It's important to note that not everyone advocates the use of learning preferences due to a lack of credible research or conclusive evidence. I have produced the information on this page to help you make up your own mind. I felt it necessary as the subject is still included in many of the current teaching qualifications' assessment criteria. There are some useful weblinks in the further information section at the end of this page if you wish to research further.
Learning preferences are all about how people learn. People learn in different ways and have a style or a preference to help them acquire new skills and knowledge, and to remember things. Some people prefer the term preference to styles so as not to categorise a learner. Adults might have developed this from childhood learning patterns or their experiences of growing up and of working. What suits one learner might not suit another. For example, if a group of people are learning yoga, some might like to watch and listen to the teacher first. Others might want to practise the movements at the same time as watching the teacher perform them.
Think back to when you got a new mobile device, did you get straight in and start using it, did you read the instructions first, or did you ask someone to show you what to do (or did you watch a video on YouTube)? That’s an indicator of your individual learning style or preference for learning.
If you are a new teacher or trainer, what you might tend to do is facilitate your sessions in the style in which you learn best – although it will suit you, it might not suit your learners. For example, if you prefer to listen to a lecture you might feel more comfortable lecturing to your learners. If you can find out what your learners’ preferences are, then you can adapt your approaches to suit them.
There are so many different ways of ascertaining preferences, some systems might contradict others or even be misunderstood. Some people are in favour of them, whereas others aren't. The current thinking is that there is no valid research to justify their use. However, you need to make your own decision on whether using the results of learning styles' tests for differentiation will work for your learners. You will also need to check whether the organisation you work for advocates their use or not.
Most people don't fit into one style or preference advocated by the tests on offer. I recommend using a variety of teaching and learning approaches to help learning to take place.
Your learners might instinctively know what works best for them rather than having it determined for them. For example, they might prefer practical activities rather than reading or writing. This might have been developed from previous courses they have attended. Rather than this being their learning preference, you could think of it as their teaching preference. You could ask your learners which teaching preference they prefer and then adapt your sessions accordingly.
VARK stands for visual, aural, read/write and kinesthetic. Learners can take a free online quiz and the results are in scores for each aspect.
The online VARK quiz is by Fleming (1987) and is available free here. You might like to try it yourself before deciding if you will ask your learners to do it.
The higher the score the higher the predominance of that preference. However, not all learners fall into just one preference. They might be multi-modal i.e. a mixture of two or more, enabling their learning to take place more quickly.
For example, if you have a learner who is visual and kinesthetic, asking them to read a handout might hinder their learning. However, asking them to carry out a practical activity as well as read the handout might help promote their learning.
Knowing your learners' preferences can be helpful when planning group activities. Here's an example of a situation which occurred with my learners.
After a group activity (where I always mixed learners from different VARK styles in each group) a learner asked me what would happen if the groups were combined according to the same VARK style. So I suggested we tried it, with disastrous results in that none of the groups fully achieved the task. The visual group created an all singing all dancing presentation but didn’t have time to complete it. The aural group discussed the question for so long they didn’t get around to addressing it. The read/write group made lots of notes and digressed away from the question, and the kinesthetic group created a role play, without fully reading the question first.
This showed that having a combination of different VARK styles in each group can enable everyone to work together to achieve the task.
Honey and Mumford (1986) are theorists who suggest learners are a mixture of four types: activist, pragmatist, theorist and reflector. They originally devised 80 questions to ascertain this.
You could consider the following to help learning to take place, once you know about the four different types.
Activist - learners like to deal with new problems and experiences, often learning by trial and error. They like lots of activities to keep them busy and enjoy a hands-on approach. They love challenges and are enthusiastic.
Pragmatist - learners like to apply what they have learnt to practical situations. They like logical reasons for doing something. They prefer someone to demonstrate a skill first before trying it for themselves.
Theorist - learners need time to take in information, they prefer to read lots of information first. They like things that have been tried and tested and prefer reassurance that something will work.
Reflector - learners think deeply about what they are learning and the activities they could do to apply this learning. They like to be told about things so that they can think it through. They will also try something, think about it, and then try it again.
There is a free online Honey & Mumford quiz which you might like to try out here.
In 2004, Professor Frank Coffield of The University of London carried out a systematic and critical review of learning preferences and pedagogy in post-16 learning. The report reviewed the literature on learning preferences and examined in detail 13 of the most influential models.
The implications for teaching and learning, he stated, are serious and should be of concern. Coffield has since written widely on the subject and stated ... it was not sufficient to pay attention to individual differences in learners, we must take account of the whole teaching-learning environment (2008 p31). See the link in the next section.
So it’s not just about individual preferences, it’s also about the impact other factors have on learning. For example, the environment, the different subject matter, the context of learning and the learner’s own motivation.
I think it’s all about recognising that different people learn in different ways. These differences need to be taken into account, along with any other aspects that might impact upon learning. These could be identified at the initial assessment stage and by getting to know each learner as a person.