Most of us can probably remember taking part in questionnaires at school that determined our preferences in learning. Tests such as these are believed to establish our learning styles. Learning styles refer to the different ways individuals process stimuli. It is presumed that the use of our preferred learning style will help us maximise our potential, and become efficient learners (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer & Bjork, 2008).
There are many types of learning styles, but one test that most of us are familiar with is Fleming’s VARK (or VAK). This test suggests what type of sensory learner we are, whether this is auditory, visual, reading/writing or kinaesthetic. This test is very popular and frequently used in schools. For example, research by Sharp, Byrne and Bowker (2008) found that just under half of the teachers they asked used results from VAK to help them teach.
Due to its evident popularity in education, one would assume that results from VAK questionnaires should be applied, and that children should be taught in their preferred learning style. Several schools have incorporated this method into their teaching, with one school in Cheshire getting children to wear badges that state their learning style (Revell, 2005).
It seems logical to teach children in their desired learning style. However, in reality this method is impractical. The VAK test only determines the sensory aspect of learning, and according to Coffield et.al (2004) there are at least 70 different types of learning styles overall. Therefore dividing children accurately and efficiently into groups that maximise their individual learning would be practically impossible. Teachers would argue that there are enough demands placed on the way they deliver lessons, without having to incorporate every child’s individual learning style.
We must also consider the implications of labelling children into these categories. Learning can be restricted if the child develops the attitude of “I’m a kinaesthetic learner, therefore I cannot learn this as you are teaching it me visually”. Realistically, children will not solely use only one form of learning (Smith & Call, 1999, as cited in Sharp, Byrne & Bowker, 2008), however if they get into the mindset that this is the case, it may produce additional barriers to their learning.
The idea that one will excel if taught in their preferred learning style is what forms the basis of learning style tests. However, there is no research validating that one’s preferred learning style provides the most effective learning (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer & Bjork, 2008). This raises the question, if there is no scientific evidence to support these tests, why do we insist on using them in education?
It appears that the phenomenon of VAK reached depths it never intended. Fleming, the creator of these tests, suggests that VAK is based on metacognition, not a measure of learning styles (Fleming & Baume, 2006). VAK tests do not tell you how to learn, they simply make you think about your method of learning, and consider other options you may have previously not considered. This misinterpretation of Fleming’s aim has led to the misuse of VAK tests in education.
Thus, the use of VAK tests in schools is not detrimental to our learning, so long as we understand the implications and interpretations of the results. Learning styles should not govern our learning as an individual, or determine methods of teaching. They should simply provide us with an insight into our preferences for our own self-learning. As said by Professor John Geake (Revell, 2005), “Information isn’t defined by how it is received”. Regardless of our preferred learning style, inevitably it is the end result of what we have learned and retained that is important, not the method it is achieved by.
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
Fleming, N., & Baume, D. (2006). Learning styles again: VARKing up the right tree! Educational Developments, 7(4), 4-7.
Pashler, H., McDaniel, M., Rohrer, D., & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning styles. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 9(3), 105-119.
Revell, P. (2005, May 31). Each to their own. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2005/may/31/schools.uk3.
Sharp, J. G., Byrne J., & Bowker, R. (2008). The trouble with VAK. Educational Futures, 1(1), 89-97.