You have probably heard about learning styles: the idea that some students are visual learners, some are auditory, etc. What you have heard is probably mostly false, but there is some truth in this worth understanding.

1 Learning style preferences

We can measure, with some reliability, what teaching modality a student prefers. Some prefer visual, some tactile, some auditory, etc. Because they have these preferences, they tend to be more engaged when teaching matches their preference and less inclined to let distractions become extraneous load, so students whose preference aligns with teaching modality do tend to learn better than those whose preferences do not so align.

2 Best modality

That said, the studies I have read suggest that students learn better if you pick the right modality for the topic being taught than if you pick the modality they prefer. For some topics, this is intuitive: if you are being taught how to weave baskets, you’ll learn faster tactily by actually weaving than you will auditorily no matter how much you prefer auditory instruction. The surprising result is that each topic, even those with no obvious best-fit modality, appears to have a best modality and that matching the topics modality causes all students to learn more than matching their preferences does.

There are counter-arguments in the space of learning theory, but fortunately we don’t need to worry about them too much because there’s another principle that supersedes them all:

3 Mixed modality is best

Regardless of what modality you prefer, and regardless of what modality seems to work best for a topic, if the topic is taught with multiple modalities, everyone learns best. Draw some pictures, explain things, have their hands engaged: mixing modalities wins every time.

However, integrating modalities into a single lesson is a challenging task and one that takes time to learn and perfect. Fortunately, you can get many of the benefits by the following simple recipe:

  1. Identify two teaching strategies that use different modalities.
  2. Start teaching the student with one of them.
  3. If it seems like the lesson’s not working, switch to the other.

The main challenge in implementing this is in getting the second teaching strategy. We generally have one way to teach each topic, often the way we were being taught when the subject clicked and we had spare cognitive load to remember the lesson itself. Where does the other idea come from?

Creativity is certainly an option, but I recommend asking other TAs. A simple message like I’m looking for alternative ways to teach topic X will often bring a flurry of suggestions, giving you many good ideas. It can also show that you are an engaged and useful member of the TAing team, not a bad side-effect!