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Vark Preferred Learning Styles and Online Education

by William A. Drago and Richard J. Wagner Abstract It has become evident that students have diverse preferred learning styles and effective instructors must design and deliver courses to meet the needs of those students. This study investigates the four physiological learning styles of visual, aural, read-write and kinesthetic as they apply to online education. Findings suggest that online students are more likely to have stronger visual and read-write learning styles. Further, read-write learners and students that were strong across all four learning styles were likely to evaluate course effectiveness lower than other students while aural/readwrite learners and students that were not strong on any learning style were more likely to evaluate course effectiveness higher than other students. Introduction Over the past two decades educators and education theorists have been interested in the importance of students preferred learnng styles and their impact on performance in the classroom. Learning style refers to the differences that exist between individuals in how they best learn. As noted by Corno and Snow (1986) achieving success in education is dependent on the ability to adapt teaching to individual differences of students. A teacher must create an environment where the needs of a variety of learners can be met. Online delivery of education has become an important component of higher education. Online MBA degree programmes have risen from five in 1989 to approximately 95 currently (Dolezalek, 2003). Online enrolment in higher education is approximately 2% of the total and is expected to increase by 40% annually (Dolezalek, 2003). However, are these quality programmes? While there is growing evidence that there is little or no difference between the quality and effectiveness of online courses in comparison to traditional ones many remain skeptical. Students have not rushed to online degree programmes as quickly as forecasted (Mangan, 2001). On the hiring side, many corporate recruiters and HR professionals seem to question the credibility of e-degrees (Dolezalek, 2003). A large research base has developed concerning learning styles in the traditional classroom. Dimensions of learning styles studied include cognitive, affective, physiological and psychological (Dunn, Beaudry, and Klavas, 1989). Instructors are encouraged to teach to various learning styles by using a variety of teaching methods.

Biographical Notes

William A. Drago and Richard J. Wagner can

be contacted at the College of Business and Economics, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Whitewater, WI 53190, USA.

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Vark Preferred Learning Style and Online Education

Research directed at learning styles and online course delivery is relatively undeveloped. Yet this may be found to be an inherent weakness of online courses and programmes. Can online courses be designed to meet the needs of various learners? Is there anything about taking courses through a computer that teaches to some learning styles but does not others? Online education is here to stay, but if quality education is expected through this mode of delivery, its relationship to various learning styles should be investigated. This study considers the learning styles of online MBA students in management classes at a large regional university in the Midwestern United States. The study examines the perceived level of overall effectiveness of a course based on the physiological preferred learning style of the student to determine if students with certain physiological learning styles perceive greater or lesser satisfaction than others through online delivery. Review Learning involves remembering and often some type of skilful performance after studying (Ross, Maureen, Schultz, 2001). Studying can be seen as a process that involves taking information and then processing that information. How a person learns can be impacted by numerous factors. These factors can be seen as dimensions to the study of learning styles. Learning styles should be seen as having at least four general dimensions (Dunn, Beaudry and Klavas, 1989). These include: 1) 2) Cognitive how individuals typically process information as they perceive, think, solve problems, remember and relate to others. Affective views learning as it relates to a persons personality. Considers such characteristics as attention, emotion, motivation, incentive, curiosity, boredom, anxiety and frustration. Physiological views learning as it relates to biological characteristics. For instance, what senses (auditory, visual or kinesthetic) are used for learning. Psychological views learning as it relates to the inner strength and individuality of the individual.

3)

4)

It is important to teach to a diversity of learning styles. Using various teaching methods helps maintain students interest and meet their individual needs (Gunawardena and Boverie, 1993). Activities that have been used in the traditional classroom include lectures, discussions, teamwork activities and experiential learning activities (Kemp and Seagraves, 1995; McKeachie, 1994; Magnen, 1989; Sarasin, 1998). As noted previously, research on the link between learning styles and online education is underdeveloped. Yet, as enrolment in online courses and programmes continue to grow some assurance should be made that online

