Educators and learners increasingly turn to active learning strategies to bolster comprehension and retention, with the VARK model serving as a valuable guide for implementation. Understanding the distinction between active and passive learning is essential for optimizing VARK strategies.
In this article:
- What is active learning?
- The problem with well-presented information: Recognition versus recall.
- Using VARK with an active learning focus.
- Active Visual, Aural, Read/write, and Kinesthetic learning strategies.
- A word of warning: active learning takes more effort!
What is Active Learning?
Active learning is an approach where learners participate in the learning process by thinking about and applying what they are learning. Unlike traditional passive learning, where students receive information passively, active learning encourages participation, reflection, and critical thinking. Instead of merely receiving information, learners are involved in creating their own knowledge. This promotes engagement, deeper understanding, and long-term retention.
Active learning strategies encompass a range of activities, such as problem-solving, discussions, case studies, and simulations. In contrast, passive strategies include activities like listening to lectures, reading, or watching presentations without active participation. For instance, in a science class, a passive approach might involve listening to a lecture on photosynthesis, while a more active approach could involve conducting a hands-on experiment to investigate the process firsthand.
It’s crucial to note that it is the level of a learner’s participation that distinguishes active from passive learning. Active learning can occur even during a seemingly passive lecture if the learner critically thinks about the content and makes connections with existing knowledge.
The problem with well-presented information: Recognition versus recall
Well-presented information (such as a great lecture, a succinct article, a visually pleasing infographic, or a clear demonstration) gives those at the receiving end a feeling of fluency, and when they come across the material again later, they experience a feeling of recognition – yes, I know that! This doesn’t necessarily mean the information is well-integrated knowledge that they can recall and put into practice when they need to.
Of course that is not to say that information should not be well-presented – but rather teachers and students both need to realize that more is needed if students are to learn the material sufficiently to be able to recall and use it. That is where active learning techniques come in.
Using VARK with an Active Learning focus
Numerous studies highlight that not all study strategies are equally effective. For instance, research by Dunlosky et al. (2013) emphasizes the importance of strategies like retrieval practice and elaborative interrogation over less effective methods like re-reading and highlighting.
Neil Fleming, the founder of VARK, often emphasized it is what the learner does that matters, not how the learning material is presented. While it would be convenient if teachers could ensure that learning happens by presenting material in a particular way, that is wishful thinking! Active engagement is crucial for learning to happen, aligning with the idea that learners construct knowledge by connecting new information to existing knowledge (Bransford, Brown, and Cocking (2000), “How People Learn,”).
Tips for processing passively presented information:
When presented with learning content – such as a lecture to listen to or a textbook to read – use these tips to help you process the information actively:
- After reading or listening to the provided content, supplement your learning using a more active strategy from your learning style. Draw a diagram, join a discussion, write an article, …
- Summarize the content in your own words. Try strategies suggested for your learning style.
- Ask questions (of yourself or others). Is anything unclear? What exam questions might be asked about this?
- Think about how the content relates to other things you know, to other course content, to your experience, to the experience of others….
Do not be concerned if the content is not presented in your preferred VARK modality – it is your task to actively process the information and incorporate it into your learning; One step in this process can be translating it into your preferred modality. If you are listening to a lecture, you might draw what you are hearing (V), discuss the topic with other students (A), write a summary in your own words (R), or think of real-world situations where the information can be applied (K).
Active VARK Learning Strategies
Focusing your attention on active learning strategies that align with your VARK learning preferences will enhance your learning and motivation. If you don’t already know your VARK learning preference(s), you can find out by answering this short questionnaire.
When using the VARK Helpsheets (study strategies keyed to the four VARK modalities: Visual, Aural, Read/write, and Kinesthetic), it is important to keep active learning in mind – as many of the suggested strategies are only likely to be effective if only used actively. For example:
- Students with a Visual preference will learn more from a diagram if they actively create or modify the diagram than if they just look at a diagram supplied to them.
- Students with an Aural preference will learn more from listening to a lecture if they actively engage with the material by thinking about what they are hearing, relating it to other things they know, and asking questions or joining in on discussions.
- Students with a Read/Write preference will learn more when taking notes if they are actively thinking through what they are writing down and using their own words, rather than just taking notes verbatim.
- Students with a Kinesthetic preference will learn more from trying something out than from just watching a demonstration.
The following sections detail the ways that strategies for each VARK modality can be used actively in the common learning tasks of taking and making notes, consolidating your learning, and self-testing. If you have a multimodal preference, use strategies for each of your preferred modalities.
Active Visual Strategies
When learning actively, create your own drawings, graphs, diagrams, or maps, rather than just looking at provided visual representations. Don’t just copy provided Visual content, but add your own elements and interpretation.
Taking and Making Notes:
- Include drawings, colors, and layout in your notes – focusing on the meaning (not just decoration).
- Draw diagrams showing links between different concepts and placing the content within the overall context of the subject.
- Use diagrams and graphs to illustrate complex concepts.
- Create your own infographics.
- Annotate with symbols or icons to condense information and make it visually distinctive.
Consolidate your learning:
- Design an infographic poster to explain concepts to someone new to the topic.
- When using flashcards, use Visual elements such as diagrams, drawings, and symbols.
- Recreate your visual representations from memory.
- Practice putting your Visuals into words.
Active Aural Strategies
Just listening isn’t enough to cement your learning. Activities such as discussions, debates, and making presentations are important.
Taking and Making Notes:
- When listening or reading, take brief notes of the main topics, and then fill in the details from memory (or by asking others) afterward.
- To clarify the main points, imagine yourself explaining the content to someone else, and write down what you would say.
- Summarize information verbally. Create recorded summaries. Summarize key points and concepts in your own words.
