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 watch a video on YouTube)? That’s an indicator of your individual learning style or preference for learning.
However, not everyone believes in styles or preferences due to a lack of credible research. There are some weblinks at the end of this page to help you research more about the topic, and I leave you to make up your own mind.
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. 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 mixture of teaching and learning approaches to help learning 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 questionnaire is by Fleming (1987) and is available at www.vark-learn.com. You might like to try it yourself before asking your learners to carry it out.
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 learning to take place more quickly.
I find that using learning preferences helps me to adapt my sessions to ensure everyone is included, and that learning takes place. Using the results helps me adapt my approaches to each individual. If I have a learner who is predominantly kinesthetic, asking them to read a handout without any images in it might hinder their learning. However, asking them to carry out a practical activity might help their learning.
Using a mixture of VARK activities could help with the involvement of all your learners during a session, and lead to learning taking place.
Knowing your learners' preferences can be ideal for planning group activities. Here's an example of a situation which occurred with my learners.
After a group activity (I always mix learners of 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 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 enabled 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 once you know about the four different types of learners.
Activist These 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 These 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 These 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 These 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 learner type quiz which you might like to take 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, not just as a statistic.