Learning modalities in elearning

Posted by Greten on 05 Jun 2019 under Theories

Learning modality refers to how a lesson is presented or delivered to the learners. Learning modalities are classified based on the sensory organ used to process new learning: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. Visual modality is learning by seeing, auditory modality is learning by hearing, and kinesthetic modality is learning by touching objects.

The use of illustrations, diagrams, and charts are among the examples of visual modality. Some examples of auditory modality are listening to music, recorded narration, or even the voice of your instructor speaking in front of the class. Kinesthetic modalities include activities such as setting up an experiment, assembling a handicraft, or cutting papers into shapes; the Montessori method is an instructional method that relies heavily on kinesthetic modality.

In elearning, among the common ways of using learning modalities are videos, which covers both visual and auditory, and interactions with the use of mouse such as clicking and dragging objects. It is generally a good idea to use a mix of different modalities during a lesson. This post will cover how learning modalities work together and provide additional tips and details on how you can use them in developing elearning modules.

You need not teach or develop elearning for your student's learning style

Learning modalities are often associated with the so-called "learning style", and many works of literature consider them synonymous. However, learning modality merely refers to the way a lesson is presented, while learning style is an already debunked concept in which you classify learners based on the way they learn best: by seeing, by listening, or by doing activities.

There is no scientific evidence that customizing instruction based on the student's learning style will improve learning. On the other hand, research shows that teaching students based on their self-reported learning styles or not does not affect learning [1]. However, the myth of learning styles continue to be popular for several reasons, among them are:

  • Pride: if a student failed a subject, they could always blame the instructor, the learning materials, or the curriculum for not presenting the lesson in their preferred style instead of accepting that they didn't study hard or smart enough.
  • Profit: there are companies who develop tests that can allegedly determine the learning styles of learners, and sell them to schools and companies who think they can improve instruction or training by customizing lessons based on their students' or employees' learning styles.

However, there is one general idea that both the debunkers and believers of learning styles tend to agree: presenting a lesson in several different ways is better for learning [2].

Thus, there is no need to categorize students based on learning styles. You can use the same set of learning materials for the entire class, as long as there's a variety of learning modality within it.

Why presenting a lesson in different modalities is better for learning?

Presenting a lesson or a topic with variation in learning modalities can strengthen both memory retention and understanding.

Allows repetition

Repetition allows for learning retention to become stronger and moves what was learned into the long term memory. You will notice that you already memorized songs that you hear again and again, and it's also a known memorization technique to read a line in a poem or speech several times. However, reading the same pages of a book or watching the same video repeatedly can be boring.

Light bulb with brain surrounded by ear representing auditory, eye representing visual, and hand representing kinesthetic.You can remedy this by presenting the same lesson or topic in different learning modalities, or even different combinations of two modalities, or different variants of the same modality.

For example, you are developing a lesson on how to do shadow vacuum techniques in renovating old buildings that might have asbestos. You may at first present a video with actors doing shadow vacuum on site so that the learners can see how it is done. and to have an idea of the appearance of the equipment and the worksite. Second, the learners can view the animation that might give them less idea of how the actual equipment appears, but may allow them to see things that are not visible in the video, such as the cross-section of the wall and ceiling and how the asbestos becomes friable and gets siphon into the vacuum. Lastly, the instructor brings the learners to a practice site or an actual worksite and guide them as the practice shadow vacuum techniques with actual vacuum cleaners.

The learners received the same lesson thrice: two variants of audiovisual (visual and auditory) and one kinesthetic. Each of them may be accompanied by auditory modalities, such as the narrations and dialogues of video and animation, and your instructor's guidance as you work on the site. Repetition with varying modalities provides better learning than say, watching the same video or same animation thrice.

Allows learning breaks

Research shows that learners cannot focus on continuous learning for more than 20 minutes. To allow a lesson to exceed 20 minutes, you must provide learning breaks in your instruction. There are three kinds of learning breaks: breaks in the learning activity, breaks in the learning process, and breaks in learning modality. The first two involves the learners stopping all learning activities entirely: the first one means reading, watching, or listening stops, but learning is still happening in the brain such as learners reflecting on them and establishing connections to their existing knowledge, while the second one implies pause in the learning process to do something else like lunch break, walking to get fresh air, or making a call at home [3].

One of the future posts shall discuss all learning breaks in details. For now, let us focus on breaks in learning modality.

Breaks in learning modality allow the lesson to exceed the 20 minutes maximum attention without breaking the learning activity. Say you need a 30-minute of elearning activity that already includes repetitions. Using the shadow vacuum again as an example, you can have a 15-minute video embedded on a slide, followed by two or more slides containing animations running for a total of 15 minutes. The entire lesson runs for 30 minutes, but they are divided into two different modalities. Thus, the students will not be bored after 20 minutes.