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education will be as good as traditional if not better. Future online students should expect not only high quality education but also a student-centred focus in that the course be designed to meet their individual needs (Diaz and Cartnal, 1999). Do students that enroll in online courses have different learning styles than those that enroll in traditional ones? Diaz and Cartnal (1999) found in a comparison of one online course with one traditional course that the online students were more independent. They preferred to work alone rather than with others. This is consistent with Grasha and Yangarber-Hicks (2000) view that students interested in technology-based courses are more independent learners who prefer a more abstract way of thinking. Diaz and Cartnal (1999) also found that the online students were less dependent on their learning styles as learners. In other words, their preferred learning style was not as key to the learning process as it was in traditional students. Very little attention has been given to the physiological dimension of the study of learning styles and online education. A popular typology for this dimension is VARK (Visual, Aural, Read/write and Kinesthetic). A brief description of these learning styles can be found below: 1) Visual: visual learners like to be provided demonstrations and can learn through descriptions. They like to use lists to maintain pace and organise their thoughts. They remember faces but often forget names. They are distracted by movement or action but noise usually does not bother them. Aural: aural learners learn by listening. They like to be provided with aural instructions. They enjoy aural discussions and dialogues and prefer to work out problems by talking. They are easily distracted by noise. Read/write: read/write learners are note takers. They do best by taking notes during a lecture or reading difficult material. They often draw things to remember them. They do well with hands-on projects or tasks. Kinesthetic: kinesthetic learners learn best by doing. Their preference is for hands-on experiences. They are often high energy and like to make use of touching, moving and interacting with their environment. They prefer not to watch or listen and generally do not do well in the classroom. Source: (www.geocities.com/-educationplace)

Vark Preferred Learning Style and Online Education

2)

3)

4)

Research Question There are two research questions investigated in this study. The first is whether online programmes attract students with different physiological learning styles. Because this is largely an exploratory investigation no specific hypotheses are given. However, the visual and read/write styles seem

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Vark Preferred Learning Style and Online Education

likely to be suitable for online courses. Online courses can be designed to stimulate the visual learner with animation, hypertext and video clicks (Ross and Schulz, 1999). Read/write learners enjoy and learn taking notes and drawing as they listen to lectures or read difficult material. This would seem to fit a delivery mode where you can sit in on the class on your own time and place. The aural learning style is also a possibility as most online lectures come with audio as well as written notes. However, having made audio/visual files for online classes the authors hesitate to say that they are the equivalent of a classroom experience. Further, online discussions tend to be in written form which does not fit best with this type of learner. While the kinesthetic learner has a difficult time in the classroom he/she is unlikely to do much better in online classes. The exception may be working students. Online programmes may attract more full time working students who can immediately apply course content to their jobs. The second research question asks what is the relationship between learning style and perceived online course effectiveness. Again no specific hypotheses are put forth. Online courses that offer strong visual content should lead to higher perceptions of effectiveness by visual learners. The read/write learner may perceive higher course effectiveness by providing a delivery mode that allows them the ability to take notes and doodle at their own pace and place. Online courses with strong auditory content would be perceived as effective for aural learners but most courses and programmes have not reached this point in the development of their courses. Instructors used to talking in front of a class are not necessarily as strong speaking into a microphone at their computer. Kinesthetic learners will not gain much from the online course alone, but if it can be tied to their work life there could be a large benefit for these hard to please students. Research Design The study was carried out at a large Midwestern university during the fall and spring semesters of 2002-2003. This universitys College of Business had begun offering online classes six years before and the online courses were now a large portion of the MBA programme. Of all MBA students taking courses, approximately 2/3 took them online. While it was possible to take the programme completely online, the vast majority of students lived within driving distance so that they had a choice of taking classes online or through the traditional classroom. Online courses emphasised strong interaction between students with weekly discussions and group assignments. The instructor was also expected to provide quick feedback, answer student questions in a timely manner and participate in discussions. The instructor of an online course developed a CD prior to the class with course content and administrative content usually in the form of audio/visual files. Data was collected from students of 11 MBA management courses at the end of each semester. Eight courses were online while three were tradi-

