Adapting Teaching Styles to VARK®:
A Metacognitive Approach

In recent decades, the idea of tailoring teaching styles to the diverse preferences of learners has gained considerable attention, with a common goal when using VARK being to find out which modalities students prefer so that they can be taught using those modalities. While the idea of matching teaching to VARK preferences may seem intuitive, a closer examination reveals potential pitfalls. This article outlines the limitations of this common “matching” approach and instead advocates for a METACOGNITIVE perspective where VARK is used to introduce and guide, rather than dictate, the learning process.

The common idea of matching teaching to VARK preferences:

The VARK model has been widely adopted with the belief that adjusting teaching styles to align with students’ preferred modalities enhances learning outcomes. This notion suggests that Visual learners should be given visual aids such as diagrams, Aural learners will benefit from listening to new content, Read/write learners learn best from written material, and Kinesthetic learners should be provided with hands-on activities. However, while finding out the VARK preferences of students can contribute to an awareness of diversity amongst learners, and using a variety of modalities in teaching can make lessons more engaging, attempting to strictly align teaching with individual VARK preferences presents challenges that can hinder both educators and learners:

Impracticality:

Attempting to cater to the specific learning style of each student in a classroom is impractical. The diversity of learners and the constraints of time and resources make it challenging for educators to provide a customized experience for everyone. The notion of strict alignment between teaching methods and VARK preferences oversimplifies the complex reality of the learning environment.

Lack of evidence-based support:

The research evidence supporting the effectiveness of tailoring teaching to specific learning styles is limited. Studies tend to show that learners benefit from exposure to a variety of instructional methods, regardless of their preferred style. Rigidly adhering to the “matching” concept may limit the richness of the learning experience by neglecting the importance of multimodal approaches.

Wishful thinking at best:

While it would be fantastic if learning could be ensured by something the teacher (or learning content) does, learning is a complex process with the learner at its core. Whether or not something is learned has a lot to do with the actions and motivations of the learner. This is largely overlooked by those aiming to improve learning by presenting content using the student’s preferred modality. In some cases, the matching hypothesis can even stand in the way of learning, with some students using the fact that material is not provided in their preferred modality as an excuse for not learning!

It’s what the learner does that matters:

It's what the learner does that matters

A crucial shift in perspective is needed – it’s not about how teachers deliver information; it’s about what learners do with that information. Instead of focusing solely on the teaching styles, emphasis should be placed on empowering students to develop metacognitive skills. Metacognition involves understanding one’s learning processes and it plays a pivotal role in academic success.

VARK as a tool for introducing and guiding METACOGNITION:

Rather than using VARK as a strict guide for presenting information to students, educators should use it as a tool to introduce students to METACOGNITION. By understanding their preferred learning styles, students can embark on a journey of self-discovery, recognizing how they best absorb and process information. VARK becomes a tool to initiate conversations about effective learning strategies.

Encouraging metacognition allows students to adapt their approaches based on their strengths and the task at hand. For instance, when required to complete a written task, those who don’t have a Read/write preference can learn to incorporate their preferred modalities into their writing process. A predominantly Aural learner may benefit from discussing the topic with others before beginning their writing, a Visual learner may incorporate diagrams into the planning process for their writing, and a Kinesthetic learner may spend time identifying real-world examples to include in their writing. This flexibility enhances their ability to navigate various learning situations, a skill crucial for lifelong learning.

Conclusion:

It is essential to recognize the limitations of rigidly matching teaching styles to VARK preferences. Instead, use a metacognitive approach, where VARK serves as a tool for self-awareness and adaptability, and empowers students to take control of their learning experiences. Educators play a pivotal role in fostering a metacognitive environment that encourages thoughtful reflection and flexible learning strategies, ultimately preparing students for success in a diverse and dynamic educational landscape.

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