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Learning About Learning Styles

By Nicholas Bamonte

VARK! A New Way of Learning

Learning is a fundamental aspect of life, with even many of the simplest of organisms demonstrating some capacity to “learn”. While learning is a lifelong process, one cannot deny that it takes up a disproportionate focus within the first quarter of our lives. With how much learning that is expected to take place within such a relatively short period of time, it is no wonder that people have sought ways to “optimize” the learning process. Alongside this continued goal, increased awareness and understanding of learning disabilities (or learning differences, as many now prefer to call them) have led people to realize that many who were once simply brushed off as “dumb” or “less capable”, were actually very smart and capable people trapped in an environment that at times, actively sabotaged them. In this way, the concept of learning styles emerged. That humans do not all learn in the same way, that their brains are wired in ways that prejudice information from certain senses over others or process information differently from everyone else. A number of different models and theorized number of learning styles have emerged since the idea first gained traction in the 1970s, but one of the currently most popular is New Zealand educationalist Neil Fleming’s VARK model.

Breaking Down Learning

VARK is an acronym standing for visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic, 4 sensory modalities through which information is obtained that the model considers. Of course, Neil Fleming himself notes that these four are hardly the only factors in learning preferences (such as preferred time of day for studying, food consumption, or personal motivation), but these are significantly easier to modify in relation to a formal education setting.

Visual refers to taking in information through the sense of sight, specifically, through visual aids such as maps, graphs, diagrams, charts, and other such things. Note that this does not include pictures and videos, for those are categorized under another modality. In the visual modality, information and meaning is understood through the physical layout, coloring, patterns, and other visual qualities.

Auditory refers to taking information through sound and communication. Not only does this cover hearing people describe a topic, asking questions, giving oral presentations, class discussions, etc., but even communicating through text (such as in text messaging or email) falls under the domain of this modality. In this way, it is perhaps best recontextualized as a communication-based modality, rather than a purely auditory one.

Reading/writing refers to taking information through text specifically, as opposed to communicating through text like in auditory. Reading textbooks and manuals, writing notes, completing writing assignments and printouts are all examples of this sensory modality.

Finally, kinesthetic is a word that refers to a person’s sense of touch, both externally and internally, as well as the feeling of movement and the body’s ability to keep track of itself and its limbs in three-dimensional space. This modality is associated with more physical and “real” sensations, such as hands-on work, learning by doing, lab experiments, practice, and other more concrete forms of information, such as real-life examples, simulations, pictures, and videos.

In the same way that many theorize that ADHD is actually a set of behaviors and mental processes that are optimized for a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, people who learn best through the kinesthetic modality can be thought of as those who thrived in the more practical, physical work that dominated most of human history, both recorded or otherwise. By contrast, people who specialized in the reading/writing modality are probably the type of people who thrived in the more theoretical type of work that emerged with the creation of written language and classical academia.

Of course, in reality, most people do not fall so neatly within any one modality. In other words, they have a multimodal preference. A person that has a preference for the reading/writing modality can also share a preference for the visual modality, easily able to work with both graphs and the text describing said graphs. On the other hand, a person may find themselves best learning by talking an experiment through while in the middle of actually doing it. Even still, a person can find their preferences fairly evenly split among all 4 modalities, not truly favoring one over the other.

A Controversial Point of View?

I would be remiss not to at least address a certain controversy surrounding the concept of learning styles. You see, while surveys suggest that more than 3/4ths of teachers worldwide believe in the concept of learning styles, researchers are far more skeptical, to the point where many outright call the concept a “neuromyth”. Studies testing the effectiveness of teaching towards a student’s preferred sensory modalities have generally not shown consistent improvements in learning outcomes. In fact, studies have shown that teachers often fail to assess a student’s preferred learning style accurately.

Certain critics also believe that placing too much emphasis on learning styles, as well as the concept of “multiple intelligences” can actually harm learning outcomes. That by focusing on strengths and promoting the idea that you can be “bad at that, but good at this” it can encourage a limiting mindset where students don’t try to improve in areas where they’re deficient at, instead preferring to stay in a safe little bubble of what they’re already good at. And online there are certainly no shortage of articles speaking out against learning styles, some even going so far as to say that there isn’t a debate, that it’s been conclusively disproven.

