There are so many different kinds of learning styles that it’s impractical for math educators to rely on just one. In fact, research shows that there are 70+ learning styles with visual, aural, verbal, and kinesthetic (aka VARK) approaches as the main sensory approaches. Interestingly, studies show that 65% of the population are visual learners. This is why it is important for educators who want their students, especially children, to better engage with math content to understand the needs of visual learners.
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What is Visual Learning?
Visual learning is the interaction and processing of knowledge through graphics. This includes drawings, images, charts, graphs, maps, and other types of visual aids. To engage visual learners, educators can use chalkboards, whiteboards, screens, projectors, and other mediums for displaying visual information to help students learn and remember what they see.
While visual learners can learn through other means as well, they learn best through a “show me” approach. For example, they are typically better at watching someone fix a flat tire than reading instructions in a printed manual. Even directions, when spoken, can be difficult for a visual learner to understand when compared to looking at a map.
So, how does this translate into the math class? Consider teaching addition. For a child who is a visual learner, showing a diagram with three apples in one hand and three in the other allows the child to visually count each apple until they reach the number six. This can be a more effective way for them to learn than a teacher verbally explaining the concept of three plus three equals six.
Visual Learning and Math are Inseparable
In a scientific paper released in the Journal of Applied & Computational Mathematics, researchers showed that “mathematical thinking is grounded in visual processing.” According to the lead researcher, Dr. Jo Boaler, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, when you try to solve a mathematical problem, brain activity occurs in several regions of the brain. Two of these regions are the ventral and dorsal pathways, which are visual pathways. And this activity happens to both children and adults.
The takeaway is that even if we don’t do it actively, on some level, our brains will subconsciously render the numbers we see into images. This allows us to understand space and quantity much better. So, when children are learning math, their brains are working under the hood trying to visualize the operations.
Another study observed activity in the brain region associated with finger representation, aka counting on your fingers, and perception when we look at mathematical calculations. Many kids naturally use their fingers as visual aids when performing arithmetic. What the study showed was that our brain does this type of “finger counting” anyway by representing the calculations as fingers without us even realizing it.
All this means is that visuals can transform the math class for many students. A visual provides a shift in perspective for some students, allowing them to understand math problems differently. While one student can hear numbers and math problems being said out loud and grasp the underlying math concepts, their classmate might need to look at the same problems visually before they can truly understand the “why” behind the problem. These visual learners then translate these visual representations, such as the six apples, back into numbers in their brain, putting them on par with their fellow non-visual peers.
Other Ways Visual Learning can Benefit the Math Class
There are more reasons why visual learning is important in math, even if a student is not a visual learner. Here are a few of them.
Better Knowledge Retention
For many, visuals are more memorable than text or auditory learning. Since the information in visuals is presented in bite-sized chunks, it is easier to process and store. So, for example, when online education platforms break down complex topics into short videos, it allows students to digest the topic in short, manageable sessions instead of reading a long chapter in text format.
Students Think More Creatively
With visual learning, students become more creative in their problem-solving. And they carry on this lesson in other aspects of their daily lives outside the classroom.
For example, think of the last time you misplaced something around the house. You might have tried to tackle the problem visually by closing your eyes and imagining where the item might be. As you visualize in your mind the steps you took the last time you remember having, let’s say, your keys, you’re experiencing visual problem solving.
Visual Learning is Engaging
When visuals are made to be a part of the process, learning can be fun. This can help students stay engaged longer, which is important in this day and age where attention spans are at an all-time low. Studies have shown that the average attention span is currently eight seconds. It’s easy to lose a student’s attention if the lesson doesn’t start with attention-grabbing and relatable visuals.
Learning math through visualization gives students a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts and their practical applications. Visuals are an important aspect of math education, and this applies to everyone⏤not just visual learners. This is not to say that visual learning should replace all other types of learning in the classroom; rather, as we’ve seen, it should be used to increase engagement, understanding, and retention.
About BYJU’S FutureSchool
As a global education platform, we at BYJU’S FutureSchool understand the importance of visual learning in math. Our research-based approach to visual math combines one-to-one attention with a hands-on approach to teaching children aged 6 to 14. Even our group classes are intimate, consisting of only four students per teacher. This ensures that everyone gets the attention and guidance they need.
BYJU’S FutureSchool’s interactive platform was built to be engaging and intuitive. Our math mission is to foster students’ confidence in math. We use visuals to drive concepts home, rather than simply asking students to memorize formulas without knowing why. Our storytelling approach to teaching enables students to visualize what they learn. We also celebrate mistakes as learning opportunities. This helps to mitigate the fear of failure while also encouraging students to embrace taking chances.