Think about a time you ate a new restaurant. A place you had never been before. How did you decide what you were going to eat considering you had never been there? Did you ask the waiter or friends for their recommendations? Did you spy on what people were eating at other tables? Did you read food descriptions found in the menu? Did you choose a favorite food you eat a lot or just tell the waiter to surprise you? Odds are you used a combination of factors to make your ultimate decision on what to eat that day. However, odds also favor you may have relied on one of these factors more than the others.
When it comes to learning, we all learn in different ways. In the field of education, a variety of learning styles inventories exist to determine how students take in information and may learn best. Some learning inventory examples include Multiple Intelligences, Field Dependent or Field Independent, and Left Brain versus Right Brain Learners. These along with a number of other learning assessments evaluate differences in how individuals learn. One specific learning assessment we spend time within Texas A&M AgriLife Extension new agent trainings is the VARK Modalities theory.
In 1992, Fleming & Mills identified four learning preferences of Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic. These four preferences ultimately relate to how learners best take in information and what inputs are most heavily relied on. If we look at new restaurant example, you will see four potential options as to how a person might make a decision as ordinary as what to order as tied to VARK Modalities. In coming paragraphs, the four learning modalities identified by Fleming and Mills along with a look at what this all means towards Extension education will be covered.
The Four VARK Learning Modalities Described
Visual: The visual learning preference means that a person learns well through what they can see with their eyes. Information shared in maps, charts, graphs, flow charts, and diagrams is suited well to this learning preference (Fleming & Mills, 1992). These items along with directional arrows, circles and hierarchies work well in the place of spoken or even written words. Visual learners typically have a good sense of color and use color to their advantage (Roell, 2018). Highlighters and colored pens often keep this group of learners organized and focused. They do well with spatial arrangements and often have a good sense of direction. Several of our traditional teaching tools are suited to the visual learning preference. Whiteboards, colorful handouts, interactive screens, and slides with lots of images serve this audience when used correctly. Opportunities for this group to take notes, draw out relevant information, or watch hands-on demonstrations will enhance the learning process.
Auditory: An auditory learning preference refers to a learner who is great at taking in the information they hear with their ears. Much of our daily lives is geared toward this learning preference. Auditory learners will do well when given directions over the phone. They will remember the things a spouse or loved one share with them in the morning before work. They remember the words to the songs they hear. This group does well in traditional lecture settings, especially when given the opportunity to speak themselves. These learners will traditionally include people seen as very social (Fleming & Roell, 2018). They will be willing to answer questions or be active in-group discussions. Often times, these will be people who want to rephrase or clarify what it is that has been taught out loud. Hearing the information multiple times will augment individuals in this learning preference. Music will please this audience and will beneficial to learning especially if it does not include lyrics, or the lyrics are barely audible.
Read/Write: Like it appears, the written word is powerful to the read/write learning preference. Lists, notes, and text in both printed and electronic formats will suit this group of learners (Fleming & Mills, 1992). They will gravitate toward literature and websites where text will paint the picture for them. Giving this group handouts and utilizing text in slides is very beneficial. Also giving time for notetaking will be to their benefit. Many Extension pamphlets and pdf’s will be actively used by people in this learning preference. Read/write learners are eager learners who will crave the information Extension educators can provide. Much of what we do in education is geared toward this learning style.
Kinesthetic: The five senses (taste, touch, sight, smell, & hearing) are a valuable piece of the kinesthetic learning preference (Fleming & Miller, 1992). Kinesthetic learners learn best through hands-on learning experiences. These hands-on experiences can be real world or even simulated. Videos and demonstrations work well with this audience. Field trips and real-life stories are suited toward the kinesthetic preference. Concrete examples, which can be connected to the world of the learner, also work for this group. Getting people with a preference toward kinesthetic active in learning will serve all parties well. Kinesthetic learners often struggle with sitting and opportunities to get up and move are appreciated. Showing practical applications of what is being taught is needed with this learning preference, but providing opportunities for hands-on application will work even better!
VARK and Extension Education
So what does knowing four learning preferences of VARK mean toward being and Extension educator? As you design and implement your educational programs and teach those in your community, you do not need to go around distributing learning styles assessments to see how your clientele learn best. What you can do however is know that if you have more than one person you are teaching, you have more than one learning style represented. If you have four people in your audience, assume all four learning styles are present. We know this because when identifying VARK learning preferences through assessment inventories, results consistently show even distributions amongst the four learning preferences. A 2017 study highlights these findings below:
Also, we need to realize that most people will draw upon more than one learning preference to take in information. Fleming and Miller (1992) refer to this as being multimodal. While many people have a learning preference which is most comfortable, we all must rely upon multiple forms of input. Fleming and Miller state this is just life in general.
To be an effective educator, it is good practice and in your best interest to teach toward multiple learning styles. Doing this will increase the chances of making an impact upon your Extension community. Realize that teaching educational content in multiple ways will increase the chances of your educational information leading to a change. Many times in teaching, we trust that if we say it once, our students should have it down. However, when we are the student, parent, spouse, or employee, we are probably more apt to note that just because something was said once, we may not always remember or understand it.
As you develop, your educational programs and teaching content keep the four learning preferences of VARK in mind. This will help you create teaching content that can lead to positive change and impact in your community. Be creative, be multimodal, teach key concepts in more than one way. When creating visuals use text, charts, pictures, and videos to share content. Provide opportunities for your learners to get out and see the real-life application of what you are teaching. Develop simulations that mimic the real thing no matter how abstract the simulation might be. Have fun with it! Find ways to get you learners active. Ultimately, teach your key content with the four VARK Modalities in mind and your teaching will have a greater impact. An additional learning theory shared by Dale in 1969 showed that as the number of teaching inputs increased, so did retention of material. Dale’s Cone of Learning is shared below.
Best of luck with your educational programming as you move forward. Use educational theories such as VARK or Dale’s Cone of Learning as inspiration to diversify your teaching. If you make it more fun and engaging for you the teacher, it will be more fun and engaging for your students. If you would like to take your own learning styles assessment, there are many resources available online which can tell you some insights into how you learn best.
Fleming, N.D. & Mills, C. (1992). Not Another Inventory, Rather a Catalyst for Reflection. To Improve the Academy, 11, 137-155.
Dale, E. (1969) Audio-Visual Methods in Teaching, 3rd ed., Holt, Rinehart & Winston, New York.
Roell, K. (2018) The Visual Learning Style. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/visual-learning-style-3212062