There are various approaches to learning, categorized into several taxonomies.
These taxonomies split the forms of learning along vectors such as space (distance vs in-person), learning style (visual/auditory/kinesthetic), and person focus (teacher-centered vs student-centered).
Below is an A to Z list of the different forms of learning, followed by an outline of the types within the common learning styles inventories.
Types of Learning
Active learning – Active learning refers to learning that gets students to learn through doing. Most contemporary education scholars hold that this is an ideal form of learning that achieves deep understanding. It is in contrast with passive learning, which occurs when the teacher provides instruction and students sit and listen.
Authentic learning – This refers to learning that occurs through real-life scenarios rather than in decontextualized classroom contexts. Educators are also encouraged to assess students in authentic contexts, such as by testing a mechanic’s skills when working on a car rather than doing an in-class test.
Banking learning – Proposed by Paulo Freire, this term refers to learning that involves the teacher telling students what they need to know (where the teacher deposits information in the mind like they’d deposit money in a bank). It’s used derisively, explaining an approach that deters critical and independent thinking.
Blended learning – Blended learning refers to courses that involve a blend of multiple different modes of instruction. Generally, in higher education, it refers to a mix of in-person (on-campus) classes and online (distance learning) classes.
Chunking – This involves breaking down larger pieces of information into smaller, more manageable chunks. For example, when memorizing a phone number, you can group the digits into smaller segments (e.g., 555-123-4567) which can make it easier to recall later on.
Classical conditioning – Proposed by Ivan Pavlov, classical conditioning refers to the act of associating a stimulus to a response through repeated exposure. The typical conditioning example is of Pavlov’s dog, who associated a bell with dinner time because Pavlov always rang the bell before dinner time.
Cognitive apprenticeship – Proposed by Barbara Rogoff, this type of learning involves learning through a prolonged apprenticeship with a skilled craftsperson. Rogoff devised this concept from observing tribal groups in South America who taught their children by having the children follow their parents around while they did their daily tasks.
Collaborative learning – This model involves learning with peers. According to the social-constructivist theory, collaboration is effective because it allows students to talk to and listen to one another’s perspectives. This act of listening to others’ interpretations gives them a chance to challenge, evolve, and refine their own perspectives.
Constructivist learning – This involves ‘constructing’ knowledge and understanding through personal experience rather than through instruction. It is associated with play-based learning and experimentation as in these approaches, people learn by exploring their environments to figure out how the world around them works (see: constructivist classroom examples).
Deep learning – This refers to learning that achieves detailed, contextualized, and thorough understanding of the learning materials. It is often measured by capacity to deconstruct, compare, contrast, evaluate, justify, and apply knowledge in multiple contexts. It is contrasted to shallow learning, which demonstrates mere memorization and repetition.
Discovery learning – This involves learning something through discovery rather than being told answers by the teacher. In the classroom, this might look like the teacher creating a ‘whodunnit’ task where students have to follow clues to discover the answers to their questions and solve a puzzle.
Distance learning – This refers to instruction that occurs at a physical distance. Prior to digitization, it took place through mail, while in today’s world, it has evolved to be almost entirely e-learning.
E-learning – This refers to learning through the internet, often remotely. For example, it may involves a college student using a learning management system (LMS) to access videos, reading materials, and podcasts to learn. Students may also use forums to communicate with one another about the learning materials.
Experiential learning – This is an educational approach where learners actively engage in real-world experiences to gain knowledge and develop skills. For example, it might involve doing an internship in a workplace rather than learning about it from a textbook.
Flipped classrooms – This refers to the ‘flipping’ of homework and in-class work. Students learn new information (in the form of videos and readings) during homework time then use in-class time to discuss the content and do practice tasks. The idea is that non-interactive instruction be clustered during homework time so interactive practice time can be maximized in class.
Game-based learning – This involves learning through games, such as playing a video game that requires math in order to pass the levels. Ideally, the students will enjoy the gameplay so much that learning becomes a side-effect of the enjoyable experience.
Gamified learning – This involves incorporating game-like elements into lessons, such as by using tokens as rewards in the classroom or introducing rewards for ‘beating’ levels of instruction.
Independent learning – Also known as autodidactism, this refers to learning that occurs without a teacher, coach, or instructor. It may take the form of watching YouTube videos or reading educational books for the intrinsic enjoyment.
Inquiry-based learning – In this model, the driving force is inquiry (that is, actively seeking answers to questions). The students explore a subject, experiment with concepts or objects, and conducting searches for new information or clues.
Mastery learning – In this model, students continue to work on a task as long as they need until they achieve ‘mastery’, which is often measured by getting 80% on three separate tests on the topic. It is a response to the fast-paced crowded curriculum in schools that doesn’t allow learners to learn at their own pace to obtain deep knowledge.
Mnemonics – This involves creating memory devices that help us to retain and recall information. For example, when learning a list of words, you would create a memorable acronym, rhyme, or song using the first letter of each word.
Observational learning – Based on the works of Albert Bandura, it involves learning through watching others. A key example of this is vicarious learning, where a person sees another person making a mistake so they remember not to make the same mistake.
Operant conditioning – This involves learning through reward and punishment. When provided with a punishment, a person is less likely to repeat an action. When provided a reward, they are more likely to repeat the action. This form of learning can also be used with animals like dogs.
Passive learning – This is a term used derisively to refer to situations where the teacher tells students information and students must passively sit and watch, not getting a chance to engage in valuable practice or discussion about the content.