- Mnemonics can help you remember key information.
- If you use recording devices or use voice recognition to capture information, you still need to make notes in your own words. Instead of just listening, write or speak your own summaries.
Consolidate your learning:
- Discuss what you are learning with others. Ask questions. Find out about others’ perspectives.
- Explain what you have learned to someone else. Listen to their feedback and questions to identify areas where you may need more clarity.
- Re-tell your learning orally from memory.
- When using flashcards, speak your answers. It may be helpful to go through your flashcards with another Aural learner, asking each other the questions verbally.
- Create audio flashcards where you record the questions or prompts and the answers
- Think of possible exam questions to ask a study partner, listen to their response, and discuss what they have said. Then swap roles.
- Practice writing your answers down.
Active Read/Write Strategies
Although you might enjoy reading, incorporating writing into your study practices better consolidates your learning. Your learning will be more effective if you write in your own words, rather than copying out text verbatim. While it’s essential to capture key information, avoid overcrowding your notes with excessive details. Focus on the most important concepts to maintain clarity.
Taking and Making Notes:
- Use organized outlines to structure your notes. Delineate main topics, subtopics, and supporting details. This helps you see the hierarchical structure of the information.
- Summarize complex ideas in your own words.
- Use lists and bullet points to break down information into concise, easy-to-follow formats.
- Write summaries or reflections after each study session. This can help solidify your learning and identify areas where you may need further clarification.
- Don’t just rely on reading and rereading and writing and rewriting.
Consolidate your learning:
- Write an introductory or how-to article to explain what you have learned. Give it to someone else to read and use their feedback to identify any areas you may need to improve.
- Periodically rewrite your notes to condense information. This process of condensation can help you focus on the most crucial details.
- Create flashcards with terms on one side and definitions or explanations on the other. Quiz yourself regularly using these flashcards.
- Answer practice questions from your textbook or old exams.
- Think of possible exam questions and write answers to them.
Active Kinesthetic Strategies
It is important to link what you are learning to real-world experience, particularly your own experience. Interactive simulations, role-playing, experiments, and hands-on projects are all helpful.
Taking and Making Notes:
- Think of ways to bring ideas into a tangible form: create physical models, study artifacts, and role-play historical situations….
- Focus on problem-solving – work through practical examples and scenarios to apply theoretical knowledge.
- Take note of practical, real-world applications and examples. Think about how what you are learning relates to your experience and the experience of others.
- Leave gaps in your notes for filling in details later.
Consolidate your learning:
- Demonstrate what you have learned to someone else.
- Use flashcards to check that you can recall real-world examples of theories, and can explain the theories illustrated by examples.
- Answer practice questions from your textbook or old exams. As well as providing you with experience in answering realistic exam questions, the practice will give you confidence when it comes to sitting your exams.
A word of warning: Active learning takes more effort!
Active learning leads to a deeper understanding but requires more effort from learners. A study by Bjork and Bjork (2011) termed this phenomenon “desirable difficulty.” It feels easier to use passive techniques (such as re-reading your notes) – but it feels easier because you are learning less!
In a 2019 study comparing actual learning and the feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom, Deslauriers et al. found that while students in active learning classrooms learned more, their perception of how much they learned was lower than that of students in passive learning environments. They explain that when students experience the greater effort associated with active learning, they initially assume that the effort signifies poorer learning, and provide three reasons for this:
- Cognitive fluency in well-presented material can mislead students into thinking they are learning more than they are.
- Novices in a subject are ill-equipped to judge how much they have learned.
- Students who are unfamiliar with active learning may not appreciate that the increased effort required when actively learning is actually a sign that learning is effective.
With this in mind, it is vital that students starting out with active learning:
- understand that the greater effort involved means they are learning more.
- regularly check their learning (by self-testing) so that they can more accurately evaluate their progress.
- make time to reflect on their learning, thinking about what is working well and what they can improve.
Using an active learning focus enhances the understanding of VARK principles and improves learning effectiveness, in terms of both comprehension and retention. It helps learners move beyond being only familiar with information enough to recognize that they have seen it before, to being able to recall the information and apply it in new situations.
Students who have discovered their VARK learning preference should select from the suggested VARK study strategies with the principle of active learning as their guide. In this way, they can effectively manage their study practices and enhance their learning.
When using VARK to improve their teaching practices, teachers should move beyond the idea of merely presenting learning material in a variety of VARK modalities, to incorporating those modalities in a way that fosters active student participation in their learning.
Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2000). How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School. Washington DC: National Academy Press.
Dunlosky, J., Rawson, K. A., Marsh, E. J., Nathan, M. J., & Willingham, D. T. (2013). Improving Students’ Learning With Effective Learning Techniques: Promising Directions From Cognitive and Educational Psychology. Psychological science in the public interest: a journal of the American Psychological Society, 14(1), 4–58. (https://pcl.sitehost.iu.edu/rgoldsto/courses/dunloskyimprovinglearning.pdf)
Bjork, E., & Bjork, R. (2011). Making Things Hard on Yourself, but in a Good Way: Creating Desirable Difficulties to Enhance Learning. In M. A. Gernsbacher, R. W. Pew, L. M. Hough, & J. R. Pomerantz (Eds.), Psychology and the Real World: Essays Illustrating Fundamental Contributions to Society (pp. 56-64). Worth Publishers. (https://bjorklab.psych.ucla.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2016/04/EBjork_RBjork_2011.pdf)
Deslauriers, Louis & McCarty, Logan & Miller, Kelly & Callaghan, Kristina & Kestin, Greg. (2019). Measuring actual learning versus feeling of learning in response to being actively engaged in the classroom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 116. 201821936. 10.1073/pnas.1821936116. (https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1821936116)