What does effective teaching look like?

Cartoon of a teacher at a blackboard.

Modern ideas of teaching are inextricably linked with the concept of learning and are founded on the belief that all students can learn and that the teacher’s role is to facilitate and guide that learning. VARK® was developed in this context, primarily providing a way for students to improve their learning process. This article examines how VARK® is used in effective teaching to support student learning. We will cover using multiple modalities when presenting learning content, incorporating active learning activities, and fostering metacognition.

Modern teaching is interconnected with learning 

The practice of teaching has evolved, from a focus on purely imparting knowledge to a more modern approach, which considers learning outcomes and how they can be brought about. Contemporary definitions of teaching tend to incorporate learning and the role of students – for example, Wikipedia suggests teaching “is closely related to learning, the student’s activity of appropriating […] knowledge”. The process of facilitating learning is where the focus must be when considering effective teaching.

It is helpful to briefly compare historical models of teaching with more modern concepts, to understand the origins of VARK, and to elucidate the ways that VARK can be used in effective teaching.

In the past…

The emphasis in education was very much centered on teachers and teaching and methods were largely uniform and designed to accommodate the “average student”. Instruction (particularly at higher levels) was content-oriented and delivered by teachers standing before rows of passive students and providing learning materials orally or in written format.

The assumption was made that some learners would “get it” and some would not, regardless of what the teacher said or did. Students in many educational institutions who did not perform well in assessment tasks were often labeled as failures, and the responsibility for their lack of achievement was solely attributed to the students themselves.

Teaching – what’s changed?

The focus in education has now shifted towards learners and learning.

“Learning to learn” has become a key principle in the educator’s focus. A teacher’s role is not only to impart knowledge but also to help students improve their ability to learn.

Successful teachers understand that all learners can learn given the right circumstances and that they are responsible for creating those circumstances, providing inclusive learning environments where all students can thrive and succeed.

The development of VARK

In this vein, VARK® founder, Neil Fleming believed that “it is possible for all who want to learn to do so. Success is a matter of choosing the ways that best suit your learning.
Neil’s time observing classes as a New Zealand school inspector in the 1970s & 80s left him puzzled when observing that some students were successful at learning despite poor teaching practices, while others failed to learn even when the teaching was excellent. As a result of thinking over this, observing and discussing examples with students, and with the help of other educators, the initial VARK® questionnaire was created. It was designed to encourage students to think about the way they learn best so that they could improve their learning performance.

Effective Teaching with VARK®

The effective use of VARK® in teaching focuses on the learning process, and supports student learning in three important ways:

  1. using VARK® modalities to present learning materials
  2. encouraging students to use active learning strategies
  3. helping students develop their metacognitive awarenesslearning to learn

1. Using VARK modalities to present learning materials

The VARK® model provides a framework for identifying and addressing the individual learning preferences of students and encourages teachers to employ a variety of instructional strategies to cater to those diverse preferences.

VARK® introduces four modalities, (VISUAL, AURAL, READ/WRITE, and KINESTHETIC) for learning and communication preferences. Incorporating all four VARK® modalities into teaching practices will have observable benefits for student learning, which include:

  • providing more varied and engaging content
  • using a particular modality to explain some concepts more clearly
  • reaching more students through the repetition of concepts and ideas in more than one modality, fostering a deeper understanding
  • introducing students to the possibility of using different techniques in their study

Here are some examples of the ways that content can be presented using each of the four VARK modalities:

Examples of how learning material can be presented in each of the four VARK modalities.

What about teachers’ own learning preferences?

Being MULTIMODAL is clearly an advantage for the teacher who sets out to provide a range of different strategies to meet the diversity in the class, but teachers who do not have all four VARK® modalities as part of their learning style can still provide for students whose preferences differ from their own. Of course, teachers’ preferences for the way they learn may not necessarily be reflected in the strategies they use when teaching. VARK® provides a questionnaire for teachers to check their teaching preferences so that they can broaden their repertoire to include strategies that support each of the VARK modalities as part of their teaching program.