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tional. The survey consisted of two parts. In Part One students were directed to go to http://www.vark-earn.com/english/page.asp?p=questionnaire and take the VARK learning style survey. The VARK learning style survey provides a rule-of-thumb measure of four physiological learning styles; visual, aural, read/write and kinesthetic. Once the students obtained their scores for the four learning styles they were directed to go to the questionnaire provided by the authors and then fill in their VARK scores and answer 41 questions concerned with teaching and course effectiveness. Four global or overall effectiveness questions were included and used in this study. These were: This course contributes to preparation for my professional career, I would recommend this course to friends/colleagues, I have learned a lot in this course, and I have enjoyed taking this course. Three-hundred and twenty six questionnaires were returned out of a total of 527 students. This represented a 61.9% response rate. For comparison purposes 241 responses were returned from online students out of a total of 431 students (55.9%). For traditional classes 85 of 96 students returned questionnaires (89%). Some basic statistics on measures of the four learning styles are provided in Table 1.

Vark Preferred Learning Style and Online Education

Table 1: Descriptive Statistics N Minimum Maximum


Visual score Aural score Read/write score Kinesthetic score Valid N (listwise) 319 319 318 316 316 0 0 0 0 9 10 12 11

Mean
3.27 3.14 4.65 4.33

Std Deviation
1.787 2.126 2.253 1.712

For the VARK survey individuals answer 13 questions. Students can give multiple answers for each question. Total points possible on each learning style is 13. (www.vark-learn.com) An independent samples t-test for equality of means was used to compare mean responses on each of four learning styles of those students taking online courses with those taking traditional ones. These results can be seen in Table 2. Pearson Correlation coefficients were used to determine associations between learning styles. These results are shown in Table 3. Respondents were then divided into sixteen categories according to the type/s of learning style/s they scored above the mean for all respondents. These categories and the mean scores of students on the course effectiveness index as well as the four single item overall measures of course effectiveness are shown in Table 4. The course effectiveness index was determined

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Vark Preferred Learning Style and Online Education

by summing responses of the four individual course effectiveness items. An independent samples t-test for equality of means was used to compare mean responses on course effectiveness of those students that fit a particular category with those that did not. Significant differences in means are highlighted. Results Table 2 provides the independent samples t-test for equality of means analysis to determine if online students had different learning styles than their traditional counterparts. Online students scored higher on three learning styles; visual, aural and read/write. For both the visual and read/write learning styles the difference was highly significant.

Table 2: Group Statistics TYPECLAS N Mean


Visual score Online Classroom Aural score Online Classroom Read/write score Online Classroom Kinesthetic score Online Classroom * p < 0.10 ** p < 0.05 *** p < 0.01 238 81 238 81 237 81 237 79

Std. Std. Error Deviation Mean


1.839 1.573 2.132 2.112 2.264 2.132 1.735 1.651 .119 .175 .138 .235 .147 .237 .113 .186

3.40** 2.89**
3.19 2.99

4.84*** 4.07***
4.31 4.38

Table 3: Correlations Aural score


Visual score Pearson Correlation Sig. (2-tailed) N Aural score Pearson Correlation Sig. (2-tailed) N Read/write score Pearson Correlation Sig. (2-tailed) N

