Teaching the Visual-Spatial Learner
My own training background in study technology taught that there were three primary
causes of difficulty in comprehension during study: having insufficient real-life experience
or observation of the subject matter (the “mass” of the subject), a learning curve that was too
steep for the student's level of ability, and insufficient comprehension of vocabulary and
nomenclature. Of the three, the need to understand the vocabulary was stressed as by far
the most important.
Being strict with students about clearing up their understanding of words while they study
works well. Nevertheless, there were certain things I had observed during my own study,
and in some students when I became a course supervisor and study debug specialist, which
seemed to fly in the teeth of what I had learnt in my training.
For instance, I had been taught that whenever a person encounters a word, punctuation
symbol or some other sign for which they did not have a full definition, comprehension and
ability to use the data will be seriously impeded. Yet at a time before I learnt this study
methodology, I had read and successfully applied the data from a long and technical
instruction manual on a specific type of one-on-one therapy. I knew there was a very great
probability that I had skipped over unfamiliar words in that book, yet my understanding of
the procedure involved had been clearly demonstrated. Somehow, I was able to fill in the
gaps. I clearly had strengths in some sort of ability that simply having a decent vocabulary
alone could not explain.
My own supervisor training included understanding the difference between ordinary literacy
and “superliteracy”. A literate person would read the word “house” and think, “Ah, yes, a
building in which people live”. A superliterate person, on the other hand, would simply think
of the concept of a house, perhaps seeing a picture of one in his mind's eye.
I observed that many students would get in a horrible tangle with the words, spending ages
with dictionaries trying to find definitions with which they were satisfied, and they needed a
great deal of help to find what words they hadn't understood in the text, and help clearing
them up in the dictionary. It seemed that these students needed to understand the word in
terms of a dictionary definition or dictionary-like definition. I would catch them sometimes
spot-checking another student, and flunking them for explaining the term entirely
acceptably, but using their own words. When the term was explained a different way to them,
it was as if a sign went up saying, “NO MATCH”, and they couldn't think with it.
Other students I supervised did not seem to get into difficulty with the language side of
things, but would tend to go hunting through references and encyclopaedias for
photographs, illustrations, diagrams and charts, and needed a lot of examples relating the
material to real life before they would get it. They were the students who would need to
sketch out ideas or physically demonstrate procedures until a light went on, and then they
Linda Kreger Silverman (author, teacher, parent and psychologist), writes about these two
learning preferences in her book “Upside Down Brilliance: The Visual-Spatial Learner”.
Silverman describes the two major learning styles as follows: the auditory-sequential
learner (ASL), and the visual-spatial learner (VSL). Of course, it is highly unlikely that any
given person is purely one or the other. Rather, it is a continuum, and everyone has a
mixture of both to a greater or lesser degree. Many VSL's also have strong sequencing
skills, and many ASL's also have strong spatial skills. Those people who are extremely
strong in both obviously have the best of both worlds.
The traditional school curriculum caters well for the former. They tend to be the model
students. Most of what is typically considered by schools to be “smarts” or “academic
ability” tends to be the strengths of the auditory-sequential student. He, or she, learns well
from hearing the teacher's explanation, is methodical, organized, good at verbal expression,
and can follow and remember information presented as a series of steps.
The visual-spatial learner, on the other hand, tends not to fit the mould. He or she might
have a high IQ, but the teacher may completely miss how smart such a student is, because
traditional bookwork does not play to the student's strengths. Such a student thinks in 3D
images, locations, context and the relationships between things. These students tend to be a
big-picture thinker who get lost if they can't make a picture in their minds (as per the first
barrier to comprehension I mentioned). They need an outline of that picture first to give
them structure and context before they can start sketching in the details.
Silverman and the Gifted Development Center have collected vast amounts of test scores and
other evidence over the years, and it is clear that about a third of all students are strongly
visual-spatial dominant. The main characteristics she has identified are briefly discussed
(a) Thinking in images vs. thinking in words. When a person thinks in words, it enables swift
processing of verbal information. They can carry on a rapid-paced verbal interchange, are
good conversationalists, get their ideas heard in a debate or discussion, and can field
questions easily from the floor when giving a speech or presentation. For the person who
thinks in pictures, it may take longer to translate those pictures into words. In school, there
is a great deal of emphasis on verbal fluency and speed. Even when a VSL has a large
vocabulary, they may have to “talk around” the concept first. Spit-out answers do not
always come easily.
