You might have heard the saying that people remember:
- 10% of what they read
- 20% of what they hear
- 30% of what they see
- 50% of what they hear and see
- 70% of what they say
- 90% of what they say and do.
These percentages, represented visually in D.G. Treichler’s Cone of Experience, illustrate that memory is most effective when more than one of our senses (sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch) are engaged in the learning process. While Treichler qualified that the statistics were not 100% scientific, his idea helpfully illustrates the importance of a multisensory approach to learning.
What is multisensory learning?
Multisensory refers to any teaching or revision method where more than one of the senses is engaged. Of course, more than one sense is always engaged in any of our daily experiences because our brains are always hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling and seeing even when we aren’t consciously aware of it. Adopting a multisensory approach to learning, however, requires intentionally teaching and studying in a way that appeals to more than one of the learner’s senses.
Suits all learning needs and styles
Multisensory learning is not just for kinaesthetic learners who learn best when they engage their sense of touch through movement (actions and gestures), performance (doing a task themselves), or tactile stimulation (such as feeling the differences between two shapes or textures). Multisensory learning is actually the best way for parents and educators to appeal to the variety of learning styles and learning needs in the classroom and the home.
Most of us rely on one or two senses more than the others or have a preferred learning style. However, that combination is different for everybody and even though we know what works best for us doesn’t mean we can’t benefit from multisensory learning. Similarly, for students with learning difficulties such as Dyslexia and ADHD, multisensory learning encourages concentration and helps these students to understand, recall and synthesise knowledge in the way that they learn best.
Our brains are wired for multisensory learning. Studies using fMRI, which detects blood flow within the brain, have shown that students with the strongest literacy skills are those with the greatest interactivity between different parts of the brain. This tells us that several areas of our brains are involved in the acts of moving short-term memory to long-term memory. Likewise, multiple areas of the brain are used to help us retrieve memories so that we can apply that knowledge to new situations.In a 2008 study, Shams et. al. argued that multisensory learning helps our brains to categorise knowledge and file it in several places so that it can be retrieved easily. This is similar to taking a photo and adding #Paris #Romance #EiffelTower #Croissants #Picnic to your caption. When looking for that photo, you only need the vaguest notion that it was a picture of the Eiffel Tower and that you could smell croissants. Type those tags into the search bar, and voila!
So, does that mean that I should listen to music or burn a scented candle when I’m studying?
Well, it’s not quite that simple.
Distraction and sensory overload
As every learner knows, when too many of our senses are engaged, our senses become overloaded and our ability to concentrate and remember is compromised.
A recent study by Rau Pei-Luen Patrick et. al. affirmed that we receive information using multiple senses but when a task requires one sense more than others (such as reading relying mostly on sight), too much input from other senses (such as a noisy classroom or study space) becomes distracting.
The multisensory home
Walk into any classroom and you’ll notice that several senses are involved in each learning task. There are posters on the walls, a variety of digital and paper technologies, different coloured whiteboard or smartboard markers, and students can use coloured pens and highlighters. Even in high school, students alternate between reading in silence, reading aloud, taking notes, writing essays, doing experiments, making art, drawing flow charts or mind maps, and watching videos to involve multiple senses in the learning process.
But what about the place they do their homework?
How do we eliminate distractions as well as engage multiple senses?
Rau Pei-Luen Patrick et. al. noted that while there are undeniable trends in the data, what works for one student is quite different to the next. The key is to intentionally engage several senses while learning to assist memory. Here are some ideas to try at home:
- Light a scented candle when studying. Recalling the scent can help you to remember what you learned.
- Most people find that lyrics are distracting, so try playing soft instrumental music or white noise instead. If you don’t like instrumentals, try listening to music with lyrics in another language so you can’t recognise the words.
- Colour-code concepts or subjects using coloured pens, textas, highlighters, or coloured paper. For example, highlight verbs in green and adjectives in blue, metaphors in pink and similes in yellow, or write names in red and dates in blue.
- Get creative with illustrations, diagrams and models. This can work for maths and the sciences, as well as text-based subjects like English and History. Bonus tip: use paint or chalk to enhance the textures and colours.
How can a tutor help?
At Nepean Tutoring, our tutors are perceptive and understanding, and they target their tutoring methods according to each child’s unique learning styles and needs. Our client testimonials speak for themselves. If you would like to see how a tutor can help your child’s learning, we’d love to chat to you.
D.G. Treichler, “Are you missing the boat in training aids?” Accessed online.
Pei-Luen Patrick, Rau., et. al. “Distractive effect of multimodal information in multisensory learning.” Computers & Education, vol. 144, January 2020, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2019.103699.
Shams, Ladan., et. al. “Benefits of multisensory learning.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences, vol. 12, no. 11, 2008, pp. 411-417, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2008.07.006.
(Photo by Bernard Hermant on Unsplash)