.098 .080
319

Read/write score
-.070 .212 318 .077 .174 318

Kinesthetic score .117 .038


316 .066 316 .066

-.199 .000
316

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Table 3 provides Pearson correlation coefficients for the four measures of learning styles. The learning styles did show some significant interactions. The visual learning style was positively correlated with the aural and kinesthetic learning styles while the read/write learning style was strongly and negatively correlated with the kinesthetic learning style. Table 4 shows the distribution of online students across 16 categories according to the number of learning styles they scored above the mean for all respondents. As can be seen from the table students were fairly evenly distributed across all 16 categories. Eighty-nine students were found to have one dominant learning style representing 37.6% of the total. By far the largest of this group were the read/write learners which made up 16% of the total number of online students. There were also eight students that failed to score above the mean on any learning style. This represented 3.4% of all respondents. Fifty-nine percent of the students scored above the mean on two or more learning styles. This is consistent with past studies using the VARK instrument that found approximately 55-70% of students had multi-modal learning styles (www.vark-learn.com) Of the sixteen categories analysed only four had mean course effectiveness levels below the level of their counterparts that did not fit that particular category. These included read-write learners, visual/read-write learners, aural/kinesthetic learners and visual/aural/read-write/kinesthetic learners. In two cases the difference in means was significant. These included the read-write and visual/aural/read-write/kinesthetic categories. In only one instance was the mean global effectiveness index score of a set of learners significantly higher than those not in the set. That group was the aural/read-write learners. It might also be noted that learners that did not have a dominant learning style scored significantly higher on the I learned a lot global effectiveness item. The same analysis was not performed on the traditional students due to the small sample size and large number of categories. Discussion As noted previously the online programme at this university was approximately six years old at the time of the data collection. Courses had changed over this time through evolution and learning by instructors and administrators. Students had likely developed some knowledge of the differences that existed between online and traditional courses. Further, the vast majority of courses in the MBA programme are available both online and in the traditional classroom. All courses used in the study were available through both modes of delivery although not necessarily in the same semester. Approximately two-thirds of the MBA students take both online and traditional courses through their MBA programme. While the online programme attracts students throughout the United States and internationally the majority of students live within driving distance of the university or one of its two off

Vark Preferred Learning Style and Online Education

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Table 4: Independent Samples T-test for Equality of Means Effectiveness Prepare for Would Learned a Index Career Recommend Lot
Index Category Visual Remainder Aural Remainder Read/write Remainder Kinesthetic Remainder Visual & Aural Remainder Visual & Read/write Remainder Visual & Kinesthetic Remainder Aural & Read/write Remainder Aural & Kinesthetic Remainder Read/write & Kinesthetic Remainder Visual, Aural & Read/write Remainder Visual, Aural & Kinesthetic Remainder N 12 225 20 217 38 199 19 218 10 227 17 220 18 219 15 222 13 224 14 223 8 229 9 228 Mean 17.1667 15.9467 16.4500 15.9677 Mean Score 4.25 4.04 4.20 4.04 Mean Score 4.33 4.01 4.15 4.02 Mean Score 4.33 3.99 4.05 4.00

Enjoyed
Mean Score 4.25 3.91 4.05 3.91

14.5263*** 16.2915***
16.3684 15.9771 17.1000 15.9604 15.1765 16.0727 16.0556 16.0046

3.76** 4.11**
4.21 4.04 4.00 4.05 4.00 4.05 4.11 4.05

3.63** 4.11**
4.05 4.03 4.30 4.02 3.76 4.05 4.00 4.03

3.66** 4.07**
4.11 4.50 4.50 3.98 3.76 4.02 4.00 4.00 4.20 3.99 3.69 4.02 4.29 3.99 4.25 4.00 4.00 4.00

3.47*** 4.01***
4.00 4.30 4.30 3.91 3.65 3.95 3.94 3.92

17.8667* 15.8829*
14.7692 16.0804 16.7857 15.9596 16.8750 15.9782 16.1111 16.0044

4.47* 4.02*
3.77 4.07 4.07 4.05 4.25 4.04 4.11 4.05

4.60** 3.99**
3.77 4.04 4.36 4.01 4.25 4.02 4.11 4.03

4.60*** 3.88***
3.54 3.95 4.07 3.91 4.13 3.92 3.89 3.93

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Table 4: Independent Samples T-test for Equality of Means Effectiveness Prepare for Would Learned a Index Career Recommend Lot
Index Category Visual, Read/write & Kinesthetic Remainder Aural, Read/write & Kinesthetic Remainder Visual, Aural, Read/write & Kinesthetic Remainder None Remainder * p < 0.01 ** p < 0.05 N 10 227 7 230 19 218 8 229 *** p < 0.01 Mean 17.0000 15.9648 17,7143 15.9565 Mean Score 4.10 4.05 4.43 4.04 Mean Score 4.30 4.02 4.43 4.02 Mean Score 4.30 3.99 4.43 3.99

