Learning Styles: How to Lose More Than Half Your Audience Before You Start

bored people sitting at meeting

Think back for a moment to your high school or college days. What classes would you label your favorites? Why?

Now think about how you enjoy learning today?

  • Do you like to learn in a solitary environment where it is just you and a book and you can think deeply?
  • Do you like to learn in a small group where there is a constant exchange of ideas and flow of discussion around a topic?
  • Do you like to learn by watching a video or seeing a lot of pictures and graphics to accompany a lecture?
  • Do you like to learn by working in a lab where you can try and experiment and get your hands dirty?

Depending on how you answer one of these questions will help point you to your learning style. What is a learning style? Quite simply, this is how we receive and perceive information. It is how we process and learn new knowledge.

Like other aspects of our individuality, personality style, for example, our learning style is unique and contributes much to who we are as a person.

There are dozens of various models that help describe a person’s learning style. I prefer Fleming & Mills VARK model for its simplicity. VARK stands for Visual, Aural, Read/write, and Kinesthetic sensory processes for learning information. In summary, these various styles are described as

Visual (V):
This preference includes the depiction of information in maps, spider diagrams, charts, graphs, flow charts, labeled diagrams, and all the symbolic arrows, circles, hierarchies and other devices, that people use to represent what could have been presented in words. This mode could have been called Graphic (G) as that better explains what it covers. It does NOT include still pictures or photographs of reality, movies, videos or PowerPoint. It does include designs, whitespace, patterns, shapes and the different formats that are used to highlight and convey information. When a whiteboard is used to draw a diagram with meaningful symbols for the relationship between different things that will be helpful for those with a Visual preference. It must be more than mere words in boxes that would be helpful to those who have a Read/write preference.

Aural / Auditory (A):
This perceptual mode describes a preference for information that is “heard or spoken.” Learners who have this as their main preference report that they learn best from lectures, group discussion, radio, email, using mobile phones, speaking, web-chat and talking things through. Email is included here because; although it is text and could be included in the Read/write category (below), it is often written in chat-style with abbreviations, colloquial terms, slang and non-formal language. The Aural preference includes talking out loud as well as talking to oneself. Often people with this preference want to sort things out by speaking first, rather than sorting out their ideas and then speaking. They may say again what has already been said, or ask an obvious and previously answered question. They have need to say it themselves and they learn through saying it – their way.

Read/write (R):
This preference is for information displayed as words. Not surprisingly, many teachers and students have a strong preference for this mode. Being able to write well and read widely are attributes sought by employers of graduates. This preference emphasizes text-based input and output – reading and writing in all its forms but especially manuals, reports, essays and assignments. People who prefer this modality are often addicted to PowerPoint, the Internet, lists, diaries, dictionaries, thesauri, quotations and words, words, words… Note that most PowerPoint presentations and the Internet, GOOGLE and Wikipedia are essentially suited to those with this preference as there is seldom an auditory channel or a presentation that uses Visual symbols.

Kinesthetic (K):
By definition, this modality refers to the “perceptual preference related to the use of experience and practice (simulated or real).” Although such an experience may invoke other modalities, the key is that people who prefer this mode are connected to reality, “either through concrete personal experiences, examples, practice or simulation” [See Fleming & Mills, 1992, pp. 140-141]. It includes demonstrations, simulations, videos and movies of “real” things, as well as case studies, practice and applications. The key is the reality or concrete nature of the example. If it can be grasped, held, tasted, or felt it will probably be included. People with this as a strong preference learn from the experience of doing something and they value their own background of experiences and less so, the experiences of others. It is possible to write or speak Kinesthetically if the topic is strongly based in reality. An assignment that requires the details of who will do what and when, is suited to those with this preference, as is a case study or a working example of what is intended or proposed.1

It is important to note that there are no hard boundaries between the various modalities. Most people will find they are a blend of two or more learning styles.

How Learning Styles Impact the Church?

Pastors, typically, in my experience, pay little attention to learning styles when developing their sermons and teaching materials. Visit most churches in America today, and you will find a delivery style that is almost 100 percent formatted for auditory learners. Yes, you may throw a few PowerPoint slides up on the screen, but, again, most pastors stick to words only on their “visuals.” You know what I’m talking about, too. It’s when you see a PowerPoint slide with an ENTIRE CHAPTER of Scripture crammed onto the screen. That, my friend, is not a visual. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, based on the definitions above, any PowerPoint slide that is text only is not a visual, it is just words on a screen. A visual is a picture, graph, or video, something that touches the emotions. Words on a screen do not count.

Please understand: no matter how engaging your speaking style might be, it is a fact that if you only approach your teaching methodology from an auditory perspective, you will lose half your audience.

How Can You Begin to Address the Various Learning Styles in Your Church?

One of the most helpful books to address this topic specifically for pastors is The Power of Multisensory Preaching and Teaching: Increase Attention, Comprehension, and Retention by Rick Blackwood (2009). Blackwood identifies five benefits of learning to be more “multisensory” in your preaching preparation and delivery:

1.      Gains audience attention quicker and holds it longer
2.      Brings greater clarity to teaching
3.      Generates long-term retention
4.      Encourages application
5.      Makes teaching and learning fun

In the epilogue to his book, Blackwood shares a powerful story of how remembering the learning styles of your audience can take a good sermon to a great, impactful sermon:

I am writing this on Christmas Eve night just following our 2007 Christmas Eve service, and tears are welling up in my eyes as I type. Mind you, my manuscript for The Power of Multisensory Preaching and Teaching has already gone to the publisher, but I hope they allow me to add this story. Here’s what happened.

