15:19 PM

390 - The Spring 2021 Teaching Edition: Learning Styles and Mentoring Learners

Take 3 – Practical Practice Pointers©

From the Education Literature

1) The VARK Model: Understanding Various Learning Styles

The VARK Model is a simple inventory of learning modalities used to describe four basic types of experiences that are used for learning information. The acronym VARK stands for Visual, Aural, Read/write, and Kinesthetic. A learner may fall into one distinct type, but many are combinations of multiple types and known as “Multimodal” learners.

  • Visual: This preference includes the depiction of information in maps, spider diagrams, charts, graphs, flow charts, labelled diagrams, and all the symbolic arrows, circles, hierarchies and other devices, that people use to represent what could have been presented in words. It does NOT include still pictures or photographs of reality, movies, videos or PowerPoint. It does include designs, whitespace, patterns, shapes and the different formats that are used to highlight and convey information. It must be more than mere words in boxes.
  • Aural: This perceptual mode describes a preference for information that is “heard or spoken.” Learners who have this as their main preference report that they learn best from lectures, group discussion, radio, using mobile phones, speaking, web-chat and talking things through. The Aural preference includes talking out loud as well as talking to oneself. Often people with this preference want to sort things out by speaking first, rather than sorting out their ideas and then speaking. They may say again what has already been said, or ask an obvious and previously answered question. They have a need to say it themselves and they learn through saying it.
  • Reading/Writing: This preference is for information displayed as words. This preference emphasizes text-based input and output – reading and writing in all its forms but especially manuals, reports, essays and assignments. People who prefer this modality are often addicted to PowerPoint, the Internet, lists, diaries, dictionaries, thesauri, quotations and words, words, words.
  • Kinesthetic: By definition, this modality refers to the “perceptual preference related to the use of experience and practice (simulated or real).” Although such an experience may invoke other modalities, the key is that people who prefer this mode are connected to reality, “either through concrete personal experiences, examples, practice or simulation.” It includes demonstrations, simulations, videos and movies of “real” things, as well as case studies, practice and applications. If it can be grasped, held, tasted, or felt it will probably be included. People with this as a strong preference learn from the experience of doing something.

There are two types of Multimodal learners:

  • VARK Type One: They may have two, three or four almost-equal preferences in their VARK scores. There are those who are flexible in their communication preferences and who switch from mode to mode depending on what they are working with. They are context specific.
  • VARK Type Two: There are others who are not satisfied until they have had input (or output) in all of their preferred modes. They take longer to gather information from each mode and, as a result, they often have a deeper and broader understanding. They may be seen as procrastinators or slow-deliverers but some may be merely gathering all the information before acting – and their decision making and learning may be better because of that breadth of understanding.
  • VARK Transition is the term we use to describe those who fall somewhere between these two categories.

Hannah’s Comments:

Curious about your learning style? You can take the VARK Questionnaire here. While learning style inventories like the VARK model can be useful tools, it is important to be mindful not to simply teach to only one type of learner. Including multiple tactics that appeal to various types will prove to be more impactful. Even if the learner you’re working with scores mainly in the aural modality, more parts of their brain will be invested in the teaching if it appeals to multiple modalities, encouraging further knowledge absorption. Remember, this is true for patient education as well, where our most common “style” is aural and reading/writing (see the 2nd Pointer)H.


  • Fleming, N.D. and Mills, C. (1992), Not Another Inventory, Rather a Catalyst for Reflection. To Improve the Academy, 11:137-155. Link
  • Kirschner, P. (2017). Stop propagating the learning styles myth, Computers & Education, 106:166-171, ISSN 0360-1315, Link.


