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Rethinking Learning - Is Learning Style Real?

How do you learn best?

In my experience tutoring and teaching adults and children, I ran into two types of responses when I asked the above question:

1) I am a visual/auditory/kinesthetic learner.

2) I don't know

How do people figure out what is their learning style? Is the idea of "having a specific learning style" actually helping us to learn? In this post, I will be sharing some research I found regarding learning styles and my reflection from my personal experience.

How do people figure out what is their learning style?

There are multiple tests and quizzes online regarding learning styles, and one of the most popular ones is the VARK questionnaire. The VARK questionnaire was first launched in 1987 by Neil Fleming. VARK stands for Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, and Kinesthetic. The questionnaire asked about a person's preference (visually, auditory, read/write, movement) for approaching different tasks. The answer choices provided represent each of the learning styles suggested in VARK. By tallying up the number of answers for each learning style, one can identify their learning style suggested by the VARK model.

If you take the questionnaire from VARK's website, you will be allowed to select multiple answers for each question. Therefore, a person might end up being a "multimodal" learner because they score the same on two or more categories.

However, this test is often modified in school to make it more relevant and grade-appropriate for students. If students cannot select multiple answers for each question, they would likely end up with only one specific learning style. Hence, they develop the notion of "I am a ___________ learner."

Is the idea of "having a specific learning style" real?

Even though "learning style" is a popular theory, there is a lot of research that concludes that the existence of "learning style" is a myth. Schools adopt the idea and often require teachers to show proof in their lesson plans on how they accommodate different learning styles. However, if you google "learning style real" or "learning style debunk," you will also see pages of search results with articles and research about learning style as a myth.

One of the articles, The Myth of 'Learning Styles' by The Atlantic, quoted multiple studies questioning the belief in learning styles. One study conducted by Polly R. Husmann and Valerie Dean O'Loughlin analyzed the relationship between students' VARK learning style questionnaire results with their actual learning behavior in an undergraduate anatomy class. At the end of the questionnaire, the site provided study suggestions to students based on their learning style. The study discovered that many students didn't change their study strategies after the test. Even those who were following the suggestions didn't perform better in the course. Instead of helping a student to learn, Husmann called to terminate the idea of one being a specific type of learner as it may limit one's potential.

My personal experience with VARK results

I have taken the VARK questionnaire multiple times throughout my life, and I always score the highest on visual and lowest on aural. Should I follow my test results strictly, I might be more hesitant to participate in playing an instrument.

In reality, I was blessed with perfect pitch and can play many melodies by ear. I even pursued my undergraduate degree in piano performance. That said, I do struggle with aural learning at times. For example, live lectures and podcasts can be challenging for me as I would not retain as much information just from listening. I would always seek out some written material to support my learning if possible.

Instead of using my VARK results to dictate what I learn, I use the results to reflect on how I learn. I tend to feel more comfortable with visual learning, but I try my best to expose myself to different modalities to benefit from every experience. The VARK results seem to identify what makes me feel the most comfortable, but I refuse to let it hinder what I learn.

How can you help your child?

Boxing children into specific types of learners limit their opportunity to learn and explore. Chances are your child would've taken these tests at some point in their school life, and they might even use that result to shape their identity as a learner. We want the results to help your children to grow as a learner. We don't want those scores to block your children from discovering and developing their inner potential.

As a parent, you can give your children ways to learn from different modalities and challenge them to step out of their comfort zone. Learning can happen anywhere, and it is not limited to school subjects. You can easily turn your yard, kitchen, or even bathroom (how about teaching your children to clean the bathroom with a written instruction VS verbal instruction, or how to unclog a drain) into a place for learning.

It is also essential to discuss and reflect with your children about how they learn. The world is changing quickly, and our next generation and beyond will need to learn and adapt quickly. The better your children understand how they learn, the more opportunities they can prepare for and capture in their lives. You want to help your children realize that the limitation they perceive based on learning styles might be self-imposed, and they can learn in various ways as long as they try.

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