Should You Tailor Your Training Content to Visual Learners?
Since the 1990s, many trainers around the world have categorised learners into one of four learning styles; Visual, Auditory, Reading and Kinesthetic, otherwise known as the VARK model. Developed by a school inspector called Neil Fleming in New Zealand, he created a test comprising 16 questions to ascertain which style a given learner fitted into.
The system has developed widespread popularity, even though there isn’t much evidence to back it up. Let’s explore what a visual learner is, and whether we should be developing specific training materials for this group of learners.
What is a visual learner?
Visual learners are those who think best in pictures. They find it easier to draw a diagram explaining their thought processes rather than explain it in words. They are thought to have excellent spatial awareness or ability to recall images. They never forget a face but might struggle with names, and they find drawing or doodling enjoyable during the learning process.
Recent research, however, suggests that while visual learners prefer to learn in this way, the method of delivery has little impact on how much they learn and that this system of categorizing learners is a myth. In other words, visual learners might enjoy training with visual aids, but in tests, they recall the same amount of information whether the information was delivered visually, orally or through text.
How does this research impact how you deliver training, be it in person or through your LMS?
Challenging the dominant narrative on learning styles
In 2015, a paper in the Journal of Educational Psychology explored the effect that matching learning style to instructional method had on comprehension. Two experiments were conducted, and both confirmed that there was no significant statistical impact on test scores depending on how the information was delivered.
Daniel Willingham, a psychologist at the University of Virginia, who has also researched how visual learning and other learning styles impact learners told the Atlantic:
“It’s not like anything terrible is going to happen to you [if you do buy into learning styles],” but there’s not any benefit to it, either. “Everyone is able to think in words, everyone is able to think in mental images. It’s much better to think of everyone having a toolbox of ways to think, and think to yourself, which tool is best?”
While most learners have a preference for one style of learning or another, they’re likely to have the ability to learn through a variety of training styles.
Disadvantages of categorizing trainees as visual learners
Not only does it fail to make a positive difference, telling learners that they fit into one learning category can be harmful to their development. A number of potential disadvantages of applying the VARK model have also been identified.
- Playing to a learner’s perceived strengths isn’t always the best way to go. If you want your learners to become strong all-rounders, giving them learning materials in their preferred format doesn’t achieve that. For example, a group that are identified as visual learners may actually have more to gain from practicing their oral and aural skills.
- Boxing learners in by telling them they fit into one style of learning deprives them of opportunities that come by developing other styles. For example, telling someone that they are a visual learner might discourage them from listening to your organization’s podcasts or reading your text-based resources that they could gain a lot of insight from. .
- Many topics simply can’t be taught visually. Images, diagrams and infographics are perfectly suited to certain topics, but if the topic involves a focus on communication – as much corporate training does – oral and auditory skills are key.
Even Neil Fleming, the originator of the theory, has recognised VARK’s limitations. In 2006, he wrote a follow-up paper which stated:
“I sometimes believe that students and teachers invest more belief in VARK than it warrants… You can like something, but be good at it or not good at it … VARK tells you about how you like to communicate. It tells you nothing about the quality of that communication.”
What does this mean for corporate trainers?
Instead of tailoring training sessions to a learner’s preferred learning style, you can look to Cognitive Learning Theory or Constructivism, which are more robustly supported by academic research. These theories suggest that we remember our training best when it is meaningful to us, when we are active agents in our own learning, and when information is presented to us in a variety of different ways.
When you’re training on a given unit or concept, your best bet is to combine the VARK learning styles. This could mean delivering an oral recording to those who prefer to listen; providing resources where the concept is explained in diagrams for those who identify as visual learners; doing some kind of experiment, role play or project that’s either face-to-face or through webinar for those who prefer kinesthetics; and creating an online reading list in your LMS for those whose preferred method of learning is through reading.
The key is to give learners access to the whole toolbox that’s available to them instead of confining them to one type of learning, even if it may be their favorite one. By combining different learning styles and repeating the most important information in a variety of ways, you reinforce your materials in your learners’ minds and give them the strongest chance of remembering their training and putting it into practice effectively.
A blended learning style also means you’re more likely to touch on each learner’s strengths. In any training group, you’ll have people with different strengths and abilities, so it’s important not to zero in on one set of strengths and focus exclusively on that.
Do you identify strongly as a visual learner or an aural learner? Is it simply a preference, or do you feel you actually learn better when information is presented in a certain way? And most importantly, how does this impact how you deliver training? Leave us a comment below and let us know.