A key thought to keep in mind is “Not everyone learns the same way I do.” Individuals have learning preferences i.e. students may favour one mode of teaching over another. This is not fixed in all situations and can change depending on task and context. To optimise learning experiences, it is preferable to use a variety of methods that will appeal to different individuals (Health Education & Training Institute, 2012).

Some educationalists suggest educators assess the learning styles of their students and adapt their classroom methods to fit each student's learning style. Critics say there is no evidence that identifying an individual student's learning style produces better outcomes and others suggest strengthening underutilised styles in order to become better equipped to learn from a wide range of everyday experiences (Honey & Mumford, 2006).

There is a current debate in the literature regarding the value of using learning preferences in Clinical Education. Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E. and Ecclestone, K. (2004) completed a literature review entitled "Should we be using Learning Styles? What research has to say to practice". They conclude that it matters fundamentally which model is chosen. In order to maintain Evidence Based Practice, as a Clinical Educator, it is important to have an understanding of the theories and consider the current evidence before applying into your practice. We therefore recommend that you read this literature review before deciding if and how you apply learning styles when working as a Clinical Educator. 

There are many different models of learning styles. The following are examples of well known models with associated questionnaires to assess a learner’s style.

Honey and Mumfords’ model (2006) classifies a learner as a

  • Reflector - Prefers to learn from activities that allow them to watch, think, and review (time to think things over) what has happened.
  • Theorist - Prefer to think problems through in a step-by-step manner. Likes systems, case studies, models and readings. Talking with experts is normally not helpful.
  • Pragmatist - Prefers to apply new learnings to actual practice to see if they work. Likes clinical placement with feedback and coaching. 
  • Activist - Prefers the challenges of new experiences, involvement with others, assimilation and role-playing. Likes anything new, problem solving and small group discussions.

The VARK Questionnaire assesses a learner’s preference for the use of sensory modalities that are used for learning information. The acronym VARK stands for Visual (graphic), Aural, Read/write (text) and Kinesthetic (concrete experience: simulated or real) sensory modalities. Within this categorisation, a learner may be multimodal (i.e. equal preference from all, swap from one preference to another depending on context or requires input from all to make a decision). 

So what does a clinician do with this knowledge? 

If the student knows they have a learning preference, you may wish to teach difficult concepts in their preferred style. However, teaching should include all formats to reflect real-life learning across different contexts.

Review your personal teaching approach and practices. Ensure a variety of approaches are utilised, not just those that reflect your own preferences or learning experiences (i.e. “we teach as we were taught”).

If you and a student are struggling to connect when teaching, you may wish to apply a learning style questionnaire to gain an understanding of their preferences. You might wish to discuss the accessibility of questionnaires with the student.  Most questionnaires are available online at a cost.