Online Learning

The Covid-19 pandemic has rapidly increased the uptake of online learning, with many who might otherwise prefer to be in a classroom setting now having to learn or teach online. There is considerable concern about how the same level of educational quality can be delivered with this dramatic change.

Online learning can present challenges for those who prefer to use some particular VARK modalities. It is relatively simple for written learning materials (VARK’s Read/Write mode) to be distributed to students, either in a printed form, or online, and these materials can easily contain the same graphs, charts, diagrams and maps (VARK’s Visual mode) that would be used in a classroom setting.  Traditionally, it has been more difficult, in distance learning, to provide materials using VARK’s Aural or Kinesthetic modes, but to some extent, technology advances have facilitated a range of alternatives to the ways these modalities are typically used in the classroom.  

Of course, face-to-face communication uses the Aural modality, so students who have an Aural learning preference can be significantly impacted by a lack of face-to-face communication in online learning. When learning online, students cannot attend lectures, or participate in class discussions, or ask their teacher questions in person; however they may instead be able to watch or listen to recorded lectures, attend live lectures online via video conferencing technologies, discuss their learning online with other students, and talk with their teacher on the phone or using Skype or Zoom.

Similarly for VARK’s Kinesthetic modality, laboratory sessions, in-person demonstrations, and field trips might not be possible when learning online, but increased Internet speed and the wealth of content that has been published on the Internet mean that videos are now available for many subjects, providing an alternative to hands-on experiments and in-person demonstrations for those with a Kinesthetic preference.

These Internet-mediated possibilities are not, of course, the same as, or necessarily as good as in-person experiences, but when used well, they are definitely an improvement on having to learn from a thick folder of printed material. Learners (and teachers) can adapt their preferred modes for learning to replace those methodologies that are missing with minimal loss of impact and “reality”.

It is worth noting that there has long been an interest in using VARK with online or distance learning, because of the possibility of customizing the learning for each individual student, to a greater extent than might be feasible in a classroom setting.  However, given that there is currently no valid or definitive research backing up the suggested benefits of matching teaching materials to the learning preferences of students, it is not recommended that teachers focus on matching learning materials to the specific learning preferences of each student. Having access to learning materials in their preferred modality is not sufficient to ensure that students learn – there are a multitude of other factors that can also contribute to, or detract from, a successful learning outcome. Having access to content in my preferred modality will not help me learn if I don’t actually use those materials, don’t have time to study, or if I am not motivated to learn the material, for example.

We do, however, recommend that a range of materials covering each of VARK’s four modalities are used in content delivery. Having a variety of learning materials to use, with at least some of them using the student’s preferred learning modes, adds interest to the course, and so can help with motivation. One of the main differences between classroom and online learning is the source of motivation for the students. Some students have highly-developed motivational and time-management skills that keep them alert and on task; others will need extra support and encouragement if they are to transition successfully to online learning. Keeping the learning varied, interesting, and relevant can help, as can a concerted effort, by both teachers and students, to provide the missing component from classroom teaching – face-to-face communication – not only between teacher and student, but also between learners.

Advice for Students

When learning online, you are likely to need to take in information that is presented in different ways than you may be used to with classroom learning, and you should also expect some differences in the ways you need to output what you have learned, as there may be some differences in assessment methods used in your course. The degree to which these differences will affect you will depend on the subject you are learning, the variety of learning materials provided by your teacher(s), what your own learning preferences. You can find out your learning preferences now by filling in the VARK Questionnaire.

The VARK Modalities and Online Learning

Read/write: Online learning is likely to involve a lot of written material, so if you prefer to use the VARK Read/Write modality, this is likely to suit you well.

Visual: Visual materials (diagrams, maps, charts…) are just as easy to provide online as they are in the classroom, so if you prefer to use Visual learning materials, your needs are likely to be met just as well online as they would be in the classroom.

Aural: If you tend to rely on getting your information directly from the teacher in the classroom, and learn from discussions with other students and with your teacher, the degree to which the change to online learning will affect you will depend on the extent to which you can use substitutes and adaptations for those things. Make the most of any opportunities to talk and listen by watching videos of lectures, and attending video conferencing sessions (e.g. Zoom). Ask your teacher to put you in touch with other students who have an Aural learning preference, so that you can arrange to discuss your learning with them online. And be sure to ask for help when you need it.

Kinesthetic: Depending on the subject you are studying, you may usually rely heavily on the Kinesthetic mode for your learning in a classroom. If you are used to going on field trips, participating in labs, or watching your teacher or tutor demonstrate things, you will instead need to make the most of videos and simulations, and try to relate what you are learning to your own experiences.

