Understanding VARK Learning Preferences, Part 1
Student success in the classroom often depends upon how the teacher instructs students and the degree to which the student is able to decipher and interpret the instructor’s teaching methods. So, why do some teachers insist on using only one teaching technique – such as lecture – in the classroom?
Although research shows that not every student learns in the same manner, some teachers use only one technique, often the style preferred by the teacher himself, to the exclusion of other methods. Carson (2009) asserts that teachers often assume their students have the same learning preferences as the teacher, however this faulty line of thinking “disadvantages students with different inclinations” when taken to the extreme (p. 96). Carson further asserts “whatever the mix of learning preferences in a class, no one approach or single presentation style maximizes learning for all students” (p. 96). Distinguishing between the different learning preferences and learning how to employ each method into a curriculum allows each student in the class to do well and comprehend the subjects better to the best of their ability. This paper will discuss the basic learning styles, show how teachers can cater to learning preferences, and explain how a student can overcome issues with a teacher who does not teach to his learning strengths.
About Learning Preferences
Understanding the differences between the learning styles is important, notes Carson (2009), who claims that the “awareness of preferred learning styles directly and dramatically impact[s] all our educational choices" (p. 96). The term “learning preferences” refers to the way that one prefers to learn things to other methods. While people categorize the different learning styles in various forms, this writer prefers the simplicity of the VARK system as described by Fleming (2006). According to the VARK website (2011), the VARK acronym stands for four categories of learning preferences (VARK: A guide to learning styles). The “V” stands for the visual learning strategy, the “A” stands for the aural learning strategy, the “R” stands for the reading or writing strategy, and the “K” stands for the kinesthetic learning strategy (VARK: A guide to learning styles). Fleming’s VARK system also accounts for multimodal learning preferences which integrate more than one learning preferences. A distinction between Fleming’s system of learning preferences and other descriptions of learning styles is that it differentiates between visual text and symbolic text (Fleming, p. ii).
Fleming (2006) describes the visual learner as preferring the "depiction of information in charts, graphs, flow charts and all the symbolic arrows, circles, hierarchies and other devices that teachers use to represent what might have been represented in words. Layout, whitespace, headings, patterns, designs and color are important in establishing meaning. These students are more aware of their immediate environment and their place in space."
The visual preference does not include visual media such as video or animation on websites, these methods relate more to the aural modality.
The visual learner prefers graphic symbols to the written text (Fleming, 2009, “Visual/Graphic Preference”). Teachers wanting to cater to the visual learners in their class should integrate charts, diagrams and PowerPoint presentations. Graphic representations such as flow charts particularly help the visual learner since he likes to know where he is spatially in the curriculum.
Fleming (2006) describes the aural learner as preferring “information that is spoken or heard. Students with this modality report that they learn best from discussion, oral feedback, email, cellphone chat, discussion boards, oral presentations, classes, tutorials, and talking with other students and teachers” (p. 2).
When teachings students with an aural dominance, teachers should integrate discussions which allow the student to form ideas about new material. Fleming (2009) notes that those with the aural preference “refine ideas outside themselves using others as filters to improve their sometime ill-formed utterances. To reach them you need to provide plenty of opportunities for them to voice their learning” (“Aural Preference”). Help the aural learner by integrating discussion groups, explaining graphics aloud and integrating exciting stories or anecdotes.
Fleming (2006) describes the reading/writing learner as preferring typewritten words to other methods, noting that these students “place importance on the precision in language and are keen to use quotes, lists, texts, books and manuals” (p. 2). Students with the reading/writing preference "attach meaning to learning from printed words” notes Fleming (2009, “Read/Write Preference”). Teachers should provide these students with ample opportunities to learn by integrating essays and reports into the curriculum. Keep these students interest by using outlines with acronyms or meaningful headings, giving definitions of words, suggesting outside reading or by using quotations. Since reading/writing learners often take the most notes during class time teachers should make the most of lectures.
According to Fleming (2009), the kinesthetic learner prefers to learn through doing or participating in an activity, and does well when he employs the senses (“Kinesthetic Preference”). Although Ganoe and Bryant (2011) note, “research indicates that students learn best when they are actively engaged in the content” through ideas such as games, competition and physical object, Fleming asserts that hands-on experiences are a preference and not necessarily a requirement for learning (Ganoe & Bryant, p. 32-33).
As the term infers, a learning preference indicates a strength of one more method of receiving information, and implies that the learner prefers one method to another, but is not necessarily hampered or incapacitated when presented with another teaching method. Although Fleming divides the learning preferences into four main categories, he recognizes that many students are multi-modal, meaning that they can employ several learning strategies at one time or activity.
