One of the most promising movements in contemporary education is the attention being given to student learning styles.
~Walter Barbe Burke
Walter Burk Barbe, born in 1926, earned his bachelor’s in science, masters and PhD from Northwestern University. Barbe set out to investigate the modality strengths of individuals identifying three varying channels for learning, namely visual, auditory and kinesthetic. His research, with his colleagues Milone and Swassing, discovered individuals demonstrated approximately 30% visual strength, 30% mixed strengths, 25% auditory with 15% kinesthetic (Barbe & Milone, 1981).
The VAK (visual, auditory and kinesthetic) Learning Style falls under the umbrella of Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). NLP “encompasses the three most influential components involved in producing human experience: neurology, language and programming” (Dilts, 2016, para. 1). NLP investigates the interactions between how neurological (mind) and linguistics (language) within an individual impact behavior (programming).
Visual learners learn by seeing. They have a high ability for visual recall. They prefer to learn using visual representations such as graphs, posters, maps, displays. They frequently use hand movements while talking and have a tendency to look upwards when thinking (Pritchard, 2009).
Auditory learners learn by listening. They favor the audio and have a high ability for auditory recall. They pefer repetition, summaries and benefit from discussions, lectures, stories, Podcasts. These learners have a tendency to tilt their heads and use eye movements when concentrating or recalling information (Pritchard, 2009).
Kinesthetic learners rely on doing to learn. They heavily depend on interactions within the learning environment and especially with their bodies. They will easily recall events or information attached to an experience or the feelings of a physical event. They learn best through field trips, physical activity, manipulating objects and touch. Kinesthetic learners tend to have high difficulty in sitting still and need frequent breaks when learning.
These modalities can be used singularity or in combination with others. (Recall their research verified a majority of learners are either visual or mixed.) The learning styles can change over time, moving from one modality to another.
Another discovery from Barbe, Swassing and Milone determined a difference between modality strengths and modality preferences. Although a learner may have a strength in one modality or another does not indicate the same modality will be demonstrated as a preference for the learner.
Barbe, Swassing & Milone (1979) discovered when matching an instructor with a student of the same modality strength that higher performance of the student was achieved. They propose that educators should use student modality strengths in the instructional planning. This mode of learning is best achieved when instructors and educational administrators are aware of their modality strength.
There are visual methods to use in determining one’s VAK learning style by watching the learners and searching for hints. The visual learner relies on both language and spatial interpretations of information. The learners who fall within the visual learning style will prefer to write down what is being said. Even if they never look at the information again, it will be embedded into their memory as it moved from an auditory style to a visual style. These learners will also have quick recall to faces, places and locations of items.
Auditory learners are simpler to identify as they tend to talk to themselves. If they do not vocalize information, they may be seen moving their lips, even when reading. They struggle with written information, especially reading from text.
Kinesthetic learners are motivated and learn best through touch (tactile) and movement (kinesthetic). They need stimulation in these areas to keep focus. This learner will tend to be moving constantly and prefers to get the big picture before moving to details.
There are also a variety of online options and questionnaires to test for VAK learning styles.
Barbe, W.B., Swassing, R.H. & Milone, M.N. (1979). Teaching through modality strengths: concepts and practices. Columbus, Ohio: Zaner-Bloser.
Barbe, W.B. & Milone, Jr., M.N. (1981). What We Know About Modality Strengths. Educational Leadership (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development): 378–380.
Dilts, R.B. (2016). What is NLP. Retrieved from http://www.nlpu.com/NewDesign/NLPU_WhatIsNLP.html
Pritchard, A. (2009). Ways of learning: Learning theories and learning styles in the classroom (2nd ed.). New York, NY:Routledge.
Tracy Atkinson, mother of six, lives in the Midwest with her husband and spirited long-haired miniature dachshunds. She is a teacher, having taught elementary school to higher education, holding degrees in elementary education and a master’s in higher education. Her passion is researching, studying and investigating the attributes related to self-directed learners and learning styles. She has published several titles, including MBTI Learning Styles: A Practical Approach, The Art of Learning Journals, Calais: The Annals of the Hidden, Lemosa: The Annals of the Hidden, Book Two, Rachel’s 8 and Securing Your Tent. She is currently working on a non-fiction text exploring the attributes of self-directed learners: The Five Characteristics of Self-directed Learners.