Enjoyed
Mean Score 4.30 3.91 4.43 3.91

14.0000** 16.1835**
17.8750 15.9432

3.68* 4.08*
4.25 4.04

3.42*** 4.08***
4.63 4.01

3.47** 4.05** 4.63* 3.98*

3.42** 3.97**
4.38 3.91

site locations for teaching classes. All of this suggests that many students have the knowledge to select the mode of delivery that best suits them and can meet the physical requirements of either mode of delivery. This makes it possible for students to decide or choose based on their preferred learning style. Given this choice, the fact that there was a significant difference in the mean scores of two learning styles, suggests that perhaps learning styles do play a part in the decision to take online or traditional courses. The online courses may be attracting visual learners because so much of the content is visual coming through the computer screen. As noted previously, online courses may attract read-write learners due to their ability to step into the course on their own time and at a place convenient to them. This gives them the ability to take notes and draw pictures as they study course materials. It might also be noted that there were no findings to suggest that traditional programmes attracted a particular learning style over the online mode of delivery. While the kinesthetic mean for traditional students was slightly higher than for online it was not significant. Online courses and programmes could probably do a better job of attracting aural and kinesthetic learners. Innovations in information technol-

Vark Preferred Learning Style and Online Education

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Vark Preferred Learning Style and Online Education

ogy are making it more feasible to transmit sound as part of the content of the course and to use it more in terms of delivery of the course to students. Besides offering audio/visual lectures of course material instructors can also provide audio feedback on projects and assignments. It may also be possible to carry out discussions aurally by having students submit their entries using sound bits rather than the written word. Attracting kinesthetic learners may be more difficult. Ross, et al. (1998) suggests creating assignments where students can practice their problem solving skills and encourage them to develop creative solutions, brain storming, engaging students in interactive activities and doing physical activities are ways to reach the kinesthetic student. For working students it may be possible to let them somehow bring their workplace into the learning process. Perhaps by encouraging them to talk about course material and how it applies to their work. The associations between physiological learning styles may indicate why so many multi-modal learners were found among respondents and in past studies using the VARK survey instrument. Because all four are linked together (visual was positively associated with aural and kinesthetic while read-write was negatively associated with kinesthetic) it may be possible to consider these as one dimension with high visual/aural/kinesthetic on one end of the continuum and high read-write on the other end. Certainly the strength of the association between read-write and kinesthetic suggests that these be treated as two ends of a continuum. This gives us insight to these two types of learners. Read-write learners were originally described as enjoying hands-on projects. This they had in common with kinesthetic learners. However, as the opposite of kinesthetic perhaps strong read-write learners like to learn in a vacuum. They do not want to do they want to know. They do not want to physically practice. They simply want to understand. Kinesthetic learners are not likely to be able to sit alone and listen quietly and patiently to a lecture whether it is given online or in the classroom. There is at least one problem area uncovered for online courses in terms of satisfying all learning styles. Read-write learners, a group that online courses seem to be attracting, tended to view the effectiveness of the course lower than others. Perhaps it is difficult to find a good time and place to take notes and draw while they are in the course. The vacuum they seek (if they are indeed opposite of kinesthetic learners) may be hard to find as they log-on during lunch-breaks or while dealing with family issues at home. Perhaps they find that their notes have already been made available by the instructor yet the learning does not take place because they are not the note takers. Another possible problem is that students that are strong in all four learning styles tend to view a course as less effective than others. Perhaps these learners require that needs for all four learning styles must be present in order to be satisfied. This would possibly explain why their opposite,