From the Education Literature and Our Experience

2) Applying the VARK Model

In the medical education setting, there are countless ways your teaching style can appeal to the various modalities of your learner(s). Here are a handful of ideas from VARK and some from our residents in the VTC Family Medicine Residency:

  • Visual:
    • Utilize charts and diagrams, drawings when you can
    • Give the learner a floor plan of the building on their first day to help them familiarize themselves with the space
    • Encourage the learner to format any educational presentations to include organizational charts using arrows, various colors, all-caps, symbols, etc.
  • Aural:
    • Take advantage of opportunities for “teach-back” and ask for complete, transparent thinking
    • Share resources that allow the learner to put in headphones and listen to an article reading or podcast on the topic rather than giving them an article
    • Role play a patient conversation with the learner before going into the room
    • Spend more time in conversation than you typically would
  • Reading/Writing:
    • Show the learner great online databases to search for information
    • Have the learner make a list of summary points from an article
    • Demonstrate efficient charting - this type of learner will likely place a great emphasis on their written notes, and may take longer than learners of other modalities
  • Kinesthetic:
    • Teach about an evidence-based concept using case studies and real patient examples as opposed to articles or simply telling a leaner the concept
    • Demonstrate a physical exam technique and have them demonstrate back onto you as you teach
    • Use simulation whenever possible
  • Multimodal:
    • Watch a YouTube video demonstration with captions and allow the learner to demonstrate (visual, aural, reading/writing, and kinesthetic)
    • Encourage underlining, all-caps, highlights, color-coding, etc. in written work/reading (visual and reading/writing)
    • Turn new/learned information into smart phrases that can be used later (kinesthetic and reading/writing)

Hannah’s Comments:

Learning inventories are useful not only as an educator for students and residents, but also as a patient educator! We tend to “teach” from our own preference, so it will allow you to “stretch” to consider how you might appeal to various learning modalities while discussing plans and engaging in shared decision making with patients. Can you draw a diagram to explain a diagnosis to appeal to a patient’s visual modality? Can you show a patient how to do some of the stretches you want them to do, and then give them a chance to practice alongside you? This will appeal well to the kinesthetic learners. Think creatively!


VARK Strategies. VARK: A Guide to Learning Preferences. 2021. Link

From the Literature and the Experience of Us All

3) Mentoring Learners

In its most basic sense, a mentor facilitates personal and professional growth through the sharing of learned knowledge and insight. In the healthcare setting, this may look like supporting the learner in the areas of attainment of a practical skill, personal and professional development, research projects, and academic development through coaching, role-modeling, and goal-setting. Mentors may also provide emotional support and appropriate counseling.

Jacobi (1991) describes five key components to mentoring:

Mentors should help the mentee to achieve short-and long-term goals.

  • Mentoring should include role modeling and help with career development.
  • Both mentee and mentor should benefit from the relationship.
  • Relationships should involve direct interaction between mentor and mentee.
  • Mentors should be more experienced when compared with the mentee.

Mentorship can be formal or informal; short-term or long-term. In your clinical practice, you may work with a learner for a week or for years. Consider the ways big and small that you can walk alongside them as they grow as clinicians.

  • Take a walk outside for 10 minutes during lunch or break time with the learner and chat about goals, family, hobbies, etc.
  • If you are aware of any research opportunities, let your learners know and offer to support them if appropriate.

Mark’s (and Hannah’s) Comments:

It’s my (Mark) personal belief that we should all both have mentors and serve as mentors. My many mentors continue to impact my life in profound ways, and I have found the opportunity to serve as a mentor to be some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had in my professional work. For those of you who mentor students, residents, and younger colleagues, THANK YOU for your willingness to do this and to “pay it forward.” It is literally an investment in our future.

When it comes to mentoring, whether it be from classroom to clinical rotations, one clinical rotation to another, medical school to residency, residency to practice...learners in the healthcare field are regularly undergoing some type of transition early in their careers. It is incredibly helpful to have a mentor come alongside the learner as they navigate these transitions.

This Pointer may catalyze an opportunity for you to thank some of your own mentors, whether past or present. Whether they were “formal” mentors or not, they mattered as they took the time to speak into your life. Sharing about that impact with them is one of the greatest gifts you can ever give someone who has served as a mentor for you.


Nimmons, D., Giny, S., & Rosenthal, J. (2019). Medical student mentoring programs:

current insights. Advances in medical education and practice, 10, 113–123. Link


Mark and John

Carilion Clinic Department of Family and Community Medicine

Feel free to forward Take 3 to your colleagues. Glad to add them to the distribution list.

Email: mhgreenawald@carilionclinic.org