Teaching Science to Different Learning Styles

Wednesday, March 7th, 2018

Most successful teachers are personally invested in their students’ success. The best are instructional chameleons, changing colors and adapting to each unique situation. No two students are alike, both in terms of personality and learning style. As a result, no single teaching style is going to be effective in all situations. Further complicating the issue is the fact that each academic subject also tends to have a specific style of instruction that works best. Anyone who thinks teaching is easy has clearly never done it.

What Kind of Teacher Do You Want to Be?

If the entire goal of a child’s education is the acquisition and practical application of knowledge, the teacher has to choose from a number of paths to get each child to their end goal. The two most common teaching personas are:

  • The Lecturer: The lecturer will dictate information to the child, expecting rote memorization of information to be regurgitated on an assessment at the end of the unit. In some subject areas, this is an acceptable strategy. If you’re attempting to teach students about the important causes and battles of the War of 1812, it’s hard to picture a better way to do it than in a lecture.
  • The Mentor: A mentor puts the students in position to make their own discoveries and think about the subjects with their own thought processes. Taking a mentorship role requires creativity, patience and an interminable well of emotional support. It’s tough to watch students struggle and get frustrated, but in many cases, this puts the kids in position to take control of their own learning.

Each teaching style has its positives and its negatives, and a successful teacher must be adept at employing both styles to suit all situations and learners.

Learning Styles: Covering the Spectrum

The education field has spent a considerable amount of time and energy over the last three decades on understanding the wide variety of learning styles and developing a varied arsenal of teaching techniques to match. Teaching is no longer a matter of standing at the front of the room and handing out papers, dictating knowledge to a group of eager youngsters. Every teacher must adapt to accommodate all of the kids in their class.

Science is the perfect subject for keeping students and teachers on their feet. Each new topic offers a brand new experience and opportunities for discovery. The possibilities for differentiating your instruction are practically endless. With so many options, you can plan lessons that speak to each and every student in your class.

Let’s talk about each learning style and what you might need to consider when you plan your lessons.

Visual Learners

Have you ever talked to a student and felt like everything went in one ear and out the other? Sure, some of that can be chalked up to kids being kids, but don’t discount the fact that some students truly don’t process information just be listening — visual learners prefer to get their eyes on the information. This isn’t to say they always enjoy reading assignments and diligent note-taking, but visual learners are exactly the audience that graphic organizers were designed for.

Handouts and worksheets can be effective in small doses, but science is all about interacting with the physical world around us, so why wouldn’t you expose them to the real deal, rather than giving them a worksheet about it?

Teaching science to visual learners means giving them hands-on demonstrations, graphs, charts and creative projects. Don’t just tell them about the hardness scale and cleavage types of rocks and minerals, bring the rock samples in and pass them out. For your astronomy unit, assign a project that requires your students to build a scale model of the solar system.

Computers can be particularly effective with visual learners, especially YouTube videos that combine fun graphics with solid information.

Kinesthetic Learners

The kids in the class who just can’t seem to sit still or keep their hands to themselves are probably your kinesthetic learners.

For these kids, a reading assignment is less fun than a trip to the dentist. Lessons should include hands-on demonstrations as often as possible. Computers can help put lessons into motion with simulation programs or games. Get the students up on their feet and use the class to demonstrate simple lessons about gravity.

If you ever teach a lesson about magnetism without sitting a pair of magnets and a cup of metal shavings in front of each student, you’ve missed out on a huge opportunity.

Social Learners

We’re sure you have students in your class who can’t seem to go more than five minutes without talking to the kid next to them — they’re your social learners.

The truth is, some students process information better by discussing it with others, whether that’s other students or you the teacher. Group discussions and projects will be much more effective for social learners than worksheets and reading assignments. Allowing students to work in groups puts them in a position to talk through hypotheses and the best way to approach a problem.

Say you’re teaching a physics lesson about gravity and you hand each group a ball of paper and golf ball. Have the students record some observations about the two objects — size, weight, shape, etc. Ask them to talk as a group and decide, based on their observations, which object will hit the ground first. Then, let them drop the objects at the same time and talk about whether their experiment matched their predictions.

If you were to simply stand in front of the class and do all of this for them, you might have engaged ⅓ of the class, while the rest were just watching. When it comes to these types of simple scientific observations, the instructional style that best suits the social learners in your class can also provide value for all learner types.

Auditory Learners

Auditory learners are the students who most effectively learn in the traditional, didactic style. These students process information best when they hear it, so offering clear, detailed oral instructions can be the simplest way to engage them with a task. These kids are far more likely to retain a lecture lesson than other students. If you’re going to give a handout that explains the assignment, do so because you want your students to build reading comprehension skills. It may not be the most effective way to communicate with your auditory learners, but reading comprehension is certainly important for everyone!

When you’re dealing with young children, even the auditory learners will need something more than a boring lecture. Wrapping your information up in a fun and engaging story is a good way to provide kids with concrete associations for important details — this is why the Magic Schoolbus series was so successful. Rather than providing a boring textbook account of life on the different planets, Miss Frizzle and her students visited them and experienced each environment.

