Using VARK in Research

VARK is a very active topic for researchers and this statement is an attempt to assist researchers from following unhelpful pathways.
Firstly, VARK is only part of a learning style. A complete learning style should have information on all the preferences that would affect learning. This includes such things as preferences for learning at different times in the day. It would be a complex amalgam of questions and analysis. VARK is an intensive look at only one set of preferences within a learning style – the preference that learners have for their communication modes – Visual, Auditory, Read/write and Kinesthetic. VARK is copyright to Neil Fleming as he added Read/write to the previous V, A and K categories.

Comments on Some Research Questions

    1. Can learning be measured? When we learn something, a mental process occurs and that is not observable. The closest we can get to a measure of learning is to ask for some demonstration by the learner to indicate that learning has occurred – a test, demonstration, writing, speaking, running, jumping, analyzing, problem solving… The most powerful way is to ask the learner to teach somebody else. If that is done successfully we know a great deal about the learner and what is learned. As Proubert said, “To teach is to learn – twice.” Most assessment methods in use in higher education are only a proxy for learning.
    2. Does knowing your preferences affect learning? It may or it may not. Merely knowing that you learn best by writing does not mean that you will use only that mode for your learning. Many learners copy the learning modes of successful peers instead of using their own preferences. Knowing your weight does not make you take action to reduce (or increase) it. It is the action after “knowing” that determines whether there is a useful link between learning and knowing your VARK preferences.
    3. What preferences help learners for distance or online learning? All the VARK preferences can be used for all delivery methods. Learners have four preferences not one. They differ in strength and usage but they are not discrete. A researcher will not find that those who succeed with lectures are all Auditory learners or that all elite athletes are Kinesthetic. Regardless of our VARK scores, we use our four modes in combination, so a unimodal presentation or research design is neither possible nor helpful. Learners are adept at using their preferred modes to adapt incoming messages to suit their strategies. When they have a zero VARK preference for Auditory they can still attend lectures, talks, debates and discussions and get some learning from those delivery methods. It is just not their preference! In the same way that they can eat pineapples but prefer kiwifruit. They translate/transform the less-desired input into something they prefer.
    4. Do some VARK categories align with particular delivery methods? They may do so, but it is a pointless research exercise as people are multimodal. One researcher found no connection between individual VARK categories and interactive learning methods. Not surprising! Interactive teaching involves all modes.
    5. Should I use the VARK categories for research? We use the VARK categories (e.g. mild Aural, strong Kinesthetic, Visual and Read/write (VA)) only as useful shorthand codes to describe a set of preferences. VARK has four scores and that is intentional. Researchers would be best advised to use all four scores rather than the VARK categories. For some people, the differences in their VARK scores are minimal and we should not assign them into rigid categories for analysis. Of course, using four scores makes research more complicated.
    6. If I use all four modes in my teaching will that improve learning for all my students.

Not necessarily! It may confuse some learners who might prefer that Read/write modes were used more often or some learners might want a bigger emphasis on Visual teaching strategies. Learners like variety to prevent boredom but using all four modes in a brief learning session can be counter-productive. Using variety within several sessions is helpful.

So what are some good research quests?

  1. Do those who know their VARK scores make changes to their learning?
  2. What are those changes?
  3. Are they more or less successful?
  4. How do learners adapt to learn from modes that they do not prefer?
  5. What strategies do learners use that already align with their VARK scores?
  6. Which common strategies do not align with learners’ VARK scores?
  7. What are the differences in strategies between learners who have a very strong preference and those who have similar scores for several modes (multimodal)?
  8. Do learners who much prefer two modes use them interchangeably or together or in some order?
  9. What are the learning characteristics of those who have a zero score for a mode?
  10. Do teachers use the same modes for teaching that they prefer for their own learning?
  11. Do people’s preferences change over time? How much? Why?

In a recent example, a student had a very low score for his Aural preference (Read/write preference was his highest). When asked about the strategies he used for learning he said he used tape recordings of his lectures and talking things over with friends. He wondered why his GPA was so poor! What would you suggest he try?
VARK is helpful for learning when you use the strategies aligned with your preference(s). Knowing your preferences is not enough. In any research using VARK, don’t just find out people’s preferences; find out if they are using them. There is no magic VARK profile for success.