VAR+ is a new learning styles questionnaire – a questionnaire that helps students think about how they learn. This page provides some context by giving a brief overview of the history of learning styles and outlines the benefits of using the VAR+ Questionnaire.
What are “learning styles”?
The term “learning styles” encompasses a collection of theories that focus on describing the different ways that individuals learn. VAR+ is a modality learning style system that describes the perceptual modalities that students prefer to use when taking in and representing information in the learning process.
In the 1970s, Walter Burke Barbe proposed the VAK theory, which categorized learners into those who prefer the Visual, Aural, or Kinesthetic modalities, or combinations of those. Later, in 1992, Neil Fleming added Read/write as a modality and created the VARK questionnaire 1Fleming, N.D. and Mills, C. (1992), Not Another Inventory, Rather a Catalyst for Reflection. To Improve the Academy, 11: 137-155. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2334-4822.1992.tb00213.x, which has continued to be popular to this day.
After using VARK for some time, we found the need to make some improvements (outlined below), and so developed VAR+. Using the new VAR+ questionnaire, students will identify whether they prefer to learn using the Visual, Aural or Read/write modalities, or some combination of the three.
Do learning styles work?
Although VARK and other learning styles questionnaires continue to be extremely popular, there has been some criticism of them in recent years, with headlines such as “Are ‘Learning Styles’ Real?” and “Learning Styles are More Myth Than Reality” appearing on the Internet.
In stark contrast to the critics is an abundance of teachers and students who attest to the value of using learning styles, with some going so far as to claim that discovering learning styles have changed their life!
We account for this discrepancy in opinions by noting:
- Much of the research critical of learning styles has been focused on the “meshing” hypothesis – the idea that students will learn better if the learning material is presented using their preferred modality. This is not the focus of current work in the area of learning styles, with Fleming’s position being that “VARK is NOT about matching teaching materials to learning preferences“.2VARK-Learn Limited https://vark-learn.com/guide-for-researchers/
- Some of the research has been poorly designed or implemented. For example, in a recent example3Husmann PR, O’Loughlin VD. Another Nail in the Coffin for Learning Styles? Disparities among Undergraduate Anatomy Students’ Study Strategies, Class Performance, and Reported VARK Learning Styles. Anat Sci Educ. 2019 Jan;12(1):6-19. doi: 10.1002/ase.1777. Epub 2018 Mar 13. PMID: 29533532. that has formed the basis for much of the online criticism of VARK, the importance of multimodality (the idea that many people use more than one modality in their learning) was overlooked with most research participants instead treated as if they had one “dominant” learning style.
Given that many people report finding learning styles to be very useful, we consider it worthwhile continuing to use them while we find out more – consciously questioning whether what we are doing is working, how it is working, and how we can improve what we are doing. At this stage, we cannot say for sure how learning styles improve learning, but interesting areas for further investigation include the ideas that learning styles can:
- encourage students to be more actively engaged in their studies, and to try new study strategies.
- reframe academic failure as a temporary hurdle that can be overcome by improving study practices.
- prompt meta-cognition.
Why the VAR+ Learning Styles Questionnaire?
Visual and Kinesthetic Definitions
Over time, the definitions of the learning style modalities have changed, to the point that the current VARK definitions for “Visual” and “Kinesthetic” no longer match the common understanding of those terms. This is confusing for students and leads to misunderstandings when trying to implement changes to study practices based on their VARK results.
Fleming’s definition of “Visual” has changed over time, with photos and videos now being re-positioned as “Kinesthetic.” The “Visual” modality has been reduced to what Fleming later termed “Graphic” – being restricted to the graphical representation of information (predominantly graphs, diagrams, and maps).
