Rebecca Todd

Learning Styles: What Emoticons Can Teach Us

By: Rebecca Todd | November 21, 2013 | 
69

Learning Styles

by Rebecca Todd

I really don’t get emoticons.

And before you start texting me an endless stream of them (*ahem* JSki), please allow me to explain.

I am not passing judgement here, I am truly trying to bridge a chasm betwixt learning styles.

I read constantly, and am rarely without a paperback in my bag, along with my ubiquitous sticky-flag highlighter pens to mark my favorite passages and new words.

I can tell you where many of my favorite sentences exist – without looking this up. I know the upper paragraph of page 17 of Ondaatje’s “In the Skin Of A Lion” bears one of the most eloquent passages ever crafted. It is challenging and beautiful.

Upon my first reading, it made me feel a bit like Brian Wilson first hearing Sgt. Peppers – may as well just pack it in right now. I will never, in all my days, create something so resonant and beautiful.

Jump forward many years.

At a session around assessment techniques and learning styles, the brilliant Karen Hume administered the VARK. This assessment consists of four different learning preferences, and ranks the individual across those spectrums.

Most people have a very mixed learning profile that draws from each of those areas. I, of course, did not. I can’t recall most of my exact results, and my assessment has since been lost.

But what I do recall was this: I scored about 85 percent in reading, 10 percent in kinesthetic, five percent in auditory, and zero percent in visual.

That’s right – no exaggeration – zero percent visual.

I clearly recall this result, as it caused more than a few giggles. Karen noted to me  she had never before seen such a result.

Emoticons and Learning Styles

It should not come as a surprise, then, that emoticons confuse me. Just what exactly are you trying to say?

When someone makes a “joke” and then sticks a “smiley face” at the end, my brain does not read this as comedy. My brain reads this as a harsh insult, with some meaningless blob at the end.

The words are the only thing with any semantic meaning in my mind. To me, this does not make your attempt at humor clear, it just highlights how cruel your words were.

Beyond that, I find it very, very frustrating. Why can’t people mean what they say?

How Visuals Affect Different Learning Styles

Increasingly, we are told we need to “get visual” and represent our thoughts across various modes of learning. I agree with this – up to a point.

It is absolutely a wise idea to reinforce your message with images or analogies that echo the original sentiment. However, when you are using one method of meaning making, e.g. words, then using another, such as an image, to demonstrate the true meaning of your words, you absolutely are losing and confusing parts of your audience. To those of us with very distinct learning profiles, you have created a complete disconnect.

I know most people’s minds are not as polarized as mine, but I must believe others experience this same confusion.

Your Audience Dictates Your Communications

Here is what I believe, what my experience as a teacher reinforced: The burden of clarity is on the speaker, not on the listener.

An old teaching maxim says, “If I teach and you don’t learn, what can I do differently?”

If your communications are being misunderstood, then you need to look at how you can bring more clarity to your message. You cannot rely on the notion that your audience has the same learning profile you do.

For me, this means I need to step outside of what makes sense to me and incorporate images that may bring clarity to others.

A quick way to check: Is the meaning of all of your components – text, images, sounds, movements – congruous? Or are some directly opposing the others?

I encourage you to try a VARK assessment. What were your results?

Now apply this to your communication. Are you truly being clear with your audience? Or are you making the very dangerous assumption that everyone else makes meaning in the exact same way that you do?

About Rebecca Todd


Graduating with her bachelor's of education degree, Rebecca Todd knew the classroom wasn’t for her. Her passion for adventure carried her to educational publishing, and now she travels the globe and savors life on the road as a representative for Ivey Publishing. But she’ll always be an academic at heart, as evidenced by the meticulous annotations in the science fiction novels she loves to find in second-hand bookstores. When she’s not working on her list of the world’s best vegan restaurants, she enjoys hot yoga, hangs with her dogs, and sometimes thinks about working on her Victorian home.

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69 Comments on "Learning Styles: What Emoticons Can Teach Us"

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RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

And THIS is why ginidietrich was texting me strings of emoticons at 5:44 this morning…

jasonkonopinski
2 years 7 months ago

I can’t imagine why you think *I’d* do such a thing. <cough>

lizreusswig
2 years 7 months ago

It’s amazing you haven’t throttled me! 😉

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

jasonkonopinski BRAT!

DwayneAlicie
2 years 7 months ago

This is a phenomenal post! So much to think about and so many implications for interpersonal communication as well as mass communication…
Will be thinking about this one for a while. : )

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

lizreusswig To clarify- they don’t actually make me angry…just confused. The other day boss man and I were prepping for a meeting. We had a joint…let’s say “map” of where we wanted to go. I made a list of itemized bullet points…he took one look, shook his head, bisected the page vertically and made a 3 point “list” of all symbols. And THAT’S why he and I make a great team! Also showed me the extend of my textual hang-ups.

