Rebecca Todd

Learning Styles: What Emoticons Can Teach Us

By: Rebecca Todd | November 21, 2013 | 
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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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  1. […] her post, Learning Styles: What Emoticons Can Teach Us, she made a compelling case that emoticons may be confusing and incongruous additions for those who […]

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