Do students learn best when teaching methods match their learning style? Will they do better in school when activities are aligned to their learning strengths and preferences? Learning styles are a popular concept in psychology and education that are intended to identify how people learn best. The popularity of this concept grew dramatically during the 1970s and 1980s, despite the evidence suggesting that personal learning preferences have no actual influence on learning results.
While the existing research has found that matching teaching methods to learning styles had no influence on educational outcomes, the concept of learning styles remains extremely popular. There are many different ways of categorizing learning styles including Kolb's model and the Jungian learning styles. Neil Fleming's VARK model is one of the most popular representations. In 1987, Fleming developed an inventory designed to help students and others learn more about their individual learning preferences.
In Fleming's model, sometimes referred to VARK learning styles, learners are identified by whether they have a preference for visual learning (pictures, movies, diagrams), auditory learning (music, discussion, lectures), reading and writing (making lists, reading textbooks, taking notes), or kinesthetic learning (movement, experiments, hands-on activities).
Visual learners learn best by seeing. Graphic displays such as charts, diagrams, illustrations, handouts, and videos are all helpful learning tools for visual learners. People who prefer this type of learning would rather see information presented in a visual rather than in written form.
If you think you might be a visual learner, answer the following questions:
- Do you have to see information in order to remember it?
- Do you pay close attention to body language?
- Is art, beauty, and aesthetics important to you?
- Does visualizing information in your mind help you remember it better?
If you can answer yes to most of these questions, chances are good that you have a visual learning style.
Aural (or auditory) learners learn best by hearing information. They tend to get a great deal out of lectures and are good at remembering things they are told.
Are you an auditory learner? Consider the following questions:
- Do you prefer to listen to class lectures rather than reading from the textbook?
- Does reading out loud help you remember information better?
- Would you prefer to listen to a recording of your class lectures or a podcast rather than going over your class notes?
- Do you create songs to help remember information?
If you answered yes to most of these questions, then you are probably an auditory learner.
Reading and Writing Learners
Reading and writing learners prefer to take in information displayed as words. Learning materials that are primarily text-based are strongly preferred by these learners.
Could you be a reading and writing learner? Read through the following questions and think about whether they might apply to you.
- Do you find reading your textbook to be a great way to learn new information?
- Do you take a lot of notes during class and while reading your books?
- Do you enjoy making lists, reading definitions, and creating PowerPoint presentations?
- Do you prefer it when teachers make use of overheads and handouts?
If you answered yes to these questions, it is likely that you have a strong preference for the reading and writing style of learning.
Kinesthetic (or tactile) learners learn best by touching and doing. Hands-on experience is important to kinesthetic learners.
Not sure if you're a kinesthetic learner? Answer these questions to find out:
- Do you enjoy performing tasks that involve directly manipulating objects and materials?
- Is it difficult for you to sit still for long periods of time?
- Are you good at applied activities such as painting, cooking, mechanics, sports, and woodworking.
- Do you have to actually practice doing something in order to learn it?
If you responded yes to these questions, then you are most likely a kinesthetic learner.
Is It Helpful to Know Your Learning Style?
The validity of the VARK model as well as other learning style theories has been questioned and criticized extensively. One large scale look at learning style models suggested that the instruments designed to assess individual learning styles were questionable, while other critics have suggested that labeling students as having one specific learning style can actually be a hindrance to learning.
Despite the criticism and lack of empirical support, the VARK model remains fairly popular among both students and educators. Many students immediately recognize that they are drawn to a particular learning style. Others may find that their learning preferences lie somewhere in the middle. For example, a student might feel that both visual and auditory learning is the most appealing.
While aligning teaching strategies to learning styles may or may not be effective, students might find that understanding their own learning preferences can be helpful. For example, if you know that visual learning appeals to you most, using visual study strategies in conjunction with other learning methods might help you better remember the information you are studying.
So what happens if no single learning preference calls out to you? What if you change preferences based on the situation or the type of information you are learning? In such instances, you probably have what is known as a multimodal style. For example, you might rely on your reading and writing preferences when you are dealing with a class that requires a great deal of book reading and note-taking, such as a history of psychology course. During an art class, you might depend more on your visual and kinesthetic preferences as you take in pictorial information and learn new techniques.
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning. A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
Fleming, N. (2012). Introduction to Vark. Retrieved from http://legacy.hazard.kctcs.edu/VARK/introduction.htm
Pashler, H.; McDaniel, M.; Rohrer, D.; Bjork, R. (2009). Learning styles: Concepts and evidence. Psychological Science in the Public Interest 9, 105–119.
The Vark Categories. (n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.vark-learn.com/english/page.asp?p=categories