I was recently asked about the learning style of my child: is he a visual learner? An auditory learner? Or does he do best in a tactile, kinesthetic environment?
It is an interesting question – in the way that all questions that raise our own self awareness and knowledge are – but the real issue is not what type of learner he is or isn’t, but rather what sort of feedback he is receiving in his learning journey. It is more important and impactful that the feedback students receive is appropriate, timely and actionable.
Categorizing and cataloging learning styles was a popular concept in the 1970s and 1980s, especially in delineating between dichotomous extremes – are you a verbal or visual learner? Do you observe or do better experiencing? Are you conceptual? Are you an experimenter? Like the best of Myers-Briggs results, your learning style (or that of your student) is illuminating, but to get to mastery and understanding, students need relevant, timely feedback.
The best feedback is “information about how we are doing in our efforts to reach a goal.” It is a vital part of a student’s learning and can help them understand what they are studying and how to improve. We give feedback to our students and children constantly: facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and especially word choice are paramount. All of these things give kids an idea of our expectations and what the quality of their response to those expectations should be. Even the failure to provide feedback can be seen as a direct message that the child is not important enough to spend time on.
Effective feedback should be timely (immediate is best), specific, actionable, and move the student toward a goal. The goal could be as mundane as improving penmanship or as important as achieving grade level standards in writing. The idea is to involve the students in the process of their learning by giving them access to information about their performance; they need to know if they have mastered the material at hand or not.
For example, my middle school aged son was struggling in his math class. Receiving feedback from his teacher that he was not yet meeting grade-level standards was meaningless and unhelpful; he could tell that by the raw score on the page. It didn’t tell him what he had done wrong or where he should focus his efforts to do better next time. On the other hand, specific feedback such as showing the calculation or guiding to the explanation in the textbook would give him concrete steps to use towards a goal of material mastery.
How and where technology and technology tools fit into the feedback question is also an interesting question. On the one hand email, text messages, and in-app messaging services make it far easier for a teacher to provide comments quickly and (theoretically) concisely. However, often times those comments are removed from the actual paper or test – using a trusty red pen, a teacher can mark on the actual test page but an email, even with an attachment, requires some amount of cross referencing and back and forth that is cumbersome and unwieldy. The gap between the comments and the visual aid can be vast. It may be faster to type comments into an email or message (and then cut and paste the same text into messages to other kids in the class) than re-writing them on paper after paper. Teachers, in frustration, may rely on the handwritten smiley face or star as a shortcut. But that smiley face isn’t detailed enough to provide real value to the student; likewise, not every student will understand a teacher’s abbreviations and shorthand notes (what does “AWK” mean on an essay? How can the student make the sentence better?).
Similarly, it is tedious for teachers to have to write the same comments over and over again on a problem or task that students are struggling with (don’t forget to capitalize the beginning of a sentence! Check your work!).
Using products like Canary Learning’s CanaryFlow apps, teachers are able to send feedback directly on the assignment immediately to the student. The teacher is freed from the mundane repetition of writing and re-writing the same comments on paper after paper by being able to keep and click on a repository of phrases and comments. Likewise, the grading tool tallies the assignment grade while the teacher works, rather than relying on fatigued and overworked teachers to add scores and to enter them correctly into their grade books. Canary Learning allows teachers to give timely and germane feedback. This in turn benefits students who are able to turn that feedback into actionable efforts and to improve and continue on a successful path through their learning journey.
If you are curious, my son is an auditory learner who listens intently and with focus, but the thing he loves most and responds to best is concrete, actionable words to help him improve. He takes such feedback and runs with it.
 See Cherry, Kendra. “VARK Learning Styles: Which Learning Style Do You Have?” About.com Health. N.p., 16 Dec. 2014. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
 See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Learning_styles#Learning_Style_Inventory for a brief summary of learning style models, methods and critiques. Wikipedia contributors. “Learning styles. “Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 19 Jan. 2016. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
 See Stenger, Marianne. “5 Research-Based Tips for Providing Students with Meaningful Feedback.” Edutopia. George Lucas Educational Foundation, 06 Aug. 2014. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
 See Wiggins, Grant. Educational Leadership: Feedback for Learning: Seven Keys to Effective Feedback. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, Sept. 2012. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
 See Why Is Feedback Important? University of Reading Teaching Fellowship Project, n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
 See “The Importance of Feedback to Students.” The Importance of Feedback to Students. Epigeum, Ltd., n.d. Web. 28 Jan. 2016.
 See Stenger and Wiggins, above.