Rebecca Todd

Learning Styles: What Emoticons Can Teach Us

By: Rebecca Todd | November 21, 2013 | 

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.

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

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

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

  • jasonkonopinski BRAT!

  • 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. : )

  • 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.

  • 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…

  • RebeccaTodd Smooches!

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

  • 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!

  • 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 🙂

  • 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.

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

  • 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

    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

    I’ve already done that. 😀

  • RebeccaTodd DwayneAlicie You would. Sigh.

  • RebeccaTodd I need to take it. Super curious now.

  • LauraPetrolino yvettepistorio #failedhighfive

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

  • 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

    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.

  • DickCarlson

    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.

  • 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!

  • LauraPetrolino yvettepistorio Guilty as charged. 😉

  • 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

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

  • 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!

  • 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

    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.

  • Digital_DRK I think you cheated.

  • DickCarlson Ah yes. We agree, then.

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

  • 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, even if it is an emoticon, an empty smile, a word carefully picked, or a well rehearsed tone of voice.
    In the defense of emoticons, they are are not the only things that can be confusing for an audience. Sometimes the tone of voice (especially the high pitched one) can make the message confusing, or Rand Fishkin’s shirts can make his videos confusing, or the font of the letters, of even the very words used in the message can make a student confused. Is hard to please everybody. 
    And maybe this is why I would plead for the acceptance of emoticons in education. 
    Learning is a compromise between the educators and the students, everybody does their share of hard work. The teacher needs to make it easier for the student and his/her learning style, and the students needs to adapt his/her learning style to different situation, because assimilation of information represents also a changing on perception. 
    Emoticons are not for everybody, that’s clear, but they do their job as an accepted social enforcement, as are tablets or sticky notes in the education industry.

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

  • @Jason Konopinski words > emoticons.

  • 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.

  • jasonkonopinski RebeccaTodd Please share your results JSki!

  • 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 on words. Emoticons…I really don’t know what they mean. Honestly. 
    Did you try the VARK? What were your results?

  • 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?

  • 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!

  • 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?

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

  • 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 accepted dictionary of meanings. I honestly have no idea what you mean by “semi-colon closed parenthesis”- which is how I read them. I have had to google their meanings many times- I really don’t get them. And even worse, because of the ridiculously literal meanings I attribute to them, what I take away is almost never what the sender intends… conundrum. 
    Did you try the VARK? What were your results?

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

  • 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.

  • 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:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • RebeccaTodd belllindsay AHH I so want to engage in this convo but work calls. I could swear I took the VARK that day we were all chatting on FB about this but can’t find it. I think it screamed visual. Great discussion though – hope I can come back to it, time permitting.

  • danielleserrano

    This post intrigued me and I took the VARK to see what I am categorized as.  To much of my surprise, my visual score was not any higher than the others.Visual: 5Aural: 5Read/Write: 5Kinesthetic: 2
    I personally feel that visuals help me better understand what is happening but apparently so does aural and reading/writing.

  • biggreenpen RebeccaTodd belllindsay I actually searched back through Face, and your results were not in the comments on that post! I feel you did share them, but sorry- can’t track them down! When (and if!) you have a chance, please jump in and let us know!

  • danielleserrano Wow that’s a very mixed profile! You seem to be able to adapt to all forms of content delivery. Should make you an excellent communicator!

  • BruceHiebert

    RebeccaTodd Postman should be read by anyone who ever hopes to understand mass communication. He follows McLuhan with a very targeted attack on the way changing the medium changes the fundamental cultural construction of such social concerns as news, education, religion, and politics. I don’t think the details hold up in retrospect, at least not in regard to education and religion, the two fields I know best, but the general framework strikes me as sound. Regardless, Postman is thoughtful, engaging, and easy to read. One of the best culture critics of the 20th century. (My father introduced me to his works when I was but a wee lad.)
    Back to emoticons–I get your point–what do you do with these ambiguous little symbols? I think of them as equivalent to a lawyer’s weasel words–they let you slide around taking responsibility for your words. As such they are an act of power. 
    But reading this forum, I also see a disconnect around emotion in text. Unlike emoticons, I find it very easy to parse the emotions in text. All text vibrates with emotion to me, even the most dry and boring discourse. That does not seem to be true for others. Thoughts?

  • DickCarlson

    Whenever I hear this discussion, I think to myself “how much more meaningful could Hemingway and Hunter Thompson have been if they’d ONLY had emoticons?”  Then, I chuckle — in that way that I have, like a ripe berry just plucked from a thorny bush shaded by a dilapidated shed that desperately needs paint — and sigh softly though my flaring nostrils.

  • RebeccaTodd Digital_DRK belllindsay  Rebecca  you are not a weirdo.  I think I favor  visual mediums  – I’m totally loving today’s Doctor Who Google, if that’s an indicator.

