The Content's Best Modality Is Key

By Daniel T. Willingham

The research presented in this article boils down to this: Modality of instruction is important, but it is equally important for all students—not more or less important depending on students' modality preference. There are several important implications for educators. First, teachers need not worry about differences between students in terms of modalities; there are not visual or auditory or kinesthetic learners. Indeed, applying this incorrect theory may actually shortchange some students. For example, a teacher introducing the concept of multiplication may show her students three boxes, each containing two marbles, but insist that the "auditory learners" in the class ignore this helpful visual aid, and instead listen to a verbal explanation. Imposing an ineffective explanation on a child because of a supposed modality fit is poor instruction. Second, modality does have an impact on learning, but this impact is the same for all students. Each modality is effective in carrying certain types of information: If it's important that children know what something looks like, sounds like, or feels like, they should experience the object in that modality. Third, as experienced teachers know, a change in modality can provide a welcome change of pace that brings students' attention back to a lesson. Students who have been primarily listening for 20 minutes will be glad to watch a short video. And students who have been watching a demonstration will benefit from solving a problem on their own. Teachers would do well to consider these uses of content-driven modality, and to disregard the idea that instruction needs to be tailored to a child's best modality. Fourth, as most teachers know, creating visual images is a good way to help you remember. (For example, to remember the parts of a perfect flower, you could imagine carefully peeling away the sepals, petals, pistil, and stamens until all that is left is the stem.) But this does not mean that having a good visual memory will improve memory for meaning. It turns out that the quality of the images people create doesn't seem to matter that much. People who report especially vivid images do not seem to be better at visual memory tasks than people who report poor quality images (Dickel and Slak, 1983; Ernest, 1983; Owens and Richardson, 1979). It is the process of creating the images that gives you the memory boost, and the quality of the final image is irrelevant. Moreover, creating visual images is a memory-boosting strategy that helps all people, not only those with a good visual memory.

Daniel T. Willingham is professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Virginia and author of Cognition: The Thinking Animal. His research focuses on the role of consciousness in learning. Readers can pose specific question to "Ask the Cognitive Scientist," American Educator, 555 New Jersey Ave. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001 or to Future colums will try to address readers' questions.


Dickel, M. J. and Slak, S. (1983). Imagery vividness and memory for verbal material. Journal of Mental Imagery, 7, 121–125.

Ernest, C. H. (1983). Imagery and verbal ability and recognition memory for pictures and words in males and females. Educational Psychology, 3, 227–244.

Owens, A. C. and Richardson, J. T. (1979). Mental imagery and pictorial memory. British Journal of Psychology, 70, 497–505.

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