As a result, the proportion of people labeled as having a “Visual” learning style has diminished greatly. In his 1991 article “What we know about modality strengths”4Barbe WB, Milone MN. What we know about modality strengths. Educational Leadership. 1981 Feb: 378-80., Barbe stated that around 30% of the population has a “Visual” learning style. In contrast, when using the VARK Questionnaire, only 1.9% of people find they have a single “Visual” preference. 5VARK-Learn Limited https://vark-learn.com/research-statistics/ retrieved 12 July 2022. Some of this discrepancy can be attributed to the fact that Fleming separated reading and writing out of the Visual modality, but even if we were to include those who have a VARK Read/write preference as “Visual”, that would only add 4.2% of the population – still only a small portion of the population, and much below Barbe’s 30%.
The problem with the more limited definition is that most people understandably associate “Visual” with things they see, and so include photos and videos in that category. Students are often confused about why VARK doesn’t say they are “Visual”, and this confusion acts as a barrier to using learning styles to improve their learning.
VAR+ removes this confusion by restoring photos and (some) videos into the “Visual” modality.
According to Barbe6Barbe WB, Milone MN. What we know about modality strengths. Educational Leadership. 1981 Feb: 378-80., 15% of the population have a Kinesthetic learning style, but the vark-learn.com statistics indicate that 22.8% of respondents have a single Kinesthetic preference, with almost 90% having some sort of Kinesthetic preference (single K preference, or a multimodal preference that includes K). Using VARK, the Kinesthetic modality balloons to encompass a majority of learners, and it is extremely rare to find someone who has a zero score for Kinesthetic.
Again, this difference is due to the differing definitions of “Kinesthetic.” Definitions of the Kinesthetic learning style are often focused on touch or movement. For example: “A kinesthetic-tactile learning style requires that you manipulate or touch material to learn” 7Houghton University https://www.houghton.edu/current-students/center-for-student-success/academic-support-and-accessibility-services/study-advisement/general-study-information/kinesthetic-learning-style/ retrieved 29 August 2022. Unfortunately, such definitions are not relevant in many academic disciplines. Fleming, on the other hand, described the kinesthetic mode as “related to the use of experience and practice (simulated or real)”8Fleming, N.D. and Mills, C. (1992), Not Another Inventory, Rather a Catalyst for Reflection. To Improve the Academy, 11: 137-155. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2334-4822.1992.tb00213.x This definition is broader and is much more applicable to academic study. But it has meant that many study materials and techniques that would otherwise have sat in other modalities have been added to VARK‘s “Kinesthetic” study suggestions, because of their relation to the real world. For example, case studies and autobiographies are classed as Kinesthetic rather than Read/write and photos and videos are classed as Kinesthetic rather than Visual9VARK-Learn Limited https://vark-learn.com/strategies/kinesthetic-strategies/ retrieved 12 July 2022.
Fleming’s definition is helpful, but we consider it to apply to all learners – not just the subset labeled as “Kinesthetic”. For this reason, we have not included Kinesthetic as a modality in VAR+, and have instead included connection to reality and experience as applicable to everyone, and indicated with the “+” in VAR+.
Emphasis on actively using VAR+
The discussion about and the use of learning styles has been mired in the idea of “meshing” or “matching” – the idea that students will learn better when content is presented to them using the modalities that they prefer – with much of the research criticism focusing on this idea. Indeed, this concept was of fundamental interest in Barbe’s VAK theory. Unfortunately, this has led to some students using their learning style as an excuse for poor performance (“I can’t learn because my teacher provides all the material in writing, but I don’t have a Read/write learning style”). From this perspective, rather than encouraging the student to try new ways of learning, finding out their learning style presents a barrier to improvement.
There is more to learning than just receiving information – having an Aural learning style, for example, is no guarantee that you will listen to, understand, and remember everything you hear. More important are the active ways that learners interact with the learning material – this is where learning styles can be of most help, and this is independent of how the content is first presented. That is why the advice provided in the VAR+ questionnaire results focuses on how students can actively use their learning style.
The VAR+ questionnaire results also include questions to prompt students to think about how their VAR+ results relate to their own experience, and how they could adjust their practices to take into account what they have found out about how they learn. In this way, we can start students on the path to being able to think critically about their learning performance and how they can improve it.