Why your presentation shouldn’t worry about VAK

If I had a pound for everyone who came to me citing the VAK model, I’d be a rich man. In case you’ve managed to avoid hearing about it, the basic idea is that people have a preference for how they take in information – they’re either visual learners, auditory learners or kinaesthetic learners. If you want people to take on board what you’re saying you need to match their learning styles.

A lot of people have taken that idea further, saying that you can figure out people’s preferences from the kinds of phrases they give you. For example:

  • a visual learner would say “I see what you mean”
  • an auditory learner would say “I hear you, yes!”
  • a kinesthetic learner would say “I feel you’re right”

What that means for presenters is that we need to hit three different modes of delivery – which (by definition) means we’re also trying to use modes that aren’t our native, defaults modes. Obviously this is going to cause extra anxiety for presenters, but if it mans our audiences do better out of it, it’s probably worth it. Unfortunately there are a couple of problems with the VAK model which I’ll discuss below. For now, lets take a moment to look at it’s origins and a few of its features. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I first came across the VAK model when I was being brow-beaten by NLP trainers and ‘Master Partitioners” which did rather flavour my opinion of it, as they were to a man (no women involved) obnoxious about it.)

Origins and development of the VAK model

To be totally honest, the origins are lost in the mists of (internet) time, and finding a definitive statement of who ‘invented’ the model is easier said than done! As far as I can tell, it grew out of work as far back as early in the 1900s, for teaching children with learning difficulties such as dyslexia. It was pretty much formalised in 1979 in a book called “Teaching through modality strengths : concepts and practices” by Walter Burke Barbe; Raymond H Swassing; Michael N Milone.

Adding the fourth mode, R, for writing/reading to create the VARK model was the brainchild of Neil Fleming in 1987.

As things stand now, VAK is all over the web, with free tests available online left, right and centre, and a whole industry built on providing testing for preferences – and training people who to handle them. A search for VAK on Google just gave me nearly 24million returns! The top hit is the usually excellent Business Balls site. (http://www.businessballs.com/vaklearningstylestest.htm)

So how valid is VAK and what does that mean for presenters?

Good question. And it’s one that’s been researched quite a bit – not from the point of view of presentations but from other perspectives, which give us quite a strong steer. For example, in 2006, research into the preferences of medical undergraduates got a thorough investigation. (The logic here is that medicine is difficult and expensive to teach, so anything that makes it better and/or more efficient deserves to be looked at carefully.).

The VARK model barely survives a quick review of the results. In summary

  • barely over a third of students had a single preference
  • of these, the massive majority of about 18% of them were kinisthetic learnings, perhaps the least useful option for presenters to work with
  • of the two thirds that had more than one preference, a whopping 43.4% (of the 64% of multiple preference learners) opted for “all four” modes

Now hear this…  a model of four modes in which the largest single group is ‘all four modes’ isn’t particularly helpful. Perhaps as presenters we can relax about hitting all the VARK buttons in our presentations.

Or perhaps medial students are special and the people you’re presenting to are different to that? Malaysian students of Pharmacy reported a majority of single-mode learners – so far so good for the VAK model, but as a large majority of them were visual learners it’s tempting to just not worry about the non-visual learners.

On the other hand, I’ve just read another research paper looking at medical students again, where there were absolutely no uni-modal, visual learners in the data and the majority were multi-modal. Yes, you read that right – in comparison to the study I’ve just cited where visual learners where the majority of uni-mode people, this time there wasn’t a single one! It’s not looking good for VAK 🙂

And as a research scientist of two and a half decades experience, I have to add that any model where results for more-or-less the same question were so very different doesn’t speak well of the model being studied. It’s more likely that the modes in question were artefacts of the analysis than valid phenomena in the data itself.

But what happens if we take the idea of VAK (or VARK) back towards its roots and apply it to children? Well to cut a lot of fuss down, the TES (Times Educational Supplement, more or less the definitive publication for UK teachers, at least) describes this sort of thing as a “lost cause”. Another nail in the coffin. Other research I’ve read says that when teachers try their damndest to integrate all modes in the VA(R)K model, one thing happens and another doesn’t.  What happens is that the teachers got tired and stressed: the thing that didn’t happen was any change in the pupil’s performance. Yet another nail.


On the other hand… no one is saying that some people don’t have different ability to remember things that are visual, or aural etc. It’s just that this isn’t particularly linked to how people learn things in presentations. Mind you, as long ago as back in 2008, Professor Daniel Willingham was on YouTube (so long ago the format is all wrong! 🙂 ) explaining why the VAK model for learning styles has holes in it big enough to drive a double-deck bus through!

So what’s the alternative?

Match the medium to your message, not the audience.

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For my 25th wedding anniversary I learned to waltz, in secret, as a surprise for my wife. (Yes, yes, I’m a romantic, deal with it.) While I suppose it’s possible to learn that visually, by watching the dancers on Strictly Come Dancing for example, it’s a damn site easier to learn it by doing it (kinesthetic): and I suspect it’s bloody difficult to learn to waltz by having it described only, which is what the VAK model implies.
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Or try this one…  what about a presentation on the Mona Lisa. Audio is tricky, I’d say. And heaven help you if you try and touch the paining 😉

Given that the VAK model is, well, more or less tosh, how should you decide what medium to use for each presentation?

To be honest, the answer is pretty simple in concept, but much more complicated in practice. At its most simple, you should use the medium which best suits your content (your audience is less important).

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