As a course supervisor, I had to be careful to listen out for each student's natural speed of
answering. Spot-checking of the words and materials is a key tool in a study tech
classroom, and speed is emphasised: if the student doesn't answer up immediately, then it is
assumed that the definition or information has not been learned well enough. This is pretty
harsh on the VSL who in fact may have a superior understanding, but just needs a couple of
seconds longer to articulate what is seen in the mind's eye. I still recall the frustration of
being fairly new to the study tech methods, and getting flunked because I would suddenly
have these glorious, full Technicolor™ 3D examples pop up when asked to define words (a labyrinthine network of computers, printers and cables, for example, when asked to define“concatenation”) that could leave me momentarily tongue-tied because I needed to think how
to expeditiously and effectively get this concept across in words to the other person. By the
strict standards of this type of examination, however, that split second hesitation was a
flunk. The standard remedy of telling the student to go and find what he or she didn't
understand and then restudy the article or chapter may not make any difference to such a
student's understanding, but merely serve to impede progress. Judgement is required!
(b) Visual strengths vs. auditory strengths. Whereas ASL's are comfortable with lectures
and can take in vast amounts of information from them, VSL's prefer diagrams, flowcharts,
pictures and demonstrations. They tend to remember what they see better than what they
hear. ASL's find it easier than VSL's to hear a voice in a crowd or noisy setting – it may be
necessary to touch the VSL person on their arm to get their attention where there are a lot of
other distracting sounds.
Obviously, this type of student will need to make more use of what study tech has to offer in
terms of demonstration, sketching, watching demonstration films and video clips, practical
exercises and going and observing the actual subject matter in a real-life setting. A
properly set-up study area would have the theory and practical areas separate, so that
students who are trying to read or listen to a taped lecture would not be distracted by other
students doing practical drills.
It is worthy of note that musical ability is not a sign of being ASL – many musicians are
VSL's. This makes sense when you consider that we do not process music one note at a time
or one instrument at a time, but integrate all the sounds and textures of the music as a
complete experience – definitely a VSL strength.
(c) Awareness of space vs. awareness of time. In school or in the workplace, time is of the
essence – being punctual, taking timed tests, finishing work on time, etc. Awareness of time
comes easily to the ASL, whereas the VSL's strength lies in their spatial thinking. Some
VSL's appear to be completely unconscious about time – they turn up late for school or
work or lag behind in their projects with no idea as to why. Timed tests can be an absolute
nightmare – one father reported that his eight year old son freaked out more at the threat of
being timed than the threat of being grounded! Such a child could spend 20 minutes tying a
shoe, having no concept of the passage of time.
Typical schooldays, which are divided up into a series of hour long lessons, annoys the
VSL. Self-development author Tony Buzan even recommends in his study skills and
memory skills books dividing up home study sessions into short periods. VSL's require
more time than that to delve deeply into a subject and explore, ponder, visualize and
experience. In this regard, the study tech approach to scheduling with its intense courses
and long study days suits the VSL well – I have studied, and supervised, 11+ hours a day with
none of the “loss of comprehension” in the middle of a study period that Buzan worries
(d) Whole part vs. step-by-step thinking. Whereas ASL's learn best when a task is broken
down into a series of small steps and then mastered through practice and reinforcement, the
VSL learns things holistically. They need to see the whole picture in their minds. Trying to
teach something to a VSL without first thoroughly clearing up the purpose or goal of the
subject means that they do not have anywhere to peg the details. They seem to run out of
memory for the individual steps and get lost. Explaining the desired end result enables the
VSL to mentally map the subject.
My training in study tech mentions "purpose not delineated" as one of the basic obstacles to
learning. When tackling something for the first time, there is little point telling the student "Now we're going to…" without first ensuring the student understands why "…" is necessary.
It is as bad as giving little bits and pieces and never explaining the final goal.
I had a computer manual that on the surface of it looked ideal for the VSL – full of screen
shots, illustrations and diagrams. On working through it, however, I realised that these
instructions had clearly been put together by an ASL trying to accommodate the VSL
learning style, but without really getting it. Under a general heading, e.g. "Styles", the
manual would walk the reader through various steps, but the effect of taking these steps
could not be easily observed or appreciated until the final step had been taken. I have
noticed that nearly all the IT classes I have attended teach this way as well. Having seen the
result, and mentally “come alive”, now I could see the use for what was being taught; I would
then have to think backwards and try to retrace all the steps that got there. When I knew at
the outset what I was trying to achieve, e.g. asking a colleague, "How do I format this
heading?" I would never again have to be shown after the first time.
