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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

Junior G Wade Taylor IV (4) covers his face after a missed point during Texas A&Ms game against Arkansas on Feb. 20, 2024 at Reed Arena. (Jaime Rowe/The Battalion)
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Ali Camarillo (2) waiting to see if he got the out during Texas A&Ms game against UIW on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024 at Olsen Field. (Hannah Harrison/The Battalion)
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Opinion: Shot in the VARK

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With the 2021 fall semester reaching the halfway point, Texas A&M students reflect on how returning to in-person learning has contributed to stress. 

We’ve all been there: early elementary or middle school when the teacher passed out little quizzes designed to find our “perfect” learning style. What exactly are these learning styles, and is there any truth behind them?
If you’ve taken one of these tests, it likely utilized the visual, aural, reading/writing and kinesthetic, or VARK, learning style. The VARK model has persevered in education for decades. Its theory centers around the idea that people learn best when information is presented in a certain way. Each letter in the acronym corresponds to one of the following “learning styles.”
Visual learners are believed to retain information best when information is presented — well, visually. For example, when learning to perform a new skill such as a dance, a visual learner would presumably benefit most from viewing someone else’s performance.
Aural learners are best served when information is relayed through audible instruction. In the dance example, this would be someone explaining aloud how to perform it.
If you would rather read instructions on how to perform the dance, you would supposedly be a reading/writing learner.
And, finally, if you learn best by copying another person as they perform the dance, you would be considered a kinesthetic learner, also known as a hands-on or tactile learner.
This model was created in 1987 by Neil Fleming, but the concept of learning styles has been around since the 1970s. In the decades since, VARK has managed to plant itself in just about every classroom in the U.S.
Influence and prevalence aside, these are the facts: there is absolutely no conclusive evidence that learning styles exist. In fact, most studies that set out to substantiate learning style theories found contradicting evidence.
For example, a 2010 study found that, while people do have preferred modes of learning, they perform equally well regardless of which method they used. Their preferred learning style is just that — a preference, with no bearing on retention or understanding.
Other critics of learning style theory have cited the idea that preferred methods will vary with what is being taught. I’ll give you an example: I’m going to teach you to tie a bowline knot, first in reading/writing style, and then in kinesthetic style.
Find a piece of string or a shoelace. Take one end in your right hand and the tail in your left. With the tail, make a circle in the string with the lower string passing over the higher. Take the end of the string and pass it through the loop, around the upper tail and back through the loop. Tighten by pulling the end of the string.
Convoluted, right?
Or, instead, I hand you some rope, sit down and show you how to tie it. Odds are, this second option is much more effective.
This idea of multimodal preferences is only one example of VARK’s invalidity. Despite the lack of confirmatory studies, learning styles have retained their popularity for decades.
Why?
For one, people are suckers for categorization. Consider Buzzfeed quizzes for instance. You see a clickbait title like, “We Know The Name Of Your Next Lover Based On The Food You Order From McDonald’s,” and monkey brain says, “We have to know!”
A lot of this draw stems from a desire to discover more about ourselves. More specifically, the desire to realize that each individual is unique and special. A certain measure of satisfaction comes from reaching the end of the “Which Cereal Are You?” quiz and seeing that only 15% of people share your illustrious title of Corn Pops.
The same can be said of learning styles. We like being able to say we’re a certain type of person — special, in our own way. This often leads to bonding with other people of the same classification. Think Hogwarts houses; back in the early 2000s, you could make friends just because you were both Hufflepuffs.
This model also removes a measure of accountability. You didn’t goof the problem because you’re not smart enough, it was because it was presented in a format that didn’t align with your learning style.
Giving people an excuse for failure is a huge draw of learning style theory, especially as it pertains to children. We may know that we’re not the sharpest lightbulb in the toolshed, but we instinctively believe our kids are God’s gift to mankind. Being able to blame their inadequacy on the teacher instead of our parentage or genetics makes us feel better.
Despite their popularity, learning styles such as VARK are wholly ineffective. They provide an enticing solution to an age-old problem, but the result is foundationless and can prove to be more harmful than helpful.
So, I guess you could say the whole theory is just a shot in the VARK.
Charis Adkins is an English sophomore and opinion writer for The Battalion.

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