To better teach the anatomy and physiology of the heart, Caycee Creamer, MS, uses VARK (visual, aural, read/write, and kinesthetic) tactics.
Adjunct Professor of Biology, West Georgia Technical College in Carrollton, Georgia
MS in Biology, BS in Biochemistry
The circulatory system is an intricate and complex three-dimensional world, constantly circulating a vital cocktail of nutrients, lymphatic fluid, water, and other substances—all to keep the body in balance. It is no wonder that Adjunct Professor Caycee Creamer, MS, has found it to be a challenging topic for her Anatomy and Physiology students at West Georgia Technical College.
In researching the best methods help her students absorb this type of material, Creamer happened upon the VARK paradigm. “First proposed by Neil Fleming and Colleen Mills in a 1992 study, VARK identifies four modes of learning: visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic,” says Creamer. “Science students traditionally utilize reading, writing, and kinesthetic tactics to learn science material through textbooks, note-taking, and lab work.” She soon realized that this approach left some learners out of the loop.
“Students with visual learning styles learn best through observing and viewing images, diagrams, videos, and displays, while those with auditory learning styles prefer to learn from verbal instructions, songs, and spoken explanations,” says Creamer. “Adding visual and auditory aids to traditional science-learning styles will engage all four learning modalities.”
Below, Creamer shares how she uses the VARK paradigm to get her students as close as possible to experiencing the heart in action.
See resources shared by Caycee Creamer, MSSee materials
“The VARK paradigm identifies four modes of learning: visual, auditory, reading/writing, and kinesthetic. Science students traditionally utilize reading, writing, and kinesthetic tactics to learn science material through textbooks, note-taking, and lab work. Adding visual and auditory aids to traditional science-learning styles will engage all four learning modalities.”— Caycee Creamer, MS
Course description: Continues the study of the anatomy and physiology of the human body. Topics include the endocrine system, cardiovascular system, blood and lymphatic system, immune system, respiratory system, digestive system, urinary system, and reproductive system.
Creamer’s use of VARK to teach the heart’s mysteries
Creamer began integrating the multiple principles of VARK learning into her teaching by inviting her students to look candidly at the ways they have learned over the years, as well as by making her own adjustments to render the material more immediate and compelling.
Below, Creamer explains how she gets students pumped about this new way of learning.
Show students how to enhance their studies with VARK
“One of the first things I do is introduce the idea of ‘figure out how you study,’” Creamer says. At the start of the semester, she introduces students to the VARK paradigm, then provides these instructions: “Pick one thing, and do something new about how you’ve been studying. Maybe add ‘watching videos.’ Or try reading out loud while you go through your notes.” In this way, students begin to experiment with the new methodology on their own, which encourages them to think like scientists.
Liven up lectures and slides with pops of color
Creamer has fine-tuned her lectures to include more visual aspects. For starters, she makes sure that any PowerPoint presentation she provides to her students is not what she describes as a “wall of text that is all the same size and same color.”
“For text-heavy slides, I’ll highlight the important parts in a color to help their eyes move from word to word,” she says. “Especially for visual students, changing the colors or underlining a phrase really helps them.”
Break into groups—and break out the colored pencils
Creamer provides handouts that students must color in, tracing the blood flow through the circulatory system with red and blue pencils or pens. “Coloring the heart emphasizes the kinesthetic and visual, because you’re having to visualize the heart and move through it,” she says.
She often augments these coloring exercises by putting students into groups where they can talk about the blood flow through the heart with each other. “Even for auditory students, sometimes my voice is something they tune out,” Creamer says. “I’ve found that by letting them talk to each other, they learn better.”
Use the floor as the site of a heart mural
Using the linoleum floor of the biology lab as their “canvas” and colored masking tape as their “paint,” Creamer’s students work in groups of two to four to create an oversize rendering of the heart, with the pathways for blood intake and outflow marked in red and blue. The goal, says Creamer, is to push the students to recall heart structure and function from memory with as much precision and accuracy as possible, though sometimes she will allow one student to serve as an “accuracy consultant” to check the work against references.
“This requires more critical thinking than just using pictures, premade models, or coloring sheets,” Creamer says. “Not only are the kinesthetic students benefiting from this activity, but the visual students are able to make ‘seen’ what they are studying.”
Put students in charge of their own learning—and each other’s
Creamer also has students work in small groups to create practice quizzes for themselves and each other. “They have to come up with five questions within each group, and then quiz each other about blood flow through the heart,” she says. “These are questions designed to help them say, ‘Do I really know the anatomy, or do I just know one particular pathway?’”
Self-directed learning, says Creamer, is one of the reasons she homed in on VARK in the first place. “Science students have to learn a lot of subjects at once—the cardiovascular system, the nervous system, the immune system—in a very short period of time,” she says. “VARK introduces the idea of leading students toward teaching themselves, which is what a lot of science is. I found through the VARK paradigm that it shouldn’t all be me. My students and I need to meet in the middle.”