As a lover of science with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, I am certainly reluctant to argue against researchers, but one lesson that comes to mind in times like this is how defaulting to the information of perceived experts is an unscientific fallacy in itself. Looking at writings of people defending the concept of learning styles (including Neil Fleming himself) seems to suggest that the debate stems from fundamental differences in how researchers and educators measure the success of learning styles, and even the concept of learning itself. In a research study, variables like learning can only be measured in concrete, tangible ways, such as an increase in letter grades and test scores. For proponents of learning styles, most seem to be trying to measure learning in a more holistic way, such as an improvement in a student’s quality of life or enjoyment of education, things that can’t be measured and quantified so easily. Neil Fleming even writes that VARK is not meant to be the end-all-be-all on learning habits and education. In the same way as knowing one’s weight doesn’t lead to weight loss, learning styles are merely the first step in the process. To help students start actively thinking about learning as a process and begin engaging in it.

A Reluctance to Leave Behind

Some critics have postulated that a reason for how widespread this “myth” is, may in part, at least in the American education system, be related to a reluctance to acknowledge “immutable differences”. Or in other words, intelligence is real, some students have less potential than others, and teachers seem to be uncomfortable acknowledging that. Perhaps this is true, but I would argue that this uncomfortableness is not without merit. There are so many stories these days of adults who struggled in school when they were children, sometimes being callously brushed off as “dumb” or a “problem child”, only to be diagnosed with learning disabilities later in life, often in response to their own child’s diagnosis. The simple truth is that a lot of people suffered a lot of heartache and grief because the teachers of yesterday did not consider that their “dumb” student was just struggling because they where a square peg expected to fit into a round hole, and the teachers of today are very aware of that fact. Even if learning styles really are just an unfounded myth, the learning disability advocate in me just can’t bring himself to be all too bothered by the fact that people continue to believe in it if it means that people are trying to avoid the pain of the past and be aware of people’s neurodiversity.

Know Thyself

Now, if you’re still interested in the concept of learning styles, then you may be wondering, “How do I find out what my learning style is?”

Well, for some, simply knowing the concept would be enough. Some of you may have already started connecting some dots while reading about the different modalities. If you haven’t, then no worries. The VARK model has a website with a free online questionnaire here, though if you want a more in depth break down of your results, it will cost some money. My results where that I am multimodal, with scores of Visual = 9, Aural(Auditory) = 13, Read/Write = 5, and Kinesthetic = 13. A bit surprising initially, but it makes sense in retrospect. I may be a voracious reader, but I’m very cognizant of the fact that how my imagination builds an image from a description can often vary drastically from what something really looks like, so I do prefer having concrete images to work with. I also often feel like, despite the wealth of information available through the internet, I end up having questions that people don’t seem to have asked, or at least, never asked directly enough to make me confident in my answer, plus, it’s always nice to have someone confirm directly the answer to a question.

Once you have your results, you may be wondering, “what now?” What does one actually do with this information. Well, the VARK website also has lists of strategies tailored to each modality present, which are all linked from this page here. Really, though, I think it’s in the spirit of VARK to at least spend some time thinking about it and experimenting yourself. If you have a strong auditory preference, try to form study groups, try to explain what you’re are learning about to a friend or family member, or simply read your notes aloud when studying at home. If you’re more visual, try to convert some of the information from your lecture notes into graphs and charts. You can follow a lot of the classic study strategies, such as rewriting notes, if you’re strong in read/write. And if you’re kinesthetic, well Youtube can be your best friend, provided you keep yourself on task. This may all sound like a lot of work… because it is. Learning styles aren’t some magic cheat to learning, they’re just a way to make the process less painful.

Nicholas Bamonte Headshot

My name is Nicholas Bamonte, and I am neurodivergent. My formal diagnosis’ are dyslexia and ADHD, though the aspect of neurodiversity that I have struggled with the most throughout my life is slow processing speed, which is not typically recognized as a diagnosable disorder in itself. Thanks to early intervention, I do not really remember much of my struggles with dyslexia, though the poor executive functioning aspect of ADHD and often feeling behind the rest of the crowd are a different manner entirely. A graduate of FIU with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology, I hope to assist the millions of people who struggle with learning differences and the difficulties that come with living in a world not designed with their particular brains in mind. Even if only as an advocate who helps to spread awareness, the feeling that you’re not alone and that your condition is recognized by society goes a long way in itself.