Play-based learning – Seen as the core way in which children socially, physically, and cognitively develop, play-based learning refers to the ways in which children gain cognitive and social skills and understanding of their own bodies when engaged in play.
Problem-based learning – This occurs when we focus on problems and learn new skills or knowledge in order to sufficiently solve the problem.
Project-based learning – Project-based learning involves engaging in a medium-term project where learning occurs through the process. An example is when engineering students are assigned with the task of designing a car.
Repetition and rehearsal: This involves repeatedly listening to or rehearsing information until it is stored in memory. For instance, when learning to sing a new song, you could play it multiple times and sing along to reinforce the lyrics in your memory.
Role-playing: This involves learning by putting yourself in the shoes of a central character or role model. For example, students might play a role during a debate about a controversial topic in order to immerse themselves in one key perspective.
Rote learning – This type of learning involves trying to remember things by repeating them on a regular basis until they are stored in memory and recallable at will. Most people learn their times tables this way (See also: banking model, rote memorization)
Scaffolding – This occurs when a person learns with the help of a more knowledgeable other (teacher, parent, etc.) who provides scaffolded supports like prompts and open-ended questions to help them engage in tasks they can do with support but not alone. It is believed to propel learning forward and is associated with Vygotsky’s ZPD model.
Self-directed learning – This involves educational scenarios where a student can choose the learning outcomes and allow their interests to set the direction of the lesson. This interest-based learning is common, for example, for students completing dissertations at university.
Service learning – This involves the blending of instructional tasks and volunteerism in the community. While doing service to the community, students also develop important skills. A service-based learning example may be building a new hiking trail in your local bushlands for people to use on the weekends.
Shallow learning – This involves only learning things at a surface level, such as through memorization rather than true understanding of the learning content. It is the difference between knowing your times tables and understanding what 5×5 actually means.
Situated learning – This refers to learning that occurs within the context in which the knowledge will be applied. For example, if you want to learn to be a mechanic, you’re better off doing it in a mechanic shop than a classroom.
Social learning – This involves engaging in discussion, debate, and other forms of communication while learning. It is seen to be more useful than isolated learning because students can observe how other students are interpreting and applying information in their own ways. An example is when you observe a friend do a task that you do on a daily basis and see that they do it in a way that is faster than you do it – you learned through social interaction!
Student-centered – This refers to classrooms where teachers focus on students’ needs, differentiate lessons for students, and constantly adjust instructional style and content in order to maximize student learning.
Teacher-centered – This is the opposite of the student-centered approach, where lessons are not catered to students’ individual needs, levels, and preferences. Rather, the teacher stands out the front and speaks to the class, such as in a university lecture.
Trial and error – While making mistakes is often seen negatively, in education, it should be encouraged. Making mistakes is a core way in which we learn. Importantly, students should use their errors as instructional moments and should apply what they learned when trying again.
Learning Styles Models
While there is scant evidence for innate ‘learning styles’, ideas pushed by the likes of Howard Gardner and Neil Fleming have garnered significant traction.
Note that there is compelling scholarship showing that we may have learning preferences (ways you may prefer to learn), there is no clear evidence that a person is innately better at learning in one “style” than another.
With that in mind, some of the ley types of learning styles outlined in the popular literature are outlined below.
The VAK Model
The VAK model originally proposed three styles:
- Visual– This style refers to people who believe they learn best through visuals, such as mind maps, graphs, images, and film. You may consider yourself to be a visual learner if you feel you’ll understand something better by observing it than reading about it in a book or hearing it on a podcast.
- Auditory – This style refers to people who find it easiest to learn through listening. You may consider yourself an auditory learner if you receive an email that you don’t understand so you ask for an in-person meeting so the information can be described to you in-person.
- Kinesthetic – This style refers to people who find it easiest to learn through tactile experiences such as lab experiments, outdoor play, or hands-on trial and error. Generally, these people struggle to sit still and prefer to be out there learning while doing the task.
Multiple Intelligences Model
Gardner’s multiple intelligences model proposes eight learning styles:
- Linguistic – This refers to people who feel they learn best through language, such as reading or listening to spoken words. Linguistic learners are often juxtaposed to logical/mathematical learners who prefer learning through numbers rather than words.
- Logical/Mathematical – This refers to people with logical minds. These people like yes/no, true/false answers obtained through clear scientific methods and rational thinking. These people may be very good at mathematics and physics.
- Spatial – Spatial learners excel at visualizing, understanding, and manipulating objects and spaces. They often have strong abilities in fields such as architecture, design, and geometry.
- Bodily-Kinesthetic – This refers to individuals who learn best through physical movement and hands-on activities. These learners may excel in sports, dance, or activities that require fine motor skills.
- Musical – Musical learners have a strong affinity for rhythms, melodies, and sounds. They may be skilled in playing musical instruments, composing, or appreciating music, and often learn best when information is presented through auditory means.
- Interpersonal – Interpersonal learnersv are highly skilled at understanding and empathizing with others. They excel in group settings and learn best when they can collaborate and communicate with others.
- Intrapersonal – Intrapersonal learners are self-aware and reflective. They learn best through self-exploration, introspection, and independent study, and are often skilled at setting and achieving personal goals.
- Naturalist – Naturalist learners have a deep appreciation for the natural world and are adept at understanding patterns, classifications, and relationships within it. They excel in fields like biology, environmental science, and gardening.
The above forms of learning reflect a wide range of different understandings of how we can learn. Clearly, there have been many different ways in which we can conceptualize student development. As educators, we should develop our knowledge of common approaches to learning in order to flexibly apply various methods and approaches when the ideal situation arises.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]