Diverse Ways of Learning

There are many roads to learning. Students bring different talents and styles of learning to the online classroom. Students rich in hands-on clinical experience may not do so well with theory. Students who easily learn by interacting with colleagues and faculty in the classroom, may not learn as well in an online environment. All students need the opportunity to show their talents and learn in ways that work for them. Then they can be helped to learn in new ways that do not come so easily (Chickering & Gamson, 1987).  Barbara Carper’s ways of knowing is helpful as a conceptual framework for learning styles in online education (Carper, 1978).  Billings and colleagues suggest that students should have options for a variety of learning activities in the distance classroom.(Billings, Skiba, & Connors, 2005)

The widespread adoption of online educational technology has generated increased awareness of  the diversity of online students and the importance of addressing their individual preferences and needs in the online environment (Zhang & Bonk, 2008).  A common thread in the extensive educational literature on learning styles and learning preferences is recognition that no one teaching or learning method can be effective for all students (Zhang & Bonk, 2008).

The focus here is on using the Fleming VARK learning preference model (Fleming, 1995; Fleming & Baume, 2006; Fleming & Mills, 1992) to identify optimal strategies for developing methods to address the full range of students’ preferred learning modalities in online courses.  VARK is not a comprehensive learning style model; it specifically targets the modalities that different individuals prefer to communicate and receive information. These preferred modalities can be assessed with the VARK Learning Styles Inventory. (For psychometric properties of this tool, see (Leite, Svinicki, & Shi, 2010) and (Fleming, 2011).)

The VARK model is particularly applicable to online learning because:
1) Faculty and students can assess their own preferred learning modalities with the VARK Learning Styles Inventory, a concise, 16-item tool (Peter, Bacon, & Dastbaz, 2010) which is readily accessible online (Fleming, 2010), and
2) Learning preferences identified with the VARK inventory can be mapped effectively to recommended study strategies and specific methods of presenting online content. (Peter et al., 2010).

Preferred Learning Modalities
Fleming (Fleming, 1995) has identified four preferred learning modalities:

  • Visual  learners have a preference for receiving and conveying information in visual images (including pictures, maps, diagrams).
  • Auditory learners have a preference for receiving and conveying information through listening to the spoken word (lectures, audio input).
  • Read/write learners have a preference for receiving and conveying information by means of the written word (both in conventional print format and onscreen text).
  • Kinesthetic learners have a preference for learning and conveying information through hands-on experience.

Some individuals have a strong preference for a single modality; others are biomodal (two preferred modalities), or trimodal (three preferred modalities) , and many prefer to use all four learning modalities (Fleming, 2011).  Multimodal learners, although they have a wide repertoire of skills, may need to use more than one modality for processing information in order to master course content (Abney, 2009).

Most online educational environments present content primarily in text-based and visual formats, which may place students whose preferred learning modalities are auditory or kinesthetic at a disadvantage (McQuillan, Blackall, & McIntosh, 2007; Zapalska & Brozik, 2006), and there have been some suggestions that online education appeals more to Read-Write and Visual learners than to those whose preferred learning modalities are Auditory or Kinesthetic (McQuillan et al., 2007).

The following list of online strategies for learmers with different dominant modal preferences (DeRouen, 2009; McQuillan et al., 2007; Sophia Learning, 2011; Summers, 2000) is provided for faculty who wish to enable their students to access online information by alternative means.

  • Strategies for Visual Learners:  Photographs, drawings, diagrams, flow charts, graphs, symbols, highlighted text, video clips, animations, podcasts with video, virtual communities (e.g., Second Life, The Neighborhood)
  • Strategies for Auditory Learners:  Audio recordings, podcasts (audio-only or with video), video clips and animations with audio, embedded audio notes in documents, audio feedback from instructors, role plays and situational exercises. Auditory learners may find that features expected to meet their needs such as group discussion boards and online chat sessions) are inadequate substitutes for oral interchanges in which speech is heard and interpreted  in a context of variable pitch, volume, articulation, and speed, and supplemented by body language. (Cockerline & Yearwood, 2009).
  • Strategies for Read-Write Learners:  Readings, e-books, references, syllabi, glossaries, lists, instruction sheets, journals, blogs, rubrics/grading forms, text-based chat, discussion boards, e-mail.
  • Strategies for Kinesthetic Learners:  Case studies, scenarios, online simulations, visual dispays with 3D graphics, interactive flash animations, images with movement, drag-and-drop technology, problems with solutions, role plays and situational exercises, samples and exemplars, gaming, electronic “field trips”, virtual communities (Second Life, The Neighborhood).