Tonight, Pastor Eric Geiger spoke during our Christmas Eve service. I decided to sit in the rear of the auditorium so I could experience a Christmas worship service for the first time in many years. There are many experiences we pastors miss, simply because we are busy speaking while the Holy Spirit is working in the audience. This was one experience, however, I was destined to see. Follow the events.

As the music portion of the worship drew to a conclusion, a young couple came in and sat at the rear of the auditorium. They were just in front and to the left of where I was seated. With them were their two little boys, both of whom took their seats between the wife and husband. Within minutes, a life-and-death struggle began to unfold before me … an eternal life and eternal death struggle.

Eric began to teach from Luke 19:10, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” The message was a powerful unpacking of the Christmas rescue mission. As he taught, however, I noticed this husband never looked up to make eye contact with Eric. In fact, he appeared hell-bent on not looking up. He looked down, instead, at his wallet and busied himself by shuffling his credit cards and money. At the same time this was going on, I could tell his wife was a believer. It was clear that she had invited him to the service in hopes that he would meet the Savior.

As Eric spoke the wonderful message of rescue, the wife continually reached her hand across the two little boys over to her husband’s shoulder. Lovingly and pleadingly she admonished him to look up, but he refused. Interestingly, I could tell he loved his wife, but it was clear he didn’t want to be in church. Perhaps, he came only to humor her or to get her off his case. At any rate, twenty minutes went by, and the young husband continued to bury his face in his wallet. By now, his wife looked as if she was dying within. It was clear he was not going to connect to the message or to Christ.

Then, however, Eric began to make a point about a certain United States Marine, Dave Karnes, whose bravery and rescue mission was documented in the Oliver Stone movie World Trade Center. After briefly describing the true event, Eric had the media team launch a series of video clips from the movie.

HE LOOKED UP!

Folks, as soon as that clip came on the screen, this young husband looked up! I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was the first time he had paid attention in the entire message. I watched him like a hawk, and I prayed for his soul. Here is the story behind the film clips, and this is the drama he witnessed as the film rolled.

Dave Karnes, an ex-Marine turned businessman, saw the World Trade Center events unfolding on television just like the rest of us did. As he watched, however, he felt compelled to go down to New York City to help out. The film clip shows the moving words of President Bush telling the nation that we are under attack. As the President spoke, the former Marine said, “I have to go down there to help.”

From there, the film chronicled the response of Karnes as he prepared for his mission. First, he went to church to pray. Next, he went to the barber and had his head shaved Marine-style. Finally, after putting on his military garb, he got in his Porsche and drove 120 mph down to lower Manhattan. By the way, I checked the attention of the audience at Christ Fellowship—every eye was riveted to the screens.

The next clip moved seamlessly to the wreckage of the World Trade Center. The ex-Marine was allowed to go inside the rubble of the buildings. The film follows the Marine as he shines his flashlight in the darkness and calls out to any survivors. Suddenly he hears a trapped man call out in the darkness. The man was Will Jimeno, who along with John McLaughlin had survived the tragedy.

Jimeno screams out to the Marine, “Please, don’t leave us! Please, don’t leave us!” The Marine then said something I’ll never forget as long as I live: “Sir, we are the United States Marines. You are our mission!”

The young husband in front of me never took his eyes off the screens. He was locked in. Then, Eric began to draw the connection between the rescue mission of that Marine and the rescue mission of Christ. He said this: “If you are here tonight and you have never trusted Christ, you need to know that you are in danger of being lost forever. You are in danger of being separated from God forever. Christ came for the express purpose of rescuing you. You are his mission.”

At that exact moment, the husband reached over to his wife and touched her on the hand, signaling that he was under conviction. His wife’s eyes filled with tears and so did mine. Eric then called for a commitment, and I watched as this man prayed to receive the Lord. Later he filled out a communication card.

Then, at the conclusion of the service, I saw one more thing that blew me away. To close out the service, our congregation sang the song “Rescue.” Almost everyone raised his or her hands in praise to God. This young man, who had just trusted Christ, slowly raised his hands and tried to sing the song with us. I felt like a silent observer to the rescuing work of the Holy Spirit.

But don’t miss the point: The man was totally disconnected until that visual video was introduced. The Holy Spirit used that clip to draw that man to Christ. Mind you, Eric is a phenomenal communicator in his own right. But it took a visual aid to grab this man’s attention. I suppose it will be easy to criticize what I saw, but think of this: If this man were your friend or your child or your husband or your wife, would you be so critical? Or would you praise God for Eric’s passion to do whatever it takes to connect to the unsaved of our world?
My prayer is that you will witness this kind of effect as you use multisensory teaching. My prayer for you is that you will have similar stories that change the lives and destinations of people forever.2

One of the most difficult hurdles we must cross as pastors is to acknowledge that perhaps, just perhaps, the way we are doing things, and the way we have done things for a long time, are not working great. Maybe they are working, but, in our heart-of-hearts, we know that it could be a lot better.

Educator Stephen Brookfield offers a powerful challenge to all teachers and pastors as they consider their communication style:

Sooner or later, something happens that forces the teacher to confront the possibility that they may be working with assumptions that don’t really fit their situations. Recognizing the discrepancy between what is and what should be is often the beginning of the critical journey.3

Notes

  1. The VARK Modalities.
  2. Rick Blackwood, The Power of Multi-Sensory Preaching and Teaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2008), 189–191.)
  3. Stephen Brookfield, Becoming a Critically Reflective Teacher (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995), 29.

    Chris Eller is a Christ Follower, Husband, Father, Pastor, Geek, Writer, Photographer, and Church Technology Consultant.