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

DwayneAlicie COLON CLOSED PARENTHESIS! Oh snap…I may make up a bunch of mathematical formulas using  “emoticon symbology”…one of those “brain fully on” downtime activities…I actually have pages and pages of notes in my bedside table from a past fixation on quantifying the various elements of human personality…

jasonkonopinski
2 years 7 months ago

RebeccaTodd Smooches!

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

jasonkonopinski RebeccaTodd You’re lucky I like you! Or maybe I’m lucky you tolerate me…

yvettepistorio
2 years 7 months ago

I abuse emoticons – and explanation points. It’s just my way of being light-hearted and friendly, but I have had people take them the wrong way – like I was trying to mock them or something, and that was definitely not what I was doing. Lots of food for thought here though – love it Rebecca!

LauraPetrolino
2 years 7 months ago

yvettepistorio I totally abuse exclamation points as well! After I write anything I have to go through and edit out the exclamation points. Everytime. Literally I have rules in place for myself so I don’t over exclaim. But the reason why I do it (is as you know) that’s how I talk in real life and so it’s the only way I feel I can express my true emotions 🙂

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

LauraPetrolino yvettepistorio Hah so you don’t “over exclaim”! I actually have to keep a close eye on my exclamation points, too. I presume because they are a part of traditional print communications I know what they mean.

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

Alright…here are my results from this exact VARK inventory… What are yours?Visual: 0Aural: 2Read/Write: 14Kinesthetic: 0

JRHalloran
2 years 7 months ago

If you run a blog or an online business, I guess the smartest thing to do would be to ask your audience to take a VARK assessment and share their results with you. I guess that could help determine if you should use emoticons or internet slang like LOL or not. 
To be on the safe side, though, it’s probably wisest to avoid emoticons altogether and save them for those closest to you in private text messages. Just my thoughts.

BruceHiebert
BruceHiebert
2 years 7 months ago

Class discussion yesterday: Is the web primarily textual or visual? Source was a discussion of Neil Postman’s Amusing ourselves to death. Class conclusion: primarily textual. (was a great discussion)  Are then emoticons an attempt by the visual to claim a textual realm? I hate emoticons and they feel like an imposition when there are perfectly good and much more nuanced words available. And just think what it would do to the meaning of this post if I ended with a smiley face.

Jason Konopinski
Jason Konopinski
2 years 7 months ago

I’ve already done that. 😀

jasonkonopinski
2 years 7 months ago

RebeccaTodd DwayneAlicie You would. Sigh.

jasonkonopinski
2 years 7 months ago

RebeccaTodd I need to take it. Super curious now.

jasonkonopinski
2 years 7 months ago

LauraPetrolino yvettepistorio #failedhighfive

belllindsay
2 years 7 months ago

Ok. WHO doesn’t get emoticons??? Sheeesh. 😀

Digital_DRK
2 years 7 months ago

Thanks Rebecca, I’m going to give this VARK questionnaire a shot.  However I  actually never considered that people processed emoticons differently, things you take for granted [mistake]. 
Perhaps one day there will be a VARK like API that will automatically adjust narrative to compensate for varying degrees of Leaning Styles.

DickCarlson
DickCarlson
2 years 7 months ago

Sadly, the whole concept of “Learning Styles” (as was taught to me an most others in our Ed Schools) turns out to be a myth.  There’s no research to back it up.  http://thinkneuroscience.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/the-myth-of-learning-styles/

DickCarlson
DickCarlson
2 years 7 months ago

Sadly, the idea of Learning Styles (as was taught to me and many others in our Ed Schools) turns out to be a myth.  There’s no evidence to back it up.  http://thinkneuroscience.wordpress.com/2013/04/11/the-myth-of-learning-styles/

EdenSpodek
2 years 7 months ago

RebeccaTodd addressing different learning styles something parents hear about from their children’s teachers and as a continuing ed instructor, I’m reminded by the university when we’re developing curriculum. Thanks it’s always good to have another reminder. Can’t wait to take the VARK assessment. I suspect I know where I fit but curious to confirm. I’m not leaving emoticons on your timeline anymore either. Ha!

EdenSpodek
2 years 7 months ago

LauraPetrolino yvettepistorio Guilty as charged. 😉

belllindsay
2 years 7 months ago

I had to try that VARK thing. Here are my results. Pretty dang near spot on, I would say! Visual: 5Aural: 8Read/Write: 3Kinesthetic: 6

Digital_DRK
2 years 7 months ago

My VARK results – I’m pretty visual. 
Visual: 12 Aural: 8Read/Write: 11Kinesthetic: 7

ginidietrich
2 years 7 months ago

RebeccaTodd jasonkonopinski Don’t worry. I sent her a text in the middle of the night with a bunch of emoticons, including Santa, in it!

ginidietrich
2 years 7 months ago

DickCarlson I’m not a scientist or a researcher, but I’m not sure I agree with this article. I have evidence from my siblings through my team that prove people do have different learning styles. For instance, my husband doesn’t remember anything unless he sees it. I can watch a movie over and over again as if it’s the first time I’ve ever seen it. There also is evidence people MUCH prefer watching videos to reading text. What say you?

