The best tools for learning come pre-installed: the senses. But of the five traditionally recognised senses, only sight, hearing and touch are regularly engaged in classrooms – and those often in isolation. This jars with our normal experience of the world, where multiple senses are engaged simultaneously to process information. The senses are our open windows to the world, and we can only take in the full view when we use them all.
University of California psychologists hypothesise that the human brain is attuned to processing multisensory signals – and therefore that multisensory learning (engaging two or more senses simultaneously) is more effective than unisensory learning (engaging only one sense). Auditory-visual learning, in particular, has been shown to be more effective than visual-only learning: learning to identify species of birds, for example, is easier when looking at images of birds and listening to bird calls than when looking at the images (or listening to the calls) alone.
Multisensory learning can be especially effective for children, who from infancy rely upon a combination of sensory information to process and understand the world. Five-month-old infants, for example, are capable of identifying different songs based on a combination of auditory and visual information, but not when perceiving the same auditory or visual information in isolation.
This multisensory approach can be harnessed in the classroom to increase the effectiveness of lessons. Consider how sense might be incorporated into each topic, or how a task can be modified to include other senses. The internet, with its wealth of audio-visual material, can be a fantastic resource for multisensory learning. Here are a few simple subject-based ideas.
Associate written words with sounds. Read aloud. Have students act out stories or create “sound collages” (for example, using instruments to make the noises in a story).
Science provides a rich opportunity for multisensory learning. Cooking engages a number of senses – taste, touch, smell and sight – while demonstrating scientific properties and chemical reactions. Play a game in which blindfolded students must identify objects by their physical properties.
Create patterns using coloured shapes. Count and build with blocks. Measure the surrounding environment (cooking can also be great for learning measurement). Educational computer games are excellent for simultaneously engaging sight and hearing.
History and Geography
Act out historical scenes, or create collages and dioramas. Recreate environments in the classroom: a beach, for example, with sand, shells and the sound of waves.
Nick Nedeljkovic is a freelance writer and blogger from Sydney. With a love of learning and more degrees than he can afford, he’s a passionate advocate for education in all its forms.