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By Jess Gromada
Editor, MindEdge Learning
From the second we’re born, we humans are inundated with information.
From childhood through adulthood—first learning language and social cues, then developing academic and professional skills—we’re exposed to an onslaught of information, which we absorb both consciously and subconsciously.
Learning seems like a straightforward concept at first, but there are many complex questions surrounding the science of learning. Do we each have a preferred learning style? Do we absorb more information when we learn a certain way? Do learning styles really exist? There are countless theories regarding how we learn—but one theory, which gained popularity in the early 1990s, has become especially influential.
That theory, known as the VARK model, was developed by Neil Fleming and Colleen Mills in 1992. According to this theory, an individual typically has a learning preference that aligns with one of four distinct learning styles, and each individual tends to learn best when exercising their preferred learning style.
The term “VARK” is an acronym for the four learning styles: visual, aural, reading/writing, and kinesthetic. Let’s dive into each learning style a little more:
Visual learners like to see and observe the information and cues in front of them. People with a preference for visual learning tend to find pictures, diagrams, and charts useful. In a classroom, visual learners may appreciate when teachers use whiteboards to illustrate the material or demonstrate how to solve a problem.
Aural learners, also known as auditory learners, prefer listening to information—lectures, podcasts, and audiobooks are some of the ways in which auditory learners enjoy consuming material. Sometimes, auditory learners read information out loud or create songs to help them memorize material.
Many learners absorb information best through reading and writing. This learning style is distinct from visual learning because it involves written words, rather than pictures or symbols. Learners with a preference for reading and writing generally consume information by reading books and articles, researching information on the internet, and taking notes.
Kinesthetic learners, also known as tactile learners, prefer hands-on learning. The kinesthetic learner often has a “just do it” mentality, meaning that they prefer to learn through experience. Sometimes, kinesthetic learners will watch others solve a problem or complete a task first, before giving it a shot themselves. For example, a kinesthetic learner may learn to play guitar by watching where someone else places their fingers on the fretboard before emulating the movement.
While many learners and educators find truth in the four learning styles, the VARK model has long been a controversial topic in the world of learning. Because each learning style overlaps with another, some experts question the validity of the categories. Others even suggest that tailoring education to the VARK model negatively affects the learning experience and hinders a learner’s growth—because learners may start to believe that they can only absorb new information that is presented in a specific way.
In a study conducted for Psychological Science in the Public Interest, cognitive psychologists Harold Pashler, Mark McDaniel, Doug Rohrer, and Robert Bjork concluded that there is currently no evidence to support the idea that individuals learn best when material is presented in their preferred style of learning. The authors further suggested that the VARK model has gained popularity due to the natural desire to categorize or define ourselves.
Polly R. Husmann, a professor of anatomy at the Indiana University School of Medicine, conducted a study using 426 anatomy students as subjects. Each student was given two surveys, one related to their own study strategies and one related to their learning preferences according to the VARK model. The results showed that many of the subjects did not apply study habits that aligned with their preferred learning style.
An alternative theory that has gained traction is the concept of “multimodal learning,” in which learners apply multiple learning styles simultaneously. According to The 2021–22 Multimodal Learning Framework, a report sponsored by Microsoft Education, multimodal learning creates a diverse learning environment and deepens the learner’s understanding of their own strengths. Many educators believe the versatility of multimodal learning engages learners and helps them absorb information on a deeper level.
Is either theory correct? At the end of the day, do our learning preferences ultimately determine our learning capability? Or do our learning preferences depend on our situation or the material itself?
No matter where you fall in the learning-style debate, one thing remains true: everyone learns differently. We all engage with information in different ways. A piece of information that resonates with you may not resonate with someone else. As long as we embrace all types of learners and present material in an inclusive and accessible way, we can instill confidence in learners and educators alike and create a more positive learning environment.
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