Using Blended Lessons to Reach Students With All Learning Styles

While it’s true you can’t teach all students with the same educational style, you also shouldn’t tie yourself in knots trying to cater to your kids every single time. Find a balance between speaking to their learning style and forcing them to grow. It’s unreasonable for a student to expect to receive the same type of instruction all the time.

Part of challenging your students will involve forcing your kinesthetic learners to take notes, your visual learners to listen to a lecture and your auditory learners to complete a reading assignment or two. Students should learn to adapt just as much as teachers do, and a successful academic career will require resilience and adaptability.

In practice, this isn’t difficult to achieve. In an average class size of 20, you’ll likely have a variety of learning styles among the students in a single class. No one expects you to deliver five versions of your lesson simultaneously, so you aren’t going to be able to cater to every learning style every time.

Instead, it’s best to rotate between visual lessons, hands-on lessons, lecture-based lessons and group projects throughout the course of the year. This keeps your students from getting bored, while challenging them every single day — it’ll keep you from getting bored, too.

The Case for Rote Memorization

Sometimes the completion of a task requires you to recall information. It’s not always about doing something — often the trick is knowing something. The recent emphasis on critical thinking and problem solving is inarguably positive, but it would be a mistake to downplay the significance of knowledge for its own sake.

How many jobs in the modern economy require employees to keep track of rules, criteria, guidelines and technical information to produce work that is accurate, timely and compliant with relevant requirements? It’s easy for a student to posit the argument “When am I ever going to need to know this?” with the companion assertion “If I need that information I can always look it up.”

The internet has changed the way all humans interact with information. While it’s true that a student will likely never have occasion to recall the details of the War of 1812, it’s not the information itself that is important. What’s important is the exercise of learning about a topic and being able to recall relevant details when prompted.

Consider the training regimen for a team sport. Practices usually involve running drills that focus on a fundamental skill. These drills often involve movements and routines that the players will never actually repeat in the course of a game. Think of the agility ladder used in gyms and on football fields all across the country. At no point will an athlete ever run in a pattern that involves very small steps in a zig-zag pattern, but these drills build footspeed and agility to help athletes in the heat of the game.

Didactic education and rote memorization is the mental equivalent of the ladder drill. Learning information and using it to complete a task or an assessment is at the core of the traditional educational model, and this instructional method still has merit.

Incorporate this style into your science lessons carefully, though. At a young age, science class is all about discovering the world around you and how it works. You shouldn’t spend too much time with your head buried in a book when nature is right there on the other side of your classroom’s windows.

Differentiated Assessments

As we all know, learning new information is only half the equation in a traditional educational setting. The other half of a teacher’s job is to effectively assess the students’ knowledge. Testing is the most controversial subject in the field of education now, with discussions taking place at every level about the effectiveness of standardized testing for measuring student mastery.

While you may not have control over how well a student performs on their state exams, you absolutely have control over how well they perform on assessments in your own class. Not every student possesses the skills to complete a multiple-choice test, and we shouldn’t ever confuse that with a lack of understanding of the material. We are reminded of the famous quote: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole live believing that it is stupid.”

These words, whether they were Einstein’s or not, should have a powerful impact on every educator, no matter your subject matter. We spend a tremendous amount of energy crafting lessons that allow each student the opportunity to engage the material and learn in their own way, so why would we funnel them all back into a traditional pen-and-paper assessment model? After all, no matter how you slice it, a student’s performance is determined not by their ability to learn and master the material, but by their score on an assessment of the teacher’s choosing. We don’t want to coach students up to run the race, but then put a brick wall in front of the finish line so they can never complete it.

Strongly consider offering multiple options for how your students demonstrate their knowledge. Vary your assessment style from unit to unit, and when possible tailor it to the strengths of each individual. It’s impossible to follow every single “As an educator, you should…” statement out there — you’d never have enough hours in the day to incorporate every last best practice that has ever been suggested.

We understand you won’t be able to offer six different assessment types to accommodate the six different learning styles in each classroom, but it should always be in the back of your mind to consider whether you’re putting your students in the best position to succeed on your assessment.

Perhaps you could offer your kinesthetic learners the ability to create something that demonstrates your knowledge, while the visual learners can take the paper test and the auditory learners can write their responses to the test questions that you read to them. Allow social learners to complete some sort of group project.

We understand that no teacher has three assistants to manage all of this chaos on a single day, but varying your assessment style from unit to unit can help to make sure no one is getting left behind. You’ll also be encouraging your students to adapt to the learning styles different from their own.

Pulling It All Together

Keeping different learning styles in mind and playing to all your students’ strengths is a lot easier said than done, but no one said teaching would be easy. In the end, your sole focus is the success of your students, so don’t you want to make sure you did all you could to help them?

As a science teacher, you have the advantage of being able to put the learning in the students’ hands — oftentimes literally. You have options an English teacher could only dream of. Science inspires wonder and curiosity like nothing else in the elementary school classroom, so tap into your personal passion and enthusiasm so you can give all your students an experience they’ll never stop talking about.

If you notice students who can’t get enough and want to encourage their enthusiasm for science, consider recommending an after-school program or a summer program to their parents. At Science Explorers, we happen to have both! Contact us today for more information about our fun, hands-on programs for your budding scientists!