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Learning Modalities - When One Approach is Not Enough 
Written by Jim Meany April 21st 2017
Have you ever wondered why an instructor’s lecture can sound so much like the soporific droning of the teacher in a cartoon series (can you say “Charlie Brown”?), but a simple diagram on the board makes the same material come alive?  Did you notice how the subject coalesces into even better focus when you are the one sketching out your understanding (even if an imperfect understanding) of the concept?  Or maybe you have struggled with an exam question, blanking on the answer, until you physically calmed yourself, recalled your hand movements as you had taken notes preparing the material in advance of the exam, and then watched the answer flow, as if by magic, from your pencil.  These outcomes are not coincidences.  They reflect the power of multiple learning modalities and a huge opportunity for you to advance and bolster your learning skills and style.

As with any undertaking, learning requires the collection and deployment of resources.  The more tools (resources) in your toolbox, the more effective and efficient your learning process can be.  Unfortunately, many students, especially those who struggle with academic achievement, do not fully appreciate the number, variety, and especially power of different learning modalities available to them. 

Effective learning, assimilation, integration, understanding, and retention of ideas go beyond listening to a lecture, performing a cursory read of text or other written materials, and taking a less than inspired approach to homework.  To succeed, a student must tap into personal resources already available.  The only extra cost will include some additional upfront time and effort that will pay huge dividends in efficiency, understanding, and recall.

Insight Tutors LLC recommends a holistic approach to learning, yet we recognize that not everyone finds each method equally useful.  That’s the beauty of the system – each student is free to choose the method(s) he/she finds most effective. 

If you do not understand a concept from your textbook, go to the online version or to YouTube for a mini-lecture complete with diagramming or, even better, an animation.  A ten-minute YouTube tutorial on a homework problem might suffice for those who have the time and patience for it (after all, a woman recently learned to build a house based solely on YT tutorials she had watched:, while others would benefit more from working their way through a relevant sample problem in the textbook (see upcoming blog post “Print Textbooks Are Disappearing, and That’s a Shame”). 

Study buddies can prove invaluable – if you can teach material to someone else, you will definitely know it for yourself for the final.  Just be sure you and everyone else in the group take the task seriously.  And honestly, you will probably benefit more from being the lead in the group teaching others rather than trying to keep up all the time.

One often-discounted learning mechanism deserves special mention.  We cannot overstate the power of “writing it down,” especially if you write it down the old fashioned way – with pencil and paper (or its functional digital equivalent, but not typing).  This advice applies to annotating and paraphrasing literary and other written works (not just highlighting or underlining, which is too passive), diagramming scientific and other processes, creating “recipes” for solving math problems, drawing concept maps for historical events, and visualizing other principles and materials.  The physical act of writing down a concept not only requires you to interpret, assimilate, understand, correct, and regurgitate information, all very important in themselves for the development and retention of knowledge, but it also allows you to access the extreme power of kinesthesia as your efforts link hand, eye, and mind in the process of cementing understanding for later recall and use (the value of which has been shown in scientific studies).

Oh, and that less than inspired approach to homework we mentioned before?  How many of you complete homework assignments merely to get a check or a check plus in the instructor’s grade book?  If that sounds like you, you are short changing yourself.  Yes, you need that homework score.  More important you need the learning and reinforcement doing the homework provides.  And mastering homework is a critical step towards mastering exams (see also “Prep for Success When Taking Your Finals”).  So yes, homework counts in large amounts, to borrow from Depeche Mode.

Whether you retain Insight Tutors LLC to help you identify and utilize your preferred modalities or not, you owe it to yourself to ascertain, expand, and exploit the multiple mechanisms of learning that will work for you.  You will be pleased with the impact they will have on your learning, including increased satisfaction with the process and a greater intellectual curiosity regarding the world around you.

About the Author: Jim Meany

Jim is an award-winning educator and admissions consultant who helps clients realize their highest personal and academic potential. He is founder and director of Insight Tutors LLC of Greenwich, Connecticut. Founded in 2001, Insight Tutors, LLC has been helping students excel at subject matter, master standardized tests, and gain admission to the most competitive undergraduate and graduate schools. He holds an MBA in finance and entrepreneurship from USC and MS and BS degrees in biology from Stanford University and has also taught at both schools.
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