It is useful for teachers to identify their own learning modality preference(s), so that they ensure that their teaching strategy also addresses students whose preferred styles do not match their own.  Students can also use the VARK model to identify their preferred learning style(s) and maximize their educational experience by focusing on learning strategies they they find most beneficial (Marcy, 2001).


Abney, N. G. (2009, Oct. 8). Taking learning styles online [PowerPoint presentation]. Retrieved May 17, 2012 from http://www.slideshare.net/nancyabney/taking-learning-styles-online-nancyabney-jsa

Billings, D. M., Skiba, D. J., & Connors, H. R. (2005). Best practices in Web-based courses: generational differences across undergraduate and graduate nursing students. Journal of Professional Nursing, 21(2), 126-133.

Carper, B. (1978). Fundamental patterns of knowing in nursing. ANS: Advances in Nursing Science, 1(1), 13-23.

Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. American Association of Higher Education Bulletin, 39(7), 3-6. Retrieved May 17, 2012 from http://www.aahea.org/bulletins/articles/sevenprinciples1987.htm

Cockerline, G., & Yearwood, D. (2009). Perceptual modalities: the interface between the students and web-based learning.  Proceedings of EDULEARN09 Conference, 6th-8th July 2009, Barcelona, Spain. (#004254).

DeRouen, R. (2009, April 16, 2009). Using the VARK tool for online assessment activities. [PowerPoint presentation.] Retrieved May 17, 2012 from http://dabcc.nmsu.edu/fs/iep/assessment/docs/assesstea4_09.ppt

Fleming, N. D. (1995). I’m different; not dumb. Modes of presentation (V.A.R.K.) in the tertiary classroom. In A. Zelmer (Ed.), Research and Development in Higher Education: Proceedings of the 1995 Annual Conference of the Higher Education and Research Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA) (pp. 308-313): HERDSA, Vol. 18. Retrieved May 28, 2012 from http://www.vark-learn.com/documents/different_not_dumb.pdf

Fleming, N. D. (2010). The VARK Questionnaire: How Do I Learn Best? Questionnaire version 7.1, from http://www.vark-learn.com/english/page.asp?p=questionnaire

Fleming, N. D. (2011). VARK: A guide to learning styles. Research & statistics. Retrieved May 17, 2012 from http://www.vark-learn.com/english/page.asp?p=research

Fleming, N. D., & Baume, D. (2006). Learning styles again: VARKing up the right tree! Educational Developments, SEDA Ltd.(7.4), 4-7. Retrieved May 17, 2012 from http://www.vark-learn.com/documents/Educational%20Developments.pdf

Fleming, N. D., & Mills, C. (1992). Not another inventory, rather a catalyst for reflection. To Improve the Academy, 11, 137-155. Retrieved May 17, 2012 from http://www.vark-learn.com/documents/not_another_inventory.pdf

Leite, W. L., Svinicki, M., & Shi, Y. (2010). Attempted validation of the scores of the VARK: Learning styles inventory with multitrait-multimethod confirmatory factor analysis models. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 70(2), 323-339. doi: 10.1177/0013164409344507

Marcy, V. (2001). Adult learning styles: How the VARK© learning style inventory can be used to improve student learning. Perspective on Physician Assistant Education, Journal of the Association of Physician Assistant Programs, 12(2), 1-5.

McQuillan, D., Blackall, L., & McIntosh, W. (2007). Facilitating the learning process of kinesthetic learners in the online environment  Retrieved May 17, 2012, from http://wikieducator.org/Facilitating_the_learning_process_of_kinesthetic_learners_in_the_online_environment

Peter, S. E., Bacon, E., & Dastbaz, M. (2010). Adaptable, personalised e-learning incorporating learning styles. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 27(2), 91-100.

Sophia Learning, LLC. (2011, Aug 23). Discover your learning style with VARK

Summers, L. (2000). Multiple learning styles in web-based courses. Retrieved May 28, 2012 from http://www.colorado.edu/cewww/Fac101/success3.htm

Zapalska, A., & Brozik, D. (2006). Learning styles and online education. Campus-Wide Information Systems, 23(5), 325-335.

Zhang, K., & Bonk, C. J. (2008). Addressing diverse learner preferences and intelligences with emerging technologies: Matching models to online opportunities. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology / La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie, 34(2).