Moreover, when the students saw the transition from one modality to another, they may take that as a hint that now is the best time to click the pause button and take a break should they need it, allowing them to have breaks in the learning activity or learning process as well.

Allows learning interconnectivity

One way a learner can recall knowledge is by trying to recall how they learned it. Have you ever tried recalling a piece of information, and then it seems like you've forgotten it already, but what was able to recall it somehow by remembering how you learned it? Your thought process might be something like, "You're asking how Julius Caesar was killed? I cannot remember, but I saw it on TV and in a stage play. Oh, wait! I can remember it now." Just as much as the pieces of knowledge in your brain are interconnected, your memories of how you acquired them can also be connected.

So what does this mean for learning modalities? It means that when a lesson is presented with different learning modalities, its connection to the network of your existing knowledge and memories will be stronger because you have several memories of from where you learned that lesson. Going back to the shadow vacuum example, you may be able to recall how to do shadow vacuum by remembering that you learned it from the video, from the animation, or practice, or perhaps a combination of them. For example, you remember how the equipment looks like from the video, how it works from the animation, and the proper posture while using it from practice.

How to use learning modalities in elearning?

You can design your elearning lessons such that it incorporates different learning modalities. Visual and auditory usually come together, but you can still design your elearning to focus on one modality, and then shift to another modality as the lesson progresses.

Videos and slide animations

The shadow vacuum example has both a video and a set of slide animations, both involve visual and auditory senses, but they presented the same topic in different ways. Present the lesson twice or more to allow for repetition, but present them with a different format with a different focus for each repetition.

For example, the video will focus on the actual appearance of the equipment and the proper position of the body when using them, while the narration mentions on the passing what is happening to the asbestos particles during the use of shadow vacuum. The animation repeats the same lesson, but the equipment may not appear as they are in real life, but allows you to show how the vacuum siphons the asbestos particles.

Same lesson, same concepts, and both are audiovisual, but different presentation format and different focus.

Slide animations with different focus

You can have one set of slides that are heavy in figures and animations making them the main source of your learning, while the audio narration provides details that will make your understanding easier, but are not essential to convey what you must learn. These slides are audiovisual; they are more visual and less auditory.

Then, you can have the next set of slides where the bulk of the important information are in the narration. The slides might have images that can help you focus, such as a cartoon teacher or a whiteboard showing important keywords as they are mentioned. However, it would not be possible for you to learn unless you listen. Hence, these slides are also audiovisual: this time they are more auditory and less visual.

The break in learning modality can be subtle, and learners may not realize that it is an ideal time to take a break. You can make this break clearer by inserting a slide between them with a message saying that they may take a break and a button that they can click to continue. You can also insert here a quiz slide with no time limit and will allow the learners to continue whether the answer is correct or incorrect.

Kinesthetic modality in elearning

You can develop a kinesthetic elearning module, or kinesthetic slides in a mixed modality elearning lesson by designing activities that involve clicking or dragging objects with a mouse. It may also include activities that involve typing something with a keyboard.

In most lessons, the kinesthetic modality should come together with visual or audiovisual modality. If there are several objects that the learner can manipulate, it's possible that they opted not to touch all interactive objects on the slide and thus, not learn everything they have to. Mixing it with audiovisual modality allows you to cover everything they need to learn from that lesson, and also allows for repetition that reinforces learning.

For example, your lesson is about parallel and series circuits. You have an interactive slide that allows you to remove wires by dragging, which may turn-off some or all the bulbs. In a parallel circuit, removing a wire will turn-off only one bulb, while in series, removing a wire will turn-off all the bulbs. It's possible for the learners to play with one circuit and not the other, and thus not arrive at all the expected conclusions. By providing audiovisual modality before or after kinesthetic modality ensures you that they will learn everything they need to learn about parallel and series circuits, with the modality that comes later reinforcing what they learned from the modality that came first.


Develop your elearning lessons with different learning modalities for the following reasons:

  • Repetition reinforces learning
  • Variety of learning modality makes it easier for students to focus and not get bored
  • Makes it easier for students to recall what they learned by recalling how they learned it

Do not develop your elearning lessons just to cater to students who believe they learn best using their preferred learning styles.


  1. Pashler H. et al (2008) "Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence", Psychological Science in the Public Interest, retrieved 5 June 2019
  2. Toppo G. (2019) "‘Neuromyth’ or Helpful Model?", Inside Higher Ed, retrieved 5 June 2019
  3. Pulichino, J. (2017) "Brain-Based Elearning Design: Break learning up", LinkedIn Learning, retrieved 5 June 2019

Last updated on 05 Jun 2019.

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Instructional design and educational technology for effective learning