(e) All at once vs. trial and error. The trial and error approach is an ASL learning strategy.
The VSL learns well by observation, and once he gets it, he gets it all at once. Understanding
occurs in an all or nothing fashion. It may subsequently be impossible for the VSL to
explain how he arrived at that understanding.
Interestingly, introverted VSL's seem to have the greatest capacity to mentally rehearse
physical skills. It may explain why some musicians have the ability to pick up a new
instrument and get a tune out of it on the first try.
(f) Easy is hard, and hard is easy. Nearly all school education is arranged to go from easy
material progressively to harder material. However, VSL's are often able to go from the
complex backwards to basics, but are turned off when made to go from basics first. Being
made to learn the “basics” first can be frustrating for them, but their interest is engaged once
the work becomes sufficiently challenging. Children with this learning style tend to make
mistakes on easy test items but pass the harder ones.
Silverman suggests that this tendency is best understood by realising that what our
education systems and society generally consider “easy” is usually sequential, and what
they consider “hard” depends upon an ability to simultaneously co-ordinate and integrate
many complex variables.
Particularly with gifted VSL's, the solution as an educator is to give them advanced work
even if they haven't necessarily mastered the easier material. This may sound counterintuitive,
but the Gifted Development Center has demonstrated time and again that it works.
A gifted child who hasn't memorized their arithmetic facts might easily grasp more complex
mathematical concepts which can be more easily visualized. Many have advanced abstract
reasoning strengths which may not be engaged by rote, sequential tasks. Teachers should
bear in mind that the VSL often grasps simple concepts only against the background context
of more complex ones.
The private college where I used to teach introduced a series of training drills for teaching
certain types of procedure that, in my opinion, had a completely back to front learning
curve. The last exercise I felt was the easiest, and the first the hardest. This made little sense
until I realised that the last exercise involved putting all the steps together, while the first
exercise consisted of just learning one part of it, out of context with the rest of the
(g) Synthesis vs. Analysis. The person who is good at analysis is good at comparing and
contrasting the individual components of a whole. The VSL tends to be a synthesizing
thinker, good at fitting all of the parts together, as well as creating something original. Once
they find out what connects several things, they are able to simplify it into a more general
rule. These abilities at synthesis are not only what underpins creativity in the arts, but all
important inventions, research and discovery depend upon them.
(h) Big Picture vs. Details. Detail-oriented ASL's may be great at carrying out all the
assigned work, but fail to grasp the implications of what they are learning. VSL's grasp the
big picture and the significance of what they are learning, and preserve all the basic
concepts in memory, but attention to detail may be a weaker point. Many know far more
than they show on class assignments or on tests because of detail errors. If the information
is dished out in a piecemeal fashion, the VSL may lose track.
There is little point giving the VSL the twigs and the leaves before the roots and trunk are in
place. It is important for the educator, when trying to reach these "systems" thinkers, to
construct a curriculum that goes from the general to the specific. Web-based courses tend
to be very good as students can read the overview page, and if required, they can click the
link with more information about a particular topic.
(i) Maps vs. oral directions to a destination. ASL's can easily follow left-right-straight on
directions, and notice landmarks along the way. The VSL may lose track of these type of
instructions, and instead tends to prefer the holistic overview of the area provided by a map
in order to spatially locate himself in relation to where he wishes to go.
(j) Mathematical reasoning vs. arithmetical computation. Higher level mathematics such as
geometry depend upon visualization skills. ASL's excel in arithmetic, algebra and timed
calculation tests, but opt out of more advanced mathematics courses. VSL's have the
opposite pattern, and often think of themselves as being poor at mathematics until they move
onto these advanced topics. Unfortunately, some VSL's may have been so poor at arithmetical computation in the early years that the school never permits them to move onto
these advanced topics. They subsequently go through life believing that they are bad at
mathematics, never realising how well they would have done once they got onto the “real”
There were a great number of students at my school who were in the lower sets for
mathematics, despite being in high sets for other subjects. I wonder how many of these
students might have excelled had the school been flexible enough to allow them to put the
arithmetic to one side for a bit and introduce them to some higher mathematics topics
instead, and see how they got on.
