preferred learning style(s)
  • Apply your preferred learning styles to classroom scenarios


  • Now it’s time to consider your preferred learning style(s). Take the VARK Questionnaire here.
  • What did the results suggest about your preferred learning style(s)? Were the results what you expected, or did they surprise you? Why?
  • Think about the class you are taking now or took recently. Describe how you could study for this class using visual, auditory, read/write, and kinesthetic/tactile learning skills.
  • Follow your instructor’s guidelines for submitting your assignment.

Multimodal Learning

In the college setting, you’ll probably discover that instructors teach their course materials according to the method they think will be most effective for all students. Thus, regardless of your individual learning preference, you will probably be asked to engage in all types of learning. For instance, even if you consider yourself to be a “visual learner,” you will still probably have to write papers in some of your classes. Research suggests that it’s good for the brain to learn in new ways and that learning in different modalities can help learners become more well-rounded.

Consider the following statistics on how much content students absorb through different learning methods:

  • 10 percent of content they read
  • 20 percent of content they hear
  • 30 percent of content they visualize
  • 50 percent of what they both visualize and hear
  • 70 percent of what they say
  • 90 percent of what they say and do

The range of these results underscores the importance of mixing up the ways in which you study and engage with learning materials.

Through completing the multiple intelligences and learning styles activities, you have likely discovered that you have multiple strengths and preferences. Applying more than one approach is known as multimodal learning. This strategy is useful not only for students who prefer to combine learning styles and intelligences, but also for those who may not know which works best for them. It’s also a good way to mix things up and keep learning fun.

For example, consider how you might combine visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles to a biology class. For visual learning, you could create flash cards containing images of individual animals and the species name. For auditory learning, you could have a friend quiz you on the flash cards. For kinesthetic learning, you could move the flash cards around on a board to show a food web (food chain).

Watch this brief supplemental video on Multimodal Learning.


  • The theory of multiple intelligences proposes that intelligence is multi-faceted, that each learner has a unique set of strengths, and that there are many ways to be “smart.”
  • Sensory learning styles, or modalities, focus on which senses learners tend to rely on and/or respond to best while learning.
  • Learners can incorporate a variety of intelligences and learning styles for different learning tasks through multimodal learning.

  1. Garlick, K. (2002). Understanding the nature of the general factor of intelligence. Psychological review, 109(1), 116–136.
  2. Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
  3. Gardner, H. (1983). Frames of mind: The theory of multiple intelligences. New York: Basic Books.
  4. Fleming, Neil D. (2014). "The VARK modalities". Archived from the original on 14 March 2015. Retrieved 9 August 2015.