‘Learning styles’- do they have any worth or are they rather VAKuous?

Exams are looming, but are you aware of your VAK calling? Do you revise using the sensual whispering of facts in your ear, or acting out arguments in roleplay? This acronym (not to be confused with the Hindu goddess of speech, or a strange vole-yak hybrid) stands for Visual, Auditory and Kinesthetic learning styles, based on our ‘sensory modalities’. Developed by practitioners of the pseudoscience ‘Neurolinguistic Programming’, an approach linking the brain to language and behaviour, VAK was an appealing pedagogical guide in schools, structuring lessons and activities. Popularised in the 1990s, and endorsed by the Department of Education and Skills, VAK methods focused on the ‘best way’ for students to learn, whether that be scribbling notes and diagrams (visual), asking questions (auditory), or participating in activities that involved touching and moving (kinesthetic). I recall the huge impact this movement had on me as a child. In primary school, after completing a brief questionnaire, I suddenly discovered who I was… a mixture of V + A! From then on, I could truly navigate my voyage of multisensory interaction with the world.

Interestingly, after Magnetic Resonance Imaging emerged in the 1980s, over 70 different psychological theories concerning learning appeared. Fleming’s VAK model was one of them, asserting that we learn with one dominant sensory mode. But can a simplistic questionnaire reveal our learning style, or is it a flawed overgeneralisation? Surely our mode changes depending on our mood, and self-belief in the task at hand? VAK may be appropriate for a child, but not for a complex, mood-fluctuating adult. (Although university students often experience a heightened sensory appreciation for touching and moving, aptly categorised by a ‘K’ modality…)

VAK is incredibly outdated. In 2008, Sharp, Byrne and Bowker released ‘The Trouble with VAK’, a paper interrogating the model’s claims to credibility, and the urgency to adopt it. They described the theory as a ‘perplexing, unacademic, farfetched gimmick’, based on research lacking empirical evidence. Critically, no links had been demonstrated between VAK approaches and increased academic performance. If a student ticked that they required pictures for learning (V), music to complete their homework (A), and opportunities to build things in class (K), how could this diagnose their preferred learning style? Rather, strategies should be more holistic, to capture the melting pot of pupils’ preferences. The paper further argued that neuroscientific facts were awarded too much educational significance than deserved. Even popularised ‘Left and Right Brain’ theories of learning are based on strictly controlled experiments, with highly specialised neuro-imaging techniques- not ‘normal brains’ in the classroom. Thus, adopting strategies that focus on one style may inhibit learning. Other research suggested that due to the broad variation in children’s sensitivities to sensory cues, a simplistic VAK model does not exist. Instead, as Goswami from Cambridge University suggested, we should respect our cross-hemisphere connections in tackling cognitive tasks.

Although the theoretically-weak VAK model is accepted by the scientific community as neurononsense, its ghost still haunts us. After googling ‘unusual revision techniques’, I stumbled across Nottingham University’s ‘Exam and Revision Handbook’, mapping out patronising VAK techniques for the stressed undergraduate.

Skipping past this section, I discovered some practical revision strategies. Alongside the bog standard spider-diagrams and post-it-notes on kettles, we must remember to stick to a strategic plan; giving our brain a break is just as important as exercising its various sensory modalities. The Pomodoro Technique ensures you only work in 25 minute intervals with short breaks, to enhance focus and concentration, and is available as a system downloadable to your computer. You can even buy an accompanying tomato timer! Other ‘revision-experts’ highlighted spaced (learning over a period of time) vs. mass (learning all at once, i.e. cramming). Although it sounds obvious, we should always start early, doing a little bit often, and consistently review our work- 10 minutes, 1 day, 3 days, and 1 week afterwards. They also emphasised rewording our revision notes, and using mnemonics to ease our memory. But do not start a new diet or job one week before an exam, and leave social media websites behind.

Currently, the most effective revision strategies do not refer solely to VAK. But you can take a VAK questionnaire yourself, and decide whether to trust their (vacuous) solutions. Yet to remain engaged, do not ignore your other sensory modalities! We are complex human beings- whether you score as a V, A, or K learner, this can be our chosen preference, rather than a fixed style.

Esther Lie

Image: Flickr


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