(k) Reading by sight vs. phonics, and visualizing spellings vs. sounding out words. Very
young ASL children master phonics quite easily. VSL's may find it easier to learn words by
sight, recognising the “shape” of the words. It is important for a teacher to use a
combination of methods in teaching children to read. In addition, a young VSL may not be
able to phonetically sound out words that they have never seen in print.
(l) Typing vs. neat, fast handwriting.
There is very little correlation between
general intelligence, and handwriting and
spelling. Yet there are cases cited in
articles on giftedness where a student's
capabilities have been dismissed because
of poor spelling and writing. Silverman
cautions against penmanship and
spelling being considered as part of the
grading in other subjects. She suggests
that keyboarding should be taught for the
purpose of note-taking. However, when
writing is taught as an art form, such as in calligraphy, many VSL's can develop beautiful
(m) Organizationally challenged vs. well-organized. As well as untidy handwriting, the VSL
is often the one with the messy desk, messy locker and disorganized filing system for their
work. They may come up with their own unique organization methods. There is little point
teachers or bosses nagging. "How could you ensure you don't forget your …?" is a more
(n) “Just knowing” vs. showing one's work. Some educational theorists believe that if a
student cannot explain precisely how they arrived at their answers, then they do not
understand the concepts. This idea can only have been dreamt up by ASL educators who
think in a step-by-step, linear fashion and assume that the rest of the world does too – or if
they don't, they should. The VSL often arrives at their conclusion all at once. They just
know. They don't know how they know and can't explain the route they took to get there.
This leads them to being penalised in classes which insist that they show a series of steps that they never took. Teachers can't imagine how they “just know” and draw the conclusion
that the student must be cheating. The ideal is to just allow the student to come up with their
answers on their own, and accept that not everyone views the world in the same way.
(o) Seeing relationships vs. rote memorization. VSL's remember meaningful material but
struggle with school exercises that they see as non-meaningful. They see the connections
between things easily, and once a topic is learnt, they understand in terms of a complete
network of relationships. A weakness, so far as school is concerned, is that while the VSL is
able to figure out the answer, it can take longer than the teacher is prepared to wait. In a
class quiz, teachers want answers rapidly spat out from memory. This rapid-fire verbal
fluency is an ASL trait. Longer, project-based assignments that give students time to reflect,
integrate ideas and tackle problems creatively may give these students more opportunity to
show what they know and can do.
(p) Visual long-term memory vs. auditory short-term memory. The ASL may have the
advantage in terms of ability to hold things in short-term memory, such as a set of
instructions or directions, but VSL's seem to retain things visually in long-term memory.
The VSL may find it difficult to take notes in classes and lectures, having to co-ordinate
listening, extracting the key points and writing things down simultaneously. Some such
students have said things like, “It either goes in or it doesn't.”
The student who is able to cram for their exams, memorize and spit out the data on the day,
but who has forgotten most of it a week later is exhibiting a typical ASL study pattern.
There is a way to help all students beyond this superficial, short-term memorization
phenomenon into more of a conceptual grasp of the data. Whilst having some small objects
on the desk, ask the student to demonstrate, using these real objects, the main rules and
principles being covered in the lesson. The glib, rote approach tends to shatter when the
student is asked to physically SHOW the principles and how they apply.
(q) A permanent picture vs. drill and repetition. The ASL depends on drill for concepts to
stick, and it is quite possible that the amount of drill found in textbooks has been based
upon a careful study of what is required for average students to grasp and retain the
information. It could be that a certain amount of repetitive practice is necessary for the
associative pathways to form. Bright students need considerably less drill than average
students, and the gifted usually get the concept the first time it is presented.
For the VSL student who learns by creating pictures in their mind, those pictures are not
improved in any way by practice. Exercises do not contribute at all to the student's
understanding. This visual representation of the concepts is permanent. To insist that such
a student repeatedly goes over the same ground is a waste of time and is off-putting for the
student. The solution is for the teacher to give them a few of the hardest problems or
exercises. If they succeed at those, then skip all the earlier ones.
(r) Developing own methods vs. learning from instruction. Whereas ASL's are good at
mastering material the traditional way by copying the teacher's steps, a more productive way to teach VSL‟s is simply by giving them the problems and seeing if they can figure it out
on their own. If they succeed, give them more and see if their system consistently works.
Learning is more likely to take place when the VSL can come up with their own problem-solving
strategies. Fortunately, our college's courses were structured so that each student had a copy of the
curriculum, which they followed at their own speed, and the supervisor worked in a
facilitator/advisory role rather than teaching the class as a body. This enabled students a
great deal of latitude to work through the material in a way that worked for them.
