Have you ever wondered why some people seem to learn things faster than others? It may not be about being smarter—it could just mean that they process and learn information differently. Determined to help demystify the learning process, Neil Fleming and Colleen Mills, academics from New Zealand’s Lincoln University in Canterbury, did a deep dive into the different ways individuals approach learning. They developed the VARK model based on their claim that “learners of all ages have different yet consistent ways of responding in learning situations.”
The VARK model is an acronym for visual, auditory, reading and writing, and kinesthetic types of learning styles. Neuro-linguistic programming, or NLP, was key to Fleming and Mill’s research. Sometimes described as the “users manual for your mind,” NLP has also been characterized by the Association for Neuro Linguistic Programming as a combination of theories, models, and techniques that can be used strategically to improve learning outcomes.
It’s important to note that not all educators buy into the idea of learning styles—whether VARK or other forms—as a proven teaching technique. Many educators also believe that people can build and strengthen different types of learning styles, even if they may not come naturally at first.
From Fleming and Mill’s perspective, using the VARK model to understand learning styles would help empower individuals to adjust their behavior to different learning environments. One recent example of such an environment occurred during the height of the coronavirus pandemic: remote learning. This form of distance learning—which usually involves listening to lessons through video calls—might speak to certain styles such as auditory or visual learners. But for others, it may require supplemental materials to make the information stick. Keeping online learning varied, relevant, and engaging can keep students attuned in the classroom.
What’s your VARK style? Citing the VARK model, Tovuti outlined the learning model’s four core types of learning styles.
A majority of learners are visual, or spatial, learners. Visual learners connect well with patterns, shapes, graphs, maps, and charts. Creating a visual image of what you are trying to learn is a way of retaining this information. Think of this type of learning as the swapping of words for visuals. For example, explaining the difference between a pint and a gallon with images of different water jugs can more clearly illustrate how much can fit into each vessel.
Not all visuals are created equal for this type of learner, though. Videos or movies, PowerPoints, and photos fall short for some. Using tools like a flow chart can also help visual learners grasp more abstract concepts, according to insight from the Bay Atlantic University in Washington D.C.
How do you spot a visual learner in the workplace? In an article for Inc., Molly St. Louis says these are the folks in meetings often seen doodling or taking notes, or thriving off of whiteboard discussions.
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According to the VARK model, auditory learners comprise a smaller population than visual learners. These learners retain details through auditory modes, including listening to live or recorded lectures, taking part in group discussions, and hearing information via radio, audiobooks, and podcasts. Auditory learners often read aloud or create songs as ways of memorizing materials when studying for tests. Auditory learners generally find strengths in storytelling and public speaking.
How to know if your co-worker is an auditory learner? Typically, they’re the ones asking questions and brainstorming in meetings.
Reading and writing
The ‘R’ in VARK refers to reading and writing, specifically text-based input and output. Textbooks, manuals, handouts, lists, PowerPoint presentations, as well as taking notes are the preferred ways for read-and-write learners.
These learners generally gravitate toward information by reading, similar to how auditory learners retain information through listening. Written assignments are where these learners excel, communicating thoughts effectively over email or direct messaging. Bay Atlantic University suggests “text is more powerful than any kind of visual or auditory representation of an idea” for these learners.
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Not familiar with the term kinesthetic? VARK-Learn describes this modality as the “perceptual preference related to the use of experience and practice (simulated or real).” Think hands-on learning. Only a small portion of the population are kinesthetic, or experiential, learners.
Kinesthetic learners grasp information by performing the task about which they’re learning. Movement and muscle memory are also key for kinesthetic learners. For example, when learning to ride a bicycle, the physical motions become innate after much practice. When conveying information to a kinesthetic learner, consider using examples, simulations, and recreating experiences.
Contrary to popular belief, kinesthetic learners aren’t mere fidgeters who have a tough time sitting still. Usually very high-energy workers—learners ready to dive into challenges that require “doing” and getting out in the field—like having coffee meetups with clients and colleagues to hammer out minute details.