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Writing Across the Curriculum

The WAC Academy

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   - Participants
   - Papers

   - Participants
   - Papers

   - Participants
   - Papers

   - Participants
   - Papers

Using the ‘VARK’ Questionnaire to Assess Written Expression
Dorothea S. Handron  Ed.D., APRN
School of Nursing

I have been assigned to teach a writing intensive course in a southeastern School of Nursing for as long as I can remember. On a good day, that memory could span approximately a lifetime.  On a bad day – a recollection about a student interaction last year could be a stretch.  My chief objective for over a decade has been to assist nursing students with their professional writing.

These students enter the course each semester with a variety of biases which can be easily summarized. First, being nursing students, they are usually involved with documenting quantifiable important phenomenon. They ask why they need to improve general writing skills.  Second, this course is offered at the end of their undergraduate educational journey. If they didn’t master writing skills earlier, why expect them to worry about them at this point? Third, many are surprisingly articulate regarding their intense dislike of writing, which translates to a palpable fear that they will be unsuccessful in this course. Finally, nursing students in their senior year are very busy people preparing for an arduous national state certification examination and very pressured careers. A failing grade on this exam has truly serious ramifications, not the least of which is unemployment. Consequently, throughout the academic year, nursing students (few exceptions being the adult learners), join this professor online with perilous preconceived notions that they will be expected to write a dissertation within one semester and that the entire labor-intensive process will be a waste of their time. Even a first year academic knows these attitudes do not set the tone for quality learning experiences.
Fortunately, my philosophy of teaching assisted in overcoming daunting student resistance to taking this writing intensive course. If you were a visitor to one of my courses on campus or within my electronic classroom, you would be prompted to experience emotion, a sense of self enlightenment associated with the subject matter. To keep those X and Y generational students enthralled, a variety of media would also be employed. Hopefully, students depart my classes with a greater sense of inquiry about the subject at hand, a capacity to relate that topic to their life experiences, and a vision for how this newly acquired knowledge can be applied to other learning experiences. The “Vark” Learning Questionnaire assists me in achieving these transformative learning objectives and in captivating students’ interest during the introductory sessions for a variety of course subjects (Mezirow, J & Associates [Eds], 2000).  I discovered the “VARK” Questionnaire is a marvelous tool to stimulate students’ desire to write.

Learning Style Inventories

Bean (2001) suggests, in Engaging Ideas, that research on “the various ways in which students prefer to gather, interpret, organize, and think about new concepts should inform our teaching methods” (p.39).  Bean then briefly discusses the use of personality or learning style inventories to identify students’ natural inclinations toward integrating knowledge. Bean highlights the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator which “situates persons along four different continua: introversion/extroversion, thinking/feeling, sensing/ intuition, and perceiving/judging (p.39). The author suggests that these personality factors can be used to predict how students organize arguments and written themes in their papers. Bean also highlights the Kolb Learning Style Inventory which attends to “an individual’s cognitive style along four axes: feeling, watching, thinking and doing (p.41). According to Kolb this information can be used to structure assignments and class activities that support each student’s predominant learning style (cited in Bean, 2001). This paper describes how the “VARK” Multimodal Questionnaire is used to provide students with individualized information about learning preferences and acquisition of effective study skills (www.vark-learn.com/English/index.asp).

I selected the “VARK” for use in my nursing course because students can work independently on the questionnaire using the website. The inventory is short, takes about 3 minutes to complete, and is scored online by each student. When consent is sought, permission is graciously given by the authors of the inventory to use hard copies of the questionnaire and scoring tools in classroom settings.  The “VARK” is described by its authors within the FAQ Sheet (see website above) as “providing users with a profile of their learning preferences or the ways that they take in and give out information…in a learning context” (p.2). A “visual learner,” as one might predict, absorbs information more readily from a visual medium (art, video). An “auditory learner” retains content best from lectures or audio tapes. Gathering knowledge by reading is the dominant learning preference for faculty. The preponderance of students, however, are “kinesthetic learners.”  They integrate outside information through hands-on experience.  The questionnaire also identifies multimodal learners (mature learners often evolve into this mode) who do not exhibit a clear major preference and can adapt more easily to a variety of ways for acquiring knowledge. After students identify their preference(s), the inventory provides guides for learning strategies associated with learning preferences. Within the FAQ sheet and through personal e-mails, the authors who developed the “VARK” readily state that it is a relatively “young” inventory with insufficient longitudinal research data to form broad conclusions about the instrument (FAQ, pp.2-3). But I have found it very useful nonetheless.

