Visual Learning: Definition & Ideas

Although no studies link these popular labels to academic achievement, here’s how visual learning helps everyone.

Prisma Staff
November 24, 2022

Prisma is the world’s most engaging virtual school that combines a fun, real-world curriculum with powerful mentorship from experienced coaches and a supportive peer community

We give students countless labels. Among the most popular are the three different learning styles: visual, kinesthetic, and auditory learners. It’s so ingrained in our understanding of education that people regularly refer to these categories in describing themselves — usually to explain why they did something well, or failed to.

The basics of these learning styles are straightforward:

  1. Those who identify as having auditory learning intelligence believe they need to hear information to absorb it, through lectures, podcasts or other spoken material.
  2. People who think they are kinesthetic learners believe they need to learn through hands-on lessons, that might include using manipulatives for math or learning to spell by crafting the alphabet with playdough.
  3. Students who associate with the visual learning style tend to gravitate towards visual aids, like powerpoint presentations, graphs, and flashcards.

On the flip side, people who strongly associate with one learning style may think that they cannot benefit from the others  — or that they cannot be successful if information is being conveyed in an “incompatible” way.


The truth is, however, there are as many types of learners as there are students. What’s more — argue researchers from the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning at Yale University — when we reduce our educational experience to simple labels, we miss valuable opportunities to use all the modalities — which may be the best approach of all.

While no studies show students who learn according to their “style” achieve better academic results, they do show that diverse teaching methods improve learning outcomes.

That’s why, the Yale researchers assert, these myths do more harm than good: If we enter a classroom with a belief that we are a visual-spatial learner and therefore require visual cues and color coding for our notes, but have no need for listening to podcasts, we’re cutting ourselves off from learning strategies that could make a difference.

Part of a series of three, this post will explore the traditional characteristics of visual learners that can be applied to any classroom or homeschool situation. (See our posts on incorporating auditory and kinesthetic learning styles.)

How visual learning can benefit all students

1. It supports communication and collaboration

Visual learning lends itself to communication and collaboration, one of the Prisma Powers. While a back-and-forth debate can be stimulating, its helpful to balance these real-time, high-speed activities with techniques like mindmapping that encourage revision and reflection.

With tools like Jamboard and Miro — online, dynamic whiteboards — learners at Prisma collect, organize and reorganize their ideas, allowing them to see what their classmates think, and how everyone’s contributions overlap or diverge.

2. It helps strengthen executive function

Visual aids are a great way to build study skills, and help students learn to stay on top of their assignments. Kids can create to-do lists and then experience a sense of mastery as they cross off each individual item. When you can see all the things you have to do, it can help with planning and prioritization. (Psychological research backs this up!)

3. It serves as a gateway to build core skills and foster interests

When students get excited about the medium in which they are working, it can make them more engaged with a topic or skill that might not be their number one favorite, for example, using Minecraft to create 3d models of historical buildings.

Students who enjoy visual learning might get excited about designing their own handouts in Canva to teach themselves a concept. The opportunity to make something beautiful or cool could be the thing that helps break the ice, allowing them to get into “flow” and put in the necessary work to learn something deeply — not just memorize facts.

That’s why we always offer a range of different project options for every theme at Prisma, including digital or physical art projects, as well as web design. While some students will tend to want to specialize and return to the same media regularly, others will take the opportunity to sample each one as they figure out what excites them. We support either approach. The crucial piece is that the reflect on why they’re doing what they’re doing, as we discuss below.

Beyond learning labels: metacognition

Everyone has their preferences, but learning labels can flatten our ability to think about how we learn. This activity — also known as metacognition — is one of the most powerful ways to develop the growth mindset that serves students in the long run.

Essentially, metacognition puts the learner in the driver’s seat, rather than allowing them to be conditioned by a label that dictates why they’re a good speller, have trouble reading flowcharts or can’t get a good grade unless they use flash cards.

So, for example, if you start to use diagrams for math and the concept ‘clicks’, you might consider incorporating that approach regularly; if you find yourself daydreaming during a lecture, you might consider trying a strategy to more actively process information, like note-taking.

But taking notes only matters if you learn from them. That might require an additional “visual” step like reviewing the notes, inserting headings and highlighting the most important parts — but you might also benefit from explaining what you’ve learned to someone else or even reading your notes out loud to yourself.

More to the point, the strategy that helped you grasp geometry might not be the same one that helps you master calculus: countless other factors come into play, like the material itself, the learning environment, your state of mind and your mindset. That’s why it’s important to build a diverse toolkit of strategies to draw from in different situations.

Before engaging in any project, kids reflect on the Prisma Powers and how they plan to engage them. That means before deciding what approach to take, learners are thinking about the outcomes they hope to achieve and the reverse engineering — ensuring they’ve bought into their solution. Then, at the end of each project, they reflect on what they learned, what was hard, what they’re proud of, and how their thinking changed.

Coaches also have the kids reflect on the Prisma Powers every other week in their 1:1 meetings. Another powerful thing we do is ask for peer and family feedback which forces the kids to explain their thought process to someone else and decide which feedback to incorporate in the iteration phase of the project.

With this kind of metacognition, kids go into their next project knowing what works for them and what they might want to try differently.

Not learning style, learner choice

We believe in learner choice. Whether a student gravitates to 3d models, creating their own podcast or conducting hands-on experiments — or whether they want to take a different approach each time — we believe that learning happens when kids are deeply motivated and invested.

But we also think that no one should pigeon-hole themselves into a specific “style” of learning at the expense of other techniques: In real life, information is presented to us in a variety of ways, outside of our control; we can’t simply “choose” not to engage with it because it doesn’t match our preference.

As long as kids engage in thoughtful consideration of how they’re learning, where they excel and how they plan to grow, they’ll know best how to learn.

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