  • BruceHiebert Yet another good point. I believe I tend to “get” emotion through regular text…but I have been known to be a bit thick when it comes to feelings. 
    Interesting analogy about Lawyer talk. For some reason, when I think about emoticons, I think of Louis CK’s “The N Word” bit- which he uses to show a similar notion that by planting an idea in someone else’s head without having the guts to actually say it and take ownership over what you are saying is pretty slimy. Not sure that makes total sense…but it’s how my brain reads them. As in- someone else is putting responsibility for their hurt or sadness in my head by saying “colon closed parenthesis” without actually saying to me “I was hurt by this” and talking it through using our words. 
    I learned rather early on in my career not to write anything down and attach a time/date stamp to it unless you were willing to live by those words for all time. I do not always succeed in avoiding that trap, but I do try and think about my intended audience (usually in the four part arrangement theorized by Kundera in Unbearable Lightness of Being). I try and keep my written communications clear and positive- and really, I do feel that hard conversations about potentially negative things are best held in person, or at least voice to voice.

  • JRHalloran RebeccaTodd Absolutely agree about non-verbal communication- I’ve spent a lot of time learning those physical and social cues, as a lot of them were not apparent to me without guidance. But with non-verbal, in-person, you can tap in to the mood or energy of the space. When I see text, I am relying completely on the words to capture all that nuance. But I am the type of person who says “no” when I mean “no”, I don’t say “maybe” when I know I have no interest in something. Some people find that harsh…but I would rather know straight up what people are thinking. So my communications, in text and verbally, often come off as pointed to some who are used to more conventional forms of artifice.

  • Digital_DRK RebeccaTodd belllindsay Well that’s just as we’ve not yet met…
    I also love the doodle- but only because It’s a logical challenge and I am obsessed with making it all the way through with 9, no regeneration.

  • BruceHiebert

    RebeccaTodd “unless you were willing to live by those words for all time.” That is practically a quote from Postman regarding the nature of text and the culture of text. According to Postman, textual culture must be prepared to live (or die) by its words. Visual culture just moves over ideas as if they are passing phenomenon. (Postman is a moralist who dislikes visual culture. He sees the visual and the textual as incompatible.)

  • Okee dokee – I know we talked about this (somehow) on Facebook but since that has gone AWOL, here are my results:  Visual: 3 Aural: 2 Read/Write: 8 Kinesthetic: 3   I remember a teacher in middle school saying we had to do a timeline of a certain period of time, so I MADE a timeline… that wound around the classroom. Imagine my surprise when almost everyone else typed/wrote it out on a piece of paper. // And my thing about emoticons is I enjoy them. Especially on Instagram. But I can totally understand how your brain is working about them. And now I am trying to refrain from using them with you. If you ever need an explanation of one of my emoticons, don’t hesitate to ask.  //  And this is a TOTALLY different topic that I should save for a different day, but I am faceblind (i.e., my ability to recognize faces is very impaired. This creates a whole different layer of how the visual functions in my life ….. and leads to some interesting and mystifying social experiences sometimes!

  • Hmm, this gets me thinking… I have come to view emoticons as the virtual/140 character/Facebook chat communication system’s (a system largely dependent on short, quick series of texts, Tweets and messages) attempt at allowing one to include some level of non-verbal messaging to an otherwise solely word-based message. For example, I often see a (; (winky face) as an attempt to communicate an implied slyness, sarcasm, or sexual undertone to a message that might otherwise be interpreted differently. In the same breath I notice that it often seems like the lazy way out, not using words well enough to truly convey your meaning. Thanks for the insight though, it is way to easy to fall into the assumption that others will just know and understand things in the same way as I do, which is totally wrong. As my internship mentor once told me, it is so important to take a serious look at all the different ways the messages we send can be potentially interpreted. I think this applies here perfectly. Anyway thanks, nice post!
    Also, my VARK scores were:Visual: 1Aural: 9Read/Write: 9Kinesthetic: 9
    Lastly, here’s a link to my own blog if you don’t mind; it’s a fun and casual look at some topics involving social media and PR: 
    I’d be honored if you’d give it a gander!

  • danielleserrano

    RebeccaTodd thank you!

  • Pingback: An Emotional Case for Emoticons by @lizreusswig Spin Sucks()

  • I just blogged about this too … but you said it WAY better than me. Ha! ginidietrich … hope it’s okay to drop a link here. If not, just say so, but don’t block me!!!

  • djwaldow ginidietrich Nice I shall review your post now! I am actually pondering a follow up- as a part of my concussion rehab, they assessed different aspects of my cognitive processing and recall. For text, I got 84% For image…18%!!! My brain care specialist was more than a little alarmed at that disparity until I explained my visual illiteracy.

  • RebeccaTodd I’d read that follow up post! cc ginidietrich

  • nimiparker

    for taking the time to discuss this, I feel about it and love learning more
    on this topic. If possible, as you gain expertise, would you mind updating
    your blog with more information? It is extremely helpful for me.