Modes of learning are a set of guidelines that describe the methods humans use to acquire, process, and maintain knowledge. Individuals differ in how they learn most effectively; most people favor different combinations of visual, auditory, reading, or  kinesthetic (VARK) learning modes. Individuals who become familiar with the these  major learning styles will be better able to both teach and learn a breadth of concepts and ideas. This article presents an overview of the learning styles and demonstrate their application to engineering education.



Variations in human behavior represent a significant barrier in properly expressing ideas. The ancient Hindus proposed that people needed four yogas, or basic methods of practicing religion. As Claxton (1987) asserts, “the similarity of these ancient findings to those of today must be more than chance.” Each student learns differently, and prefers a different presentation of information. As such, educators have attempted to codify the methods in which individuals absorb information using various learning styles. While modern learning styles typically establish many metrics of learning style and attempt to classify the student for each one, the widely accepted VARK learning style includes four metrics of learning – visual, auditory, reading, and kinesthetic. By using these attributes as a basis for understanding how their students learn, teachers can better tailor their lessons for individuals, as well as target certain populations based on their majority preferred learning method.

Learning Styles

The term “learning style” itself has lost meaning as interest in the subject has increased – a myriad of competing theories and methods has allowed education professionals to classify almost anything as a learning style. Curry (1983) asserted that the phrase learning style refers to, “the general area of interest concerning individual differences in cognitive approach and process of learning” . Although an accurate definition, this article will expand this definition to quantify those differences. Each learning style model has different parameters and provides a framework in which to view differences in individual behavior. Students differ in how each parameter applies to them, and these differences create their “learning style,” which represents differences in how they learn.

VARK Learning Styles

A popular learning style model contains four modes of learning – visual, auditory, reading, and kinesthetic (Fleming, 1995). These four modes form the VARK model, one of the original learning style models. Formalized by Neil Fleming, these four attributes attempt to describe the majority of teaching techniques and Fleming asserts that these modes form a basis with which to describe anyone’s learning preference.

The most common mode for information exchange is speech, and is classified as auditory in the VARK model. Along with speech, reading or writing makes up the remaining majority of current education methods. Fleming asserts that the remaining two learners – visuals and kinesthetics – are not well served by current education. These learning styles are not mutually exclusive, but Fleming argues that most students exhibit a weakness for some of the modes as well as an affinity for others. One important thing to note is that the distribution of preferred VARK mode among students is almost uniform for young adults. In general, students have an equal chance of preferring each mode of learning.

Examples and Implementation

Importance of VARK

Of the population who has taken the VARK questionnaire, 41% have single instrument learning styles, and 27% have two preferences. This data thus suggests that many students will have difficulty learning from a singular mode, such as a lecture or a book. Thus, student performance can suffer when only one mode of learning is utilized. Indeed, Fleming offers support that when the teachers mode of teaching matches the students preferred mode of learning, students will perform better and more effectively (Hawk, 2007).

The VARK model gives educators a framework to work within, just like any of the numerous other learning style models. By looking at learning in American colleges through the lens of the VARK framework, Felder points out the discrepancies between popular modes of teaching versus modes of learning. Most people of college age or older are visual learners, while most college teaching is verbal (Felder, 1988). The paper argues that presentations that use both visual and auditory methods reinforce learning for most students. Professors and teachers who are aware of the VARK learning styles can tailor their lessons to suit a wider variety of students, and alter their one on one tutoring methods to adjust for student’s learning preferences. Students can benefit as well by varying their studying habits to better match their personal learning style. By working within the VARK framework, educators and students can target their teaching and learning methods quantitatively. A teacher can, for example, give the VARK survey to their class and use the results to maximize the number of students who are in their comfort zone.


The VARK modes of learning are the modern interpretation of Fleming’s learning styles, but until recently the reading component was excluded and the possible modes included only visual, aural, and kinesthetic (Lujan, 2006). The reading aspect was added to allow the differentiation of graphics and visuals versus the written word. Although the VAK modes of learning were the popular and accepted version of these learning styles, the VARK model has succeeded it in almost every application, as recommended by Fleming himself.

Applications to Engineering Education

The technical subject matter in engineering offers an opportunity for educators to effectively tailor lessons to varying VARK personalities. Experts agree that engineering education in the United States is lagging behind countries such as China and India, and there has been a significant push for STEM education as America’s workers fail to keep up with the rapidly expanding technology sector. Part of the solution will require changing the methods through which engineering is presented as a subject matter (Kimmel, 2006). Engineering specifically attracts a certain type of learner – students tend to enjoy visual and kinesthetic teaching, but engineering education focuses on auditory and reading methods (Felder, 1988). Not only are engineering subjects taught in a manner conflicting with the majority of student learning modes, but the discipline lends itself to the visual and kinesthetic modes of learning. Hands on labs and visualizations are more effective than equations and lectures for most students, and engineering educators should make an effort to incorporate more of these techniques in their lessons.