Connectedness

Even if you don’t have an Aural learning preference, talking with others in your course is still important so that you feel part of a learning community. Research has shown that students often learn as much from each other as they do from the teacher, and students who are actively engaged with their teachers and other learners tend to have more success in their studies. Get to know the other students in your class, and join in any online discussions. And of course, don’t hesitate to speak up if you need help from your teacher.

Motivation and Time Management

Successful online learning relies on being motivated to learn, and having good time management skills. Some helpful tips for managing your time and staying motivated include:

  • Make a study plan and let it rule your life. Hold yourself accountable.
  • Have a space that is for learning.
  • Ask for help when you need it.
  • Take study breaks and look after yourself.
  • Build connections with others in your course.
  • Build change and variety into your study schedule so that you don’t get bored by the sameness of a single task for too long.
  • Seek opportunities to contact your teachers and get your questions answered.

The OU Strategy

This strategy has helped many learners and it may help you to succeed in your course. 
What is OU?  The initials are for The OTHER YOU and it refers to the negative vibes and voices that invade your head when you are learning. It is the “little voices” that are determined to distract you into time wasting – otherwise known as PROCRASTINATION.    Here are some examples that students have told us about OU tactics.  

Jane: “When I am preparing for some study time, OU (she is a person in my head) suggests that we should first of all rearrange my study space or shift the resources I am using to another area.”

Dao: OU convinced me to write home rather than finish the assignment.“

Chad: “My OU told me that I was way too hungry to do any study and that I should go out and buy some food.”

Ryan: “I had a whole morning set aside on my schedule for an essay due in two days and Mr OU said that that was much too long and we could do it easily the next day as the deadline was still a week away. So, I went driving with my friends.  I was late sending it in.”

Michelle: “My OU upsets my routines by wanting to shift from one assignment to another. I need to stay longer on each task so I keep moving and get things finished in time.”

Meaghen: “The OU strategy is simple but effective. It can be used to minimise procrastination. During my online study, sometimes I could not stop OU from winning so it is good to have a strategy in clear words so you can say “No! You need to do it NOW!”

What can you do to combat OU? 

You have to deal with OU by bargaining. That is the only way to close him/her down. 
When OU makes a time-wasting suggestion, start your bargaining by arguing back.
Say “Yes. I will rearrange the room (or eat some food, or text a message home or go driving with friends) – BUT, ONLY AFTER DOING THE WORK I HAVE SCEHDULED FOR NOW!!!
During your study week work with people in your course and get ideas and help from them. That keeps OU away.

For more help:

For personalised guidance about making the most of your learning preference in online learning, you can fill out the VARK Questionnaire and purchase an Academic Profile.
If you have purchased an Academic Profile in the last three months, use the link in the “Downloads” email you were sent to get an updated copy of your VARK Profile (including the new section about online learning).

Advice for Teachers

  1. Incorporate a mixture of modalities into your teaching materials – not everything has to be presented in each of the four modalities, but aim for a mixture of the four over the course as a whole.
    If you choose to provide the same material in multiple modalities to cater for different learning preferences, be wary of overwhelming students with too much choice, even though those with a VARK Type Two preference, in particular, may feel the need to use all of the materials provided.
  2. Keep your course well organized, so that the key points to learn are clear and students don’t become overloaded.
  3. Find out about your learners. Look out for those who have Aural and Kinesthetic learning preferences – those students may need extra support to adjust to online learning.
  4. Recognize that many students who are new to online learning will need to develop new self-study, time-management, and technology skills, and that they may need help to do so.
  5. Recognize that you will need to introduce additional techniques to keep your students engaged and motivated to learn, beyond what would be necessary in a classroom.
  6. Find alternatives to face-to-face communication, both between you and your students, and between learners.

For more help:

You are welcome to use our downloadable Orientation Template for ideas, and as a basis for an orientation document to share with your students at the start of your online course.

We are in the process of updating our Subscription system to incorporate student worksheets – these will have the dual purpose of:

  • guiding students to reflect on learning preferences and how to make the most of each preference when learning online, and
  • giving you more information about each student and the challenges they may face when learning online.

We aim to have the student worksheets ready by the end of August 2020.

Your Experiences

How have you found VARK useful in your online courses?
What challenges have you faced, and how have you overcome them?
If you have tips that may help others, share your experiences in the comments below.

  1. I don’t really like reading lots, so I thought online learning would be really boring. But when I found there were lots of relevant videos to watch on YouTube, I was a lot more interested. You have to be wary of the quality though – some explain things really well, but others not so much. And I do have to watch out for getting sidetracked into other topics that aren’t relevant to my course.

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