DickCarlson
DickCarlson
2 years 7 months ago

ginidietrichThere certainly may be “learning preferences”.  But if I told you that I had the winning lottery numbers available in a video — even though that’s not your “learning style” — I bet you’d be able to learn them and claim the prize.  That’s the important thing to remember.  People will consume information in a variety of form factors throughout the day — visual, auditory, kinesthetic, and coated with chocolate. Our job as content developers is to make information available in multiple forms for easy consumption.

belllindsay
2 years 7 months ago

Digital_DRK I think you cheated.

ginidietrich
2 years 7 months ago

DickCarlson Ah yes. We agree, then.

Digital_DRK
2 years 7 months ago

belllindsay Digital_DRK  perhaps I did a  “Kobayashi Maru”  – google it,  if you’re not a Star Trek fan.

Digital eMspace
2 years 7 months ago
It is hard to clarify your entire message only on words, especially if you are trying to write informal. With the formal messages, is simple – you rely on acknowledged and accepted phrases.  Yes, the audience dictates your communication. The same word can suggest a variety of things, depending on the mood of the listener or the time it is read.  Messages / languages are a leaving beasts, they can not be controlled only by the speaker / writer, they can be modeled and deconstructed by the listener, even after the message is already out there. Everybody rely on enforcements,… Read more »
RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

belllindsay See…to my eyes, that particular emoticon means something very different than your intent. I translate them rather literally.

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

@Jason Konopinski words > emoticons.

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

BruceHiebert Oh wow! Should I pursue that book? Ahh you’ve hit on one of my issues, here. As I am not a “feeler” and would rather not discuss “emotions”, especially in a professional context, I also find them to be an imposition! As in- are you telling me to take emotional responsibility for your feelings? I don’t know what I am supposed to DO with that information.

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

jasonkonopinski RebeccaTodd Please share your results JSki!

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago
JRHalloran Thanks for reading and commenting, JR! Wow now wouldn’t that be amazing- have your audience take a VARK and then you would know their preferences? In Education, I had that luxury- my students would do a bunch of inventories and it would help me know how they best absorb information, and also how I needed to scaffold them to try things outside of their usual preferences.  Of course, as en English major in publishing, I also abhor things like “Ell Oh Ell”. But semantically, I understand the meaning and intent behind it- that style of shorthand is still a play… Read more »
RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

EdenSpodek RebeccaTodd It is a hard thing to balance- being cognizant of the various learning preferences which students may have, and also knowing when and how to push them to try something new. I was so lucky to learn “differentiated instruction” techniques which help me hit a broad range of styles. Do you know Howard Gardner’s work?

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

belllindsay Very interesting- thanks for sharing! And of course so different from mine. Interesting that aural is your highest and you do favour video. Thanks for commenting EllBee!

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

Digital_DRK belllindsay That’s so cool! What a mixed profile. The more others are sharing their results, the more I feel I am a weirdo. Do you prefer to ingest and create in more visual mediums, Darryl?

JRHalloran
2 years 7 months ago

RebeccaTodd JRHalloran I did not yet, but I think I will!  🙂  
(Did you understand that emoticon? I mean it all in good taste!)

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago
Digital eMspace Wow what a great comment! Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. So many gems here… like “Rand Fishkin’s shirts can make his videos confusing” and the whole paragraph starting “Learning is a compromise…”. A good educator does meet the students where they are, but also push them to try new styles of learning and creating- truly a challenging task! Just because we can have a strong preference for one style over another does not mean that we can NOT learn in other ways with the correct support.  For me, emoticons will be acceptable when someone also creates me an… Read more »
RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

JRHalloran RebeccaTodd As long as you meant “Colon dash closed parenthesis” then yes, I got it! Not sure what that means contextually, though…

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

ginidietrich RebeccaTodd jasonkonopinski Now Jason is doing tests…t4exting random punctuation and having me tell him what it means! Of course, neither he nor Dwayne knew “<” or “>”…society is crumbling.

Digital eMspace
2 years 7 months ago

I am not a fun of emoticons, myself. But I think that anything related to emotions can get complicated. 
My VARK results are:
Visual: 3Aural: 6Read/Write:
9Kinesthetic:
7

EdenSpodek
2 years 7 months ago

RebeccaTodd I’ll have to check out Howard Gardner, I don’t know his work. I’ll also take the VARK test and share the results here.

RebeccaTodd
2 years 7 months ago

Digital eMspace Excellent thanks for sharing! Yes, you’ve hit on my true problem…I don’t really enjoy discussing “feelings”. Much rather hang around words and numbers. A central part of my emoticon disconnect I believe.

JRHalloran
2 years 7 months ago

RebeccaTodd JRHalloran Well, it means nothing contextually, but it is an attempt to mean something non-verbally. Ninety percent of communication is nonverbal after all, but I agree with you — emoticons are terribly easy to misinterpret. 
They don’t reveal much of the nuance of non-verbal communication. And that’s why I think we sometimes misinterpret a “sticking-tongue-out” smiley as a rude gesture along with an ambiguous text.

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