Case Study

Fleming offers a number of case studies in his seminal paper on VARK learning modes. A good example of applying the VARK modes of learning comes from Fleming’s description of a student named Jim. After quantifying his VARK preferences, Jim realized he much preferred the reading/writing style. He found lectures confusing, and was asked to be excused from attending them. Instead, he met with the teacher to keep track of the topics being covered and used the lecture time to read about the subject in the library. By utilizing his preferred learning mode, he managed to achieve a B+ in a class he was previously performing poorly in.

This case study offers a good example of a professor willing to adapt to his or her student’s learning styles. By being open minded and allowing an alternative method of study, Jim’s professor was effective in helping Jim learn the material and succeed in the class. This case study demonstrates the importance of both teacher and student applying the VARK methods to their academic lives. Fleming notes that the most marked improvements came from students who exhibit a zero preference in one learning mode while showing a high preference in another (Fleming, 1995). This case study provides an example for educators to follow, namely the idea of working individually with struggling students to help tailor lessons to their individual strengths. Although each requires additional time from the teacher, the investment can be minimal, especially for the rewards that the personal attention garners.

Another case study comes from the University of Joensuu’s computer science department in Finland. The department, concerned with the layout of the courses they offered, surveyed a group of student taking three artificial intelligence courses. They found that while kinesthetics tended to dominate the student population, the kinesthetic learners consistently performed worst in the courses. However, in the image processing course, specifically designed to offer additional hands on practice, kinesthetic learners performed as well as the rest of their classmates (Bednarik, 2004). This study is a good example of how an instructor can tailor courses to encourage engagement by all learners, even in larger classes.

Application to Senior Project

Applying methods based on the VARK learning styles can offer benefits to any of the senior projects currently underway. One important aspect of large projects is the dissemination of knowledge from one person to the remainder of the group. Large scale undertakings can become too large for everyone to be an expert on the entire project, and group members will be forced to educate the rest of the team on their parts. The nature of an individual’s preferred learning modes suggests that among group members there is likely a distinct learning preference for each person. If the group can collectively be aware of these differences and apply them to their teaching, it’s more likely that each member will understand the whole product.

One specific group that would benefit from the VARK styles is the Senior Project Green Team. The team is designing toys in conjunction with the Tufts child development program to teach children sequencing. If this team could include more than one aspect of the VARK modes of learning (for example, visual and kinesthetic) in their toys, they could increase the effectiveness of their education.

Our indoor hydroponics project in particular could also benefit from the VARK styles – many of our presentations to sponsors and interested parties could potentially be tailored to that person’s VARK strengths. Even without a survey, by assimilating previous lectures and presentations from that professor our group could gain an understanding of the learning methods each sponsor prefers. Additionally, our group could simply prepare a small survey for our most critical stakeholders and explain the reasoning behind our choices – for example why we chose a gradient descent method for our learning or why we chose bamboo for our plant.

Cited References

  • Bednarik, R., & Fränti, P. (2004). Survival of students with different learning preferences. In Proceedings of the 4th Annual Finnish/Baltic Sea Conference on Computer Science Education,  (pp. 121-125). Retrieved from University of Eastern Finland Speech and Image Processing Unit website
  • Claxton, C. S., & Murrell, P. H. (1987). Learning Styles: Implications for Improving Educational Practices. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 4, 1987. Association for the Study of Higher Education, 1 Dupont Circle, Suite 630, Washington, DC 20036. Retrieved from ERICDatabase
  • Curry, L. (1983). An Organization of Learning Styles Theory and Constructs. Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (67th, Montreal, Quebec, April 11-15, 1983). Retrieved from the U.S. Department of Education ERIC Database
  • Felder, R. M., & Silverman, L. K. (1988). Learning and teaching styles in engineering education. Engineering education78(7), 674-681. Retrieved from http://www4.ncsu.edu/unity/lockers/users/f/felder/public/Learning_Styles.html
  • Fleming, N. D. (1995, July). I’m different; not dumb. Modes of presentation (VARK) in the tertiary classroom. In Research and Development in Higher Education, Proceedings of the 1995 Annual Conference of the Higher Education and Research Development Society of Australasia (HERDSA), HERDSA, Vol. 18, pp. 308-313). Retrieved from http://www.vark-learn.com/english/page.asp?p=articles
  • Hawk, T. F., & Shah, A. J. (2007). Using learning style instruments to enhance student learning. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education5(1), 1-19. DOI: 10.1111/j.1540-4609.2007.00125.x
  • Kimmel, H., Carpinelli, J., Burr-Alexander, L., & Rockland, R. (2006, June). Bringing Engineering into K-12 Schools: A Problem Looking for Solutions?. In Proceedings of the 2006 ASEE Annual Conference Session Standards Based Approaches to K -12 Engineering. Retrieved from ASEE Conference Proceedings
  • Lujan, H. L., & DiCarlo, S. E. (2006). First-year medical students prefer multiple learning styles. Advances in Physiology Education30(1), 13-16. DOI: 10.1152/advan.00045.2005

Additional Sources / Recommended Reading

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