We all learn and process new information in our own way. Whereas one student may learn best when the material is taught by a teacher or professor in a structured learning environment, another may need to go home and read the textbook himself, taking copious notes in order to thoroughly understand the information. This is not a new concept; as many different personality types that exist, we cannot all learn the same way. For this reason, many students fail in typical classroom settings and mandated school curriculums; they are then reprimanded for not being good students and for failing classes. They are often compared to other students who may be excelling in the same class, which only makes them feel even more defeated. We cannot measure intelligence using one standard set of tests and assignments when so many different learning styles and preferences exist. I have always wondered how certain people could simply listen to a lecture in class and immediately understand and grasp the material—I was one of those who had to lock myself in a quiet room with no distractions and reread the material myself, furiously scribbling down every point that I found important. This led me to do some digging on the different types of learning that occur, as well as how learning preferences differ from person to person.



To begin, learning does not necessarily depend only on the individual—it can also depend on the situation. An individual who excels in history can remember every minute detail and date, and is fascinated by learning more information about his favorite subject—he is therefore engaged in what is known as “deep” or “meaningful” learning. This same individual may need to take a required calculus class and fail, because he has no interest in the subject; he will, therefore, need to retake the class and memorize all needed formulas just to spew it out during finals, and forget it the minute he walks out of class. This type of learning is referred to as surface learning—learning for a cause other than the learning process itself.

Deep learning is achieved by individuals who seek meaningful learning experiences, and who in turn truly enjoy the learning process. These are the ones who ask a lot of questions, because they need to understand and process what they are learning.

In contrast, the surface learning approach is one in which the individual is not really interested in the material, and may display an aversion to the learning process in general. The individual using the surface learning approach is more committed to memorizing the information for a cause, such as an exam, and is not too concerned about actually understanding the material (Biggs & Tang, 2011).



In 1987, Neil Fleming, a New Zealand high school and university teacher, developed the VARK questionnaire. He states that although the VAK modalities had been around for years, in his work he added the 4th modality—the read/write learning preference, which was previously lumped together with the visual preference. The questionnaire consists of 16 questions, and through the analysis of an individual’s answers to these questions, it is possible to identify his or her learning preference. You can access the questionnaire here: http://vark-learn.com/the-vark-questionnaire/. Fleming writes, in a 2012 article, that his model has been widely misinterpreted, and that the 4 components are simply learning preferences, and not specific learning styles as they have been commonly referred to. The difference lies in that although one may have a tendency to learn best by use of one of those mediums, it does not mean that he or she is unable to retain information obtained through other mediums. This model describes the most commonly known list of learning preferences: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic, to which Fleming later added the read/write preference. Many teachers structure their teaching approaches based on this model. The 4 different preferences are described as follows (VARK, 2016):

  • Visual: this preference can also be described as graphic. Visual learners process new information best through use of graphs, charts, diagrams, and other ways to represent information that could have otherwise been presented in words.
  • Aural/Auditory: these learners prefer lectures, group discussions, radio, or other ways in which they can hear new information. They will frequently repeat information out loud to themselves in order to truly comprehend and process it.
  • Read/write: these individuals learn best through word—they are avid readers and good writers, and excel in written assignments, reports, and essays. They need to take copious notes, often verbatim, in order to understand new material.
  • Kinesthetic: these individuals learn best through personal experience, practice, examples, demonstrations, and case studies. They are more hands-on in their learning, and often need to try things out themselves in order to better grasp new information.

Again, since these are only preferences, and may also be situational, an individual may fall into several categories. When I took the questionnaire, my results were as follows, which did not surprise me at all:

  • Visual: 2
  • Aural: 7
  • Read/Write: 10
  • Kinesthetic: 5



Different learning styles can also be classified in accordance with individual social interaction preferences, and 6 specific learning styles can be described in this context (Grasha, 2002):

Competitive vs. Cooperative:

  • Competitive: these individuals learn in order to perform better than others, and to receive recognition and rewards for their performance. They like being the center of attention in class.
  • Cooperative: these individuals learn best in group environments and thrive on sharing ideas and information with others. They may not always be able to complete projects independently.

Avoidant vs. Participant:

  • Avoidant: these individuals do not enjoy attending or participating in class, they tend to be uninterested in the material and in the learning process overall. They may not be able to set productive goals because they are convinced that they will fail, and these feelings are reinforced by their poor grades and negative feedback from instructors.
  • Participant: these individuals enjoy learning, eagerly participate in class discussions and projects, and are willing to complete optional assignments on top of required tasks. These are the students who will volunteer to tutor others and to share their notes.

Dependent vs. Independent:

  • Dependent: these individuals learn that which is required, but show little curiosity or initiative to learn beyond what is assigned. They depend on the teachers to structure their learning process by assigning specific tasks and providing guidelines. They lack self-direction and handle uncertainty poorly.
  • Independent: these individuals learn best by themselves, and prefer learning that which they deem important; they are confident in their own learning abilities. They are self-directed and prefer working on projects independently as opposed to group projects. These individuals may fail to develop collaborative skills, and are reluctant to ask others for help, which may actually hinder their learning and academic performance.

These learning style classifications are much more rigid than the learning preferences defined by the VARK model, mostly because they are more closely linked to our personality types.

I believe that it is crucial for individuals to understand the ways in which they learn best in order to excel in school, work, and life in general. The most important point that I would like to make is that everyone learns in his or her own way, and should not be penalized or treated as a failure for processing new information in ways other than how it is taught in schools, and measured by standardized tests. It is the responsibility of our teachers, instructors, and professors to be aware of these differences, and to encourage students to learn and excel in their own ways.


Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university. London: Open University Press & Mc Graw–Hill.

Fleming, N. (2012). Facts, fallacies, and myths: VARK and learning preferences. Retrieved from: http://www.vark-learn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Some-Facts-About-VARK.pdf

Grasha, A. F. (2002). Teaching with style: A practical guide to enhancing learning by understanding teaching and learning style. CA: Alliance.

VARK. (2016). The VARK modalities. Vark Learn Limited. Retrieved from: http://vark-learn.com/introduction-to-vark/the-vark-modalities/?p=categories