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learners with no strong learning styles tended to view course effectiveness higher. If so, students with all four learning styles as dominant are probably pretty critical of most delivery modes including the traditional classroom. Thirteen of the sixteen categories investigated had mean course effectiveness scores higher than those not in the category. This provides some indication that online courses do seem to meet the needs of most learner types. Aural/read-write learners perceived significantly greater course effectiveness than others not in the category. So while read-write learners went unsatisfied with online courses the students with the combination of aural/read-write learning styles were very satisfied. The combination of aural and read-write may be a natural combination or a learned learning style. Students listen to lecture material, try to make sense of it, take notes to provide clues to their thinking pattern and learn. Sounds like the perfect student for a lecture type class. One wonders how this group would perceive a traditional classroom. Conclusion The need to teach to diverse learning styles has been stressed in literature concerned with providing quality education. As enrolment in online programmes continues to grow some assurance must be made that these courses can satisfy the needs of various learner types. This study investigated the link between VARK learning styles and online course delivery. Six important results of the study are worth restating: 1) 2) 3) 4) 5) 6) Online courses seem to be attracting students with high visual and read-write learning styles. The visual learning style is positively and significantly associated with the aural and kinesthetic learning styles. The read-write learning style was strongly and negatively associated with the kinesthetic learning style. Read-write learners appear to be less satisfied with online delivery. Students with all four learning styles as dominant were less satisfied with online delivery. Aural/read-write learners were highly satisfied with online courses.

Vark Preferred Learning Style and Online Education

There are a number of limitations to this study that should be mentioned. Online education is a relatively new phenomenon. Courses and programmes may vary considerably from one institution to another. So generalising these results to other programmes may be misleading. It is likely that any programme and even courses within programmes will have their own unique associations with students learning styles and should be investigated separately. Sample size is also a concern. Because the sample is divided into 16

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Vark Preferred Learning Style and Online Education

groups to compare means on course effectiveness, several groups had relatively few members. A larger sample may have led to more significant relationships. Finally the data may suffer from data loss and sample selection problems common to end-of-semester student evaluations. Students who drop the course are not observed (Becker, 1997). Further research concerned with the interaction between learning styles and online education is certainly warranted. If online education is to reach a quality level equal to or even higher than the traditional classroom methods must be developed to satisfy all learners. If this is not possible future students should be aware of the limitations of the different modes of educational delivery in their ability to satisfy their particular learning styles.

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References Becker, W. (1997) Teaching economics to undergraduates. Journal of Economic Literature 35 (September), pp.1347-1373. Corno, L. and Snow, R.E. (1986) Adapting Teaching to Individual Differences Among Learners, in M.C. Wittrock (Ed.), Handbook of Resources on Teaching, pp.605-629. Diaz, David P., Cartnal, Ryan B. (1999) Students Learning Styles in Two Classes, College Teaching, Vol. 47, Issue 4. Dolezalek, H. Online degrees. Training, 40(5), pp.26-30. Dunn, R., Beaudry, J., Klavas, A. (1989) Survey Research on Learning Styles. Education Leadership, 46, pp.50-58. Grasha, Anthony F., Yangarber-Hicks, Natalia (2000) Integrating Teaching Styles and Learning Styles with Instructional Technology, College Teaching, Vol. 48, Issue 1. Gunawardena, C. and Boverie, P.L. (1993) Impact of Learning Styles on Instructional Design for Distance Education. Paper presented at the World Conference on the International Council of Distance Education, Houston. Kemp, I.J., and Seagraves, L. (1985) Transferable Skills Can Higher Education Deliver? Studies in Higher Education, 20(3), pp.315-328. Mangan, K. (2001) Expectations evaporate for online MBA programs. Chronicle of Higher Education, 48(6), pp.A31-A32. Magnen, B. (1989) Practical Tips for Teaching Professors. Madison, Wis.: Magna Publications. McKeachie, W.J. (1994) Teaching Tips: Strategies, Research and Theory for College and University Teachers. Lexington, Mass.: D.C. Health. Ross, Jonathan L., Schultz, Robert A. (1999) Using the world wide web to accommodate diverse learning styles, College Teaching, Vol. 47, Issue 4. Ross, Jonathan L., Maureen, T.B., Schultz, Robert A. (2001) Cognitive Learning Styles and Academic Performance in Two Postsecondary Computer Application Courses, Journal of Research on Computing in Education, Vol. 33, Issue 4. Sarasin, L.C. (1998) Learning Styles Perspectives: Impact in the Classroom. Madison, Wis.: Atwood Publishing.(www.vark-learn.com) Vark Preferred Learning Style and Online Education

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