By: Noah Page
The growing case against learning styles
As technical communicators, we are responsible for understanding our audience to the very best of our ability so that we can provide the most effective and accessible documentation possible. While rich media content grants us the ability to adapt our content according to our audience’s preferred method of learning, is it really best practice to categorize our audience into supposed learning styles? With this question in mind, technical communicators certainly have a stake in the evolving debate about learning styles.
While certain educational institutions place a high value on accommodating a variety of learning styles, many publications in recent years have begun to question the legitimacy of fixed learning styles. Writing for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan reported that 90% of teachers in a number of countries throughout the world believed in learning style theories. However, Khazan also detailed a growing body of evidence suggesting that learning style theories are not scientifically sound. In Scientific American, Cindi May performed a brief meta-analysis on recent studies about learning styles. May concluded that while students have clear preferences in how educational content is delivered to them, these preferences did not dictate how well they performed even if the material was not delivered in their preferred style.
The history of VARK
According to The Encyclopedia of the Mind, theories on learning styles first began to emerge in the 1950s. Since then, five major learning style frameworks have been developed:
Visual/ Auditory/ Reading/ Kinesthetic
- Field Dependent/Field Independent
Visual/Auditory/Reading/Kinesthetic (VARK) has arguably become the most prominent learning style framework. Khazan explains that VARK was devised in the early 1990s by school inspector Neil Fleming in response to his observations that different classrooms had different educational outcomes based on how the teacher presented the material.
Fleming went on to describe the four major learning styles that would come to the encompass the VARK framework. In his 1995 article “I’m different; not dumb: Modes of presentation (V.A.R.K.) in the tertiary classroom,” Fleming sketches out the basic principles behind the VARK approach, claiming that certain students were “advantaged or disadvantaged” by certain course materials as selected by instructors. Fleming goes on to define the four major learning styles based on anecdotal observations he made of students. Technical communicators will likely be interested in Fleming’s analysis of how different audiences respond to different material. However, the problem with Fleming’s article is that he provides no hard data demonstrating how learning outcomes might be different based on what type of material was presented.
In the face of these questions about VARK’s legitimacy as a scientifically grounded methodology, the official VARK website is surprisingly defensive. A page titled “Using VARK in research” argues that, “Any hypothesis that attempts to find links, especially correlation significance, between VARK and academic success will be invalid and a waste of research time and money. Academic success, is, of course, poorly defined…” Without any verifiable data to confirm or merely imply that using VARK in the classroom truly leads to better learning outcomes, why should technical communicators even bother trying to develop content that appeals to the four VARK categories?
More evidence against VARK
Many research studies conducted over the past few years have further diminished VARK as legitimate educational framework. A 2017 study by Martha Carr and Donggun An concluded that theories about learning styles such as VARK were not scientifically sound. Though learning style theories classify students’ educational preferences, they subsequently fail to build a solid empirical framework capable of explaining why and how students respond to their specific education preferences. Additionally, Carr and An argue that most learning style theories provide no reliable or consistent methods of gauging student success.
Philip Newton provides a critique similar to Carr and An’s. Newton believes that assigning students a fixed learning style is akin to confirmation bias, because once an instructor has decided that a student is a visual or auditory learner, the instructor simply can’t see that student learning in any other style. This is obviously a detrimental way of approaching education, as it vastly reduces the number of approaches the instructor can use while he or she is teaching. Newton also claims that this confirmation bias can be harmful to students as well, because students who have been labelled as auditory learners may never attempt to branch out into learning through other styles.
Approaching a mixed-style framework
It seems that VARK learning styles do not have any convincing empirical evidence to support their claims. With this in mind, how should technical communicators approach the design of educational content for platforms such as eLearning, online FAQs, or conventional procedural documentation? One possible approach would be offering a mixed learning style approach whenever possible. In a study of undergraduate nursing students, Sandra Fleming and her colleagues discovered that 53% of nursing students polled had no preferred learning style, while 35% claimed to have “dual learning” style. Additionally, Fleming et al argued that though students might have a favored learning style, they do not necessarily learn best using that style. From these conclusions, it is clear that any content technical communicators design must address a wide variety of learning styles. Because digital platforms offer a wealth of learning options, we should not pigeonhole our audience into any one learning style.
While there may be concrete patterns in how certain types of students learn, it seems there is currently no hard scientific evidence that proves what these learning styles are. Additionally, it is hard to tell if focusing on a student’s perceived learning style truly improves educational outcomes. Because VARK lacks this evidence, technical communicators clearly cannot rely on its framework to design our content. We also cannot completely dismiss learning theories, as they do offer a good point from where we can begin thinking about our multimedia content; however, we need to remain skeptical and never force our audience into one learning style.
About the author
Noah Page is a technical writing student at Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology in Toronto, Canada and holds an MA in creative writing from the University of New Brunswick. Page has published or forthcoming work in Plenitude, Viator, Five2One, UNB’s Journal of Student Writing, filling Station, Existere, and The City Series: Fredericton chapbook. Page also reads submissions for The Fiddlehead literary magazine.