Listeners, Watchers & Doers

Is it the agency or the instructor that’s important?

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I told her the answer is simple. “But,” I said, “Do you mind if I ask you a really important question before I answer yours? How do you learn? What type of “student” are you?”

In their most basic form, the triggers or stimuli that change our understanding of a topic and cause us to modify our behavior based on new-found knowledge fall into three broad categories: auditory, visual and experiential. Based on this, we can say that students are either Listeners, Watchers or Doers. I suggested she sip her coffee and allow me to explain in a little more detail, because to answer her question, I needed her to think about mine.

I told her that in academic sessions, each of these broad learning groups identifies themselves as follows.


Auditory learners listen to instructions attentively. During classroom sessions, they take notes, sit in the front of the room, avoid outside distractions, and—as my university classmates would confirm—often repeat important points to themselves in a mumble (sub-vocalize) as they take notes.

I explained to her that if like me, she too was a listener, she will rehearse and repeat information out loud sometimes reading out loud. She will make extensive use of mnemonics, often ones she makes up herself. Listeners do better on a test if they read the questions out loud to themselves much to the annoyance of folks around them. And listeners may memorize key points and terms by thinking how the words sound as much as what they mean.


On the other hand, visual learners often make charts or diagrams covering key points. These folks think in pictures. They highlight notes with big arrows, underlinings, stars and asterisks. If you are a visual learner, you doodle on printed notes and handouts, draw boxes around and circle key points. You scribble in the margins of textbooks. You scan those books for diagrams, graphs, charts and pictures and study these before anything else.

You tend to link basic concepts and new information to things and concepts you already know and understand. You may make flash cards to help memorize new ideas. Your books sport Post-it notes, and you often study “the basics” before sitting in a classroom. Oh, and if your pre-classroom studies use the so-called “Cornell Note” system, chances are you prefer this style of learning.


Kinesthetic (or experience) learners are doers. They fidget in a classroom setting and get distracted during straight lectures, preferring to ask questions and participate in the discussion. They ask what-if type questions and personalize concepts, often asking for examples of how the topic under discussion applies to them or imagining personal scenarios and asking if they have the “right idea.”

During a break, these folks get up and amble about, stretching, bending and generally “shaking out the cobwebs.” They do better when classroom sessions are short and sweet, punctuated with hourly “breakout sessions” during which they can bounce ideas around with classmates. If you have one of those squishy stress balls in one hand and a book in the other while studying, chances are that you are a kinesthetic learner.

Real world approaches

Once out of the classroom and faced with a challenge to solve—a practical test or having to apply a recently learned concept to real-world circumstances—these three learning types present more distinctive approaches.

I gave an example of how that works. Let’s say the “problem” presented to a group of recently certified open-water divers is to go away and research how many litres (or cubic feet) of gas are needed for a 30-minute dive to 18 metres (60 feet).

The listeners will call a more experienced buddy and ask for his or her advice. They may call a shop or drop in and speak face-to-face with an instructor to learn how to solve the problem. These folks best respond to the administrations of mentors.

Seeing learners will go online and use Google. They may go to a dive shop, but their preference would be to find a book on dive planning. They might find a YouTube video that explains the concept via charts and diagrams. These folks do best studying alone.

Doers will strap on a tank, go to 18 metres and use a stop-watch to time how long it takes to drain a tank! They were the kids who jumped off their parents’ garage roof trying out their new glider design ...