Application of the “VARK” for Writing Assessment

Students are required to visit the “VARK” website, read the materials about the questionnaire, and use the assessment tool. After learners identify their preferences, students are surprised by a switch in learning activities.  They are then directed to open a slideshow that I have prepared that prompts a variety of affective responses in students.  This activity is unrelated to our work on learning styles and could be easily adapted to any course topic (i.e. ethics, political science). In this example, nursing students are shown a slideshow on the life of Vincent Van Gogh highlighting his dramatic struggles with depression and suicidal ideation, both of which are subjects addressed in the course. Immediately following the slideshow or exposure to another art or experiential teaching method (poem, short story, painting, play), students are required to provide a one paragraph written response to the experience.  After completing this paragraph, students write on how their dominant or multimodal learning preferences affected their writing.  The final paragraph of the sample writing piece asks students to apply “VARK” strategies to improve their future written expression.

This sample of students’ writing is used for initial assessment (Harris, 2005) for learners and by myself to identify what students know about writing and what they need to learn within the parameters of one course. Here is a brief sample of a student’s written response to the Van Gogh slide show.
Vincent Van Gogh appeared to be a very troubled individual. He lived at a time when psychotropic drugs weren’t around.  Its too bad because he might have been cured? But think about it – than his art may have been affected. Maybe his genius as an artist would never have happened. That would have been a greater loss, I think. (anonymous student unpublished paper)

As one can see from this example, grammar, sentence structures and word choices need improvement. This student indicated that according to the “VARK” Questionnaire, she was a kinesthetic learner who learned through “real life experiences.”  She stated that it was easy for her to write on this subject because she was moved to tears during the slideshow.  If she had merely looked at a visual representation of Van Gogh’s work in a book, she claimed she would not have been as engaged in the writing process as she became in responding to the slideshow. The student suggested that, with future writing assignments, she would attempt to explore the topic from the perspective of her life experiences before she began writing.  My feedback to these submissions is always framed positively and validates the students’ conclusions about their learning preferences and strategies to strengthen their writing skills.
Findings and Conclusions               

This exercise has been employed as a preliminary assessment and learning activity with several hundred nursing students over a period of ten years. Evaluations of the experience are usually favorable.  Anecdotal comments indicate that students gain valuable insights about their learning preferences and learning strategies that can be applied to a variety of life experiences. Taking the “VARK” and responding to an artistic, affective presentation engages the learner quickly and sets the stage for positive experiences throughout the remainder of the course. Learners also indicate that a strengths-based approach to critiquing their writing is less threatening than traditional approaches which emphasize student deficiencies and weaknesses.  According to students, a positive approach (e.g., Your question regarding how Van Gogh’s sanity might have affected his genius is very interesting.  How might you restate this more clearly?) more readily fosters self analysis and critique.   Finally, this short assessment activity provides the professor with an inclusive short sample of expressive and transactional writing from each student. It offers a benchmark to compare students’ work throughout the course.   

Teaching, to me, is about creating opportunities for students to learn in multiple ways about their strengths, deficits, biases, and ways of acquiring and conveying knowledge in a complex world.  Much will be expected of these learners following graduation.  It is our responsibility as teachers to engage our students in a lifelong learning process that facilitates personal reflection, critique, knowledge integration, and effective writing skills.  


Anonymous unpublished paper from student assignment

Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Harris,R.A. (2005). Using sources effectively: Strengthening your writing and avoiding plagiarism (2nd Ed.).  Glendale,CA: Pyrczak Publishing.

Mezirow, J. & Associates (Eds.). (2000). Learning as transformation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

“VARK” Questionnaire. http://vark-learn.com/english/page.asp?p-faq

View the Word document version of this paper.