Teaching is a MULTIMODAL practice. While some learning situations may lend themselves to one preference or another, the other modalities can still play some part. For example, learning to swim is essentially a Kinesthetic activity requiring the demonstration and practice of skills. But it may also include verbal instructions (A) and diagrams or charts illustrating a step-by-step analysis of a specific swimming stroke (V).

Should teachers match the delivery of their course content to the individual preferences of their students?

In short – no!

The “matching” or “meshing” hypothesis, which advocates presenting content to learners using the learners’ preferred modalities, is not backed up by research and VARK® does not recommend this method of teaching. To find out each student’s learning preference and then produce learning materials tailored to these preferences would be impractical.

VARK®’s focus is on improving what learners do and asks teachers to include a range of strategies in their teaching – not to cover every concept in all four of the VARK® modalities, but rather to focus on variety so that all four will be used over a period of time (say, a week). Covering the same material in multiple modalities can be useful for difficult concepts – students are then able to focus on materials according to their preferences and someone who does not understand a concept presented a certain way may “catch on” when the concept is explained differently. However, it is not necessary or beneficial to repeat everything using all four modalities as this will be boring or confusing for many. Variety is the key.

Keep in mind that successful learners will often translate content into their preferred modalities, regardless of how the learning material is presented to them. For example, when listening to a lecture, someone with a Visual preference may draw a diagram to represent what they hear, a student with a Read/write preference may take detailed notes, and someone with a Kinesthetic preference may relate what they are hearing to their own experiences.

2. Encouraging students to use Active Learning strategies

Providing access to a variety of learning materials in your students’ preferred modalities in no way guarantees that learning will occur. Other factors influence learning outcomes for students, with an important one being whether the student actively engages with the learning material.

VARK® founder, Neil Fleming often emphasized: “It is what the learner does that matters, not how the learning material is presented […] Active engagement is crucial for learning to happen . . .

In his book, 55 Strategies for Teaching, Neil commented: “Merely to read or observe […] is not learning. It is only when these ideas are attached to existing frameworks in the students’ minds that we can assert that learning has occurred.

This concept is called ACTIVE LEARNING – an approach where learners are actively involved in creating their own knowledge. Effective teachers will incorporate learning activities that require students to actively engage with the learning material. Again, these activities should be varied and cover a range of VARK® modalities.

Active Learning ideas for the classroom

For further helpful suggestions, have a look at our January issue, and in particular check out these articles:

3. Helping students develop their metacognitive awareness – Learning to Learn

Research has repeatedly shown that students with effective metacognitive skills perform better academically. They can plan, monitor, and evaluate their learning performance, taking into account what they know about themselves as learners, the nature of the learning task, and available learning strategies. This is why “learning to learn” has become an important principle in modern education, and is something that effective teachers will help students develop.

Our next newsletter will focus on the topic of METACOGNITION. It will outline how VARK® can be used to foster students’ metacognitive skills by:

  • prompting students to start their metacognition journey by THINKING ABOUT HOW THEY LEARN.
  • making explicit the idea that there are different STRATEGIES for learning
  • introducing the concept that LEARNING CAN BE IMPROVED

We will also discuss the implications of metacognition when thinking about the way that VARK® is best used.

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Now What? – How effective teachers use VARK® with students

Understanding that effective teaching is inextricably related to the process of learning is fundamental when considering how to use VARK® with students. VARK® is founded on the belief that anyone can improve their learning performance by better understanding how they learn best, and this must be central to how VARK® is introduced to students.

With this in mind, VARK® can be integrated into effective teaching by:

  • introducing students to the VARK® modalities and giving them experience in using different modalities by including a variety of modalities in learning materials, learning activities, and assessment tasks.
  • asking students to complete the VARK Questionnaire and prompting them to think more about their VARK® results.
  • encouraging students to use their VARK® results to improve their learning by trying strategies that align with their learning preferences. The VARK Helpsheets are a vital resource.
  • explaining the concept of ACTIVE LEARNING – so that students understand the value of putting the effort into strategies that will be more effective.
  • introducing the concept of METACOGNITION, and using VARK® to start students on their metacognitive journey.

For more information about using VARK in teaching, see our Guide for Teachers.

Sources

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