Fleming (2006) asserts, “there is nothing normal about preferences” and that one method is not necessarily better than another method (p. 9). In a 2008 internet survey, Fleming reported 2.9% of students had the single visual learning preference, 7.4% of students had a aural learning preference, 16.7% of students surveyed had a single reading preference, and 12.6% of students had a single kinesthetic learning preference (p. 10). The remaining 60.4% of survey respondents scored as having more than one dominant or preferred learning style (Fleming, 2006, p. 10). Although admittedly Fleming’s (2006) online survey was not scientific in data gathering since it did not have an equal sampling, in his 2009 book Fleming estimates he that 55- 65% of the student population is multi-modal.
While teaching multi-modal students allows the teacher flexibility in approaching curriculum and allows the teacher to present things in different ways over the course, it may require more work on the part of the student. Whereas a single-preference student, or one with a dominant preference, may understand a concept after only one presentation, Fleming (2009) asserts that the multi-modal learner may require at least two or more teaching methods before fully comprehending material (“Multi Modal). “A student who is equally referenced between read/write and kinesthetic will need to both read about a new concept or theory… and see it in action” (Fleming, 2009, “Multi Modal”).
Fleming (2009) encourages teachers to consider learning experiences from the student’s perspective to improve student knowledge base from the known to the unknown. Consider the research the article “Interactive Teaching Methods” (2011) from the Science Teacher, which compared a traditional classroom to a more interactive college classroom setting, and found that “interactive classes were nearly twice as engaged as their counterparts in the traditional class” (p. 18). Similarly, Fleming (2006) describes the teaching instruction of a swimming coach who attempted to utilize one teaching method at a time. When the coach attempted to give instructions orally only, she often found herself gesturing and demonstrating – which appeals to the kinesthetic learner as well as the aural learner (p. 23). Without meaning to, the coach proved the multi-modalism is more common in teaching, and easier to integrate into normal class time than one might expect.
For example, while the kinesthetic learner prefers to learn from experience, it is impractical to teach everything in that manner. Instead, teachers should bring in other elements into the class time to help students with that learning preference, such as by integrating case studies and real-life examples, or by taking students to exhibits and showing them collections. Kinesthetic learners need to understand the theory behind the concept before being tested for knowledge, suggests Fleming (2009, “Multi Modal”). However, such examples of kinesthetic learning often include oral presentations, reading, or writing activities as well.
In addition to the VARK and multimodal learning preferences, Fleming (2009) distinguishes between the two main ways students prefer to process information, dividing leaners into broad categories- “lumpers” and “splitters.” Fleming explains
Some [students] prefer to have an overview of the whole concept or topic before they are comfortable with an analysis of its parts. We call that group of students “lumpers” because they want to see the apple before they discuss the component parts of core, pip, flesh, skin and stalk. The “splitters” are content to analyze a problem from the outset. They burrow into the problem looking at matters of detail as being the essential things on which to focus. The bigger picture is not necessary for them to do their work.
Lumpers prefer to take in an overall view of the topic so they can see where they are, where they have come from, and what they will learn about over the day or course. Splitters prefer to focus on the details, finding that too much detail is overwhelming or distracting.
Although the teacher is free to use whatever method he prefers, taking into account both groups of learners may make the class run smoother and cause less learner frustration. For example, when using a power point or overhead projection in the classroom, Fleming (2009, “Lumpers and Splitters”) suggests accommodating both groups of learners. First show the entire outline to allow lumpers time to get a good understanding of the subject, then remove some of the later details to allow the splitters to focus in on the current information. “Frequent overview of where you are in a topic and providing enough detail for those who want to engage in it” notes Fleming (2009, “Lumpers and Splitters”).
Carson, D. (2009). Is style everything? Teaching that achieves its objectives. Cinema Journal, 48(3), 95-101. Retrieved from EBSCOhost.
Fleming, N. (2009). 55 Strategies for Teaching. Retrieved from http://www.vark-learn.com/english/page.asp?p=products_B04&back=education
Fleming, N. (2006). Teaching and learning styles: VARK strategies. The Digital Print and Copy Centre: New Zealand.
Ganoe, Y. & Bryant, D. (2011). A teaching note: using games to bring a classroom to life. Teaching History: A Journal of Methods. Retrieved from General OneFile via Gale.
VARK: A guide to learning styles. (2011). The VARK Helpsheets. Retrieved on September 14 from http://www.vark-learn.com/english/page.asp?p=helpsheets
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