(s) Learning dependent on emotions vs. learning in spite of emotions. ASL's are better
equipped to compartmentalize their emotions. VSL's can be very sensitive to how they are
perceived by the teacher or by other students. He becomes his emotions, and is are very
sensitive to the teacher's attitude. If the VSL believes the teacher doesn't like him, little
learning may take place in that class. I have, unfortunately, worked with other supervisors
who seemed to think that the way to get students through courses more expeditiously was to
behave like a drill sergeant. Such colleagues were often disdainful of my more laid-back
approach, but then wondered why it was that I could get more course progress out of certain
students. These students were inevitably the more creative, sensitive students and in
hindsight I am fairly sure they all had VSL tendencies.
(t) Divergent vs. convergent thinking. Teaching that leads to one right answer (convergent)
is comfortable for the thought processes of the linear, sequential learner but stifling to the
thought processes of VSL's. On standardized tests, VSL's may give insightful but
unscorable answers, having seen possibilities that the test designer never imagined.
(u) Asynchronous development vs. even development, and erratic grades vs. consistent
achievement. The average ASL child develops fairly evenly across various domains, and
even when there is some discrepancy in the level of physical, emotional, and intellectual
development, etc, this still tends to be within certain limits. The gifted often develop
asynchronously, but the gifted VSL's developmental areas can be all over the place! Their
test scores can vary by several standard deviations between subtests.
If ASL's are more successful academically in school, then it is because the school
curriculum was designed to fit the developmental schedule that those students typically
follow. VSL's can get an A with certain teachers, and an F with others, because they are not
only sensitive to the relationship with the teacher, but their developmental progress can be
One of the great problems with expecting a student to have achieved XYZ academically by a
certain age is that sometimes extremely able students may fall through the educational gaps.
The Open University in the UK got it right by making their courses available to mature
students who did not necessarily have formal school qualifications. I believe more colleges
and universities could benefit from this approach. A society that does not give adults a
second bite at the educational cherry denies itself the contribution that they may have made,
given appropriate opportunities.
(v) Immersion vs. Language Classes. ASL‟s seem to learn languages well in class. VSL's
find that they master languages more efficiently when fully immersed in the country and
culture and are constantly surrounded by the foreign language. Watching foreign language
movies and TV may help. Perhaps the reason why total immersion works better for this type
of student is because every time a piece of the language is presented to them, it comes with a
real-life setting and context.
(w) Creatively gifted vs. academically talented. The student who demonstrates their abilities
through high academic achievement is far more likely to be nominated for gifted
programmes, where these exist. Those students who are highly creative, good with
technology, mechanically capable, or highly attuned emotionally and intuitively may not
find the traditional school curriculum relevant for the development of their strongest
(x) Late bloomers vs. early bloomers. ASL's tend to be the children who talk early, and
show early promise. One reason VSL's may appear to be later bloomers might be because
advanced work becomes more challenging and demands more abstract reasoning – a strong
suit for bright VSL's. Other reasons could be that later work demands more ability to
visualize, VSL's learn compensation techniques or study skills, or they have more choice
later on which subjects to take. Or it could be that they learn to control their distractability,
become more determined to succeed, or mature later on. Perhaps all the above. I cannot
reiterate in strong enough terms my view that colleges and universities should operate a
more flexible admissions policy with older candidates.
There is a lot of latitude within the study tech ethos for those students who tend to have
better-developed visual-spatial abilities. Perhaps we have misplaced too much emphasis on
words and language, just because it is easy and only requires the use of a dictionary.
Supplying real-life views and demonstrations of items and procedures, finding videos and
film clips, or liberally illustrated encyclopaedic entries with photographs and diagrams is
more work for the person running the course. However, the structure of these courses
favours the self-starter, and these students can be encouraged to find such material on their
own initiative, both in and out of class.
In the workplace, employers need to make use of the particular strengths of these
employees, even when such an employee occupies a very junior or entry-level role. Giving
them routine tasks may not be the best use of the resource that they are for the company.
A person with highly developed visual-spatial abilities is a gift, and they need to be
developed and pushed forward, academic qualifications or not. These are the abilities of the
great geniuses, of artists, inventors, innovators and makers of great scientific discoveries.
When we waste the person, we waste the potential.
© Gwyneth Wesley Rolph 2011.
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