Recently my views about those who are multimodal have been extended. Here is my current thinking.

Multimodal preferences dominate the database for all populations and it is clearly the most used set of preferences when making decisions about learning. Usually one third of respondents are in the four-part VARK set and another large group are in the groups who have three or two preferred modalities. This dominance can seem disappointing as some people feel that their special characteristics have been lumped into a largely undistinguished category and inappropriately recognized. It also means that teachers, trainers and coaches may be at odds as to how they might help people those people.

Context Specific Approach

Those who have a multimodal approach to learning and decision-making are now seen in two groups with an indistinct boundary or transition between them. Some learn well like those people with a single preference except that they have two three or four single preferences. They look at the information that has to be learned or conveyed to another person and choose the mode that they believe is the best one for that situation. In a sense they are context specificchoosing the mode that best fits the need. For example, if they are signing a legal document they switch on their Read/write preference. If they have to learn a physical skill they will use their Kinesthetic preference to work with it, to try it, and to become practical. This group switches from mode to mode and they have the flexibility to adapt to a number of different modes both incoming and outgoing. They may sometimes choose a mode incorrectly and when working with them we need to be aware of the mode that they have chosen. We can match their mode or suggest that they switch to a more appropriate one. Blank looks and inappropriate feedback will indicate that they are out-of-sync. From the VARK Questionnaire this group tends to have a low total score between 13 and 26.

Whole-Sense Approach

This second group within the multimodal VARK category uses a number of their modes (2, 3 or all four) in combination, to make decisions,to learn and to present materials to others. They are uncertain about any learning that comes in only one way and they want to reinforce it by adding other modes of input or output. For example in a high school, college or university they may gather some of the ideas from the teacher's oral explanations, and some from discussing and questioning their colleagues. They may add to this by using the textbook or by thinking about some practical applications of the new idea they have learned. They may also use their Visual preference to draw some form of schematic diagram of the material to be learned. These choices above, use their Visual, Aural, Read/write and Kinesthetic preferences. Only by this multiple-use are they satisfied that they really understand something. In a coaching scene they may want to check out any print instructions by chatting with the coach or other athletes or they may want to map out their response in some diagrammatic way. Often they will want to step through a sequence of Visual, Aural or written instructions in some physical or quasi-physical way.

Some, may criticize them for taking a long time to make a decision. That is because they are being careful and gathering a wider view before acting. This group tends to have total VARK scores above 30 though the boundaries are not definite. You may recognise their need to examine things from many perspectives.They may act and decide slowly which may annoy someone who acts quickly and wants to move on.

This last group takes longer to become confident about their learning because they have to gather in two, three or four modes to really understand something. They are not content with half-learning something. Their payback is that, when they do so, their understanding of their new learning is more versatile and more sure than those with only a single preference. This is an advantage if they have to express or assist the learning of others (say, as teachers or tutors) because they will have a deeper and wider understanding of it.They can see things from many perspectives.Their disadvantage is that they may not be able to gather in the many ways that would be satisfying so they often half-learn new material and it is not fully understood. If their teacher, trainer or coach uses only one mode to explain something say a Read/write teacher who uses a textbook most of the time or a coach who only demonstrates techniques, they may have difficulty learning that skill or information. They are unlike those with a single preference because they are reluctant to act on a single mode. They worry about missing other perspectives on a problem or making a major decision on insufficient evidence. In one study of students who asked for help from a learning centre, a high proportion was in this group. Some complained that they did not get enough teaching. Others said there was not enough variety for effective learning.


Another clue to multimodality might be in the order in which people gather information. Maybe they always begin with something written or maybe they start by trying it themselves before asking for help from others. This may indicate that within their VARK multimodality there is a primary mode and that they use the others only as support. They should redo the VARK questionnaire and select only one answer per question. It may indicate a primary preference within their multimodality but even so, they should not base their learning on that alone as they need all preferences

Recently I have noted some similarities between the work done by the Swedish educational theorists, Marton and Saljo who pioneered the approaches-to-learning theories. One of their ideas was that learners approach a learning task in one of three modes. Some approach their learning with the intention of fully understanding it just as one would if you had to teach it next day to somebody else. That is similar to the second group above. They want a full understanding. The second type in Marton and Saljo's work were those who approached their learning in a surface or superficial way. They merely wanted to skim through the tasks and get a very simplistic understanding of it. The third group were those who took a strategic approach - those who used the strategies that would get them a successful outcome. They would learn only enough to satisfy their need for a B-grade or whatever. These learners are probably like the VARK multimodal Type One group above who select material according to the context and their need. This research often gets wrongly stated as deep, surface and strategiclearning. Marton and Saljo state that it is the approach that is deep, surface or strategic not the learning. Learners can shift from one approach to another depending on their mood, the subject being learned or other factors.

I welcome your comments on these distinctions, as applied to VARK.

Neil D Fleming

Designer of the VARK Questionnaire and Resources
Christchurch, New Zealand.

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