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Do you have style? Of course you do, and I’m not just talking about how you wear your hair or show your personality through your clothes.

There are many different learning styles, and if you take the time to figure out your own, you’ll get the most out of your classes and study time.

Find Your Style

Some students absorb and retain information best through visual demonstrations, while others need to hear information or actually do something in a hands-on setting. You may already know a bit about what works best for you, based on your experiences and what seems to fit naturally with your personality.

According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, more than 30 percent of respondents “like a hands-on approach” when learning, but 69 percent haven’t had an opportunity to verify this—and learn more about their preferences—by using a learning-style assessment.

There are numerous ways to determine your learning style using an “inventory,” and a number are available online and take fewer than 30 minutes to complete.

Tools to try now

Give Me a V. A. R. K.!

All of the learning style inventories examine the following general preferences:

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Read/Write
  • Kinesthetic

These assessments ask questions aimed at helping you figure out which of these is your dominant style. For example:

Do you learn best by watching a video? Those who do may be visual learners.

Do you prefer hearing an explanation? If so, you may have an auditory style.

Do you absorb information best by typing or writing it out? Then you might be a read/write learner.

Do you learn best by building a model? You may be a kinesthetic learner.

According to the Student Health 101 survey, 34 percent of students indicate that they prefer reading/writing, but this may be because that is the predominant study method encouraged in the U.S.

Heidi Smith, a professor at Northern Maine Community College in Presque Isle, believes in varying her teaching techniques to address a wide range of learning styles. Students can then identify which style works best for them. “Those [students] that don’t have the knowledge about their own strengths are excited to find out about them,” she says.

Learning to Learn

To make your learning style work for you, consider ways that you can strengthen that preference, and play to it, when you study.

Sarah M., a graduate student at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, found her learning style by recognizing challenges she faced in certain classes. She explains, “I consider myself a visual learner. I came to this realization by observing how hard it is for me to take in information when I’m only hearing it, learning by listening is quite difficult for me.”

As a result, Sarah has found ways to adapt the content provided in her classes and other resources to best meet her needs. “To really grasp and retain information, I need to write down notes for myself—to schematize the main points in outlines, charts, or maps,” she says.

Once you become aware of your preferred ways to learn, you can figure out how to use that information in classes. For some students, it can be frustrating when materials aren’t presented in a way that meshes with their predominant learning style.

For Sarah, adjusting course material to suit her method of learning has been an exercise in self-reflection, and also, in patience.

She explains, “I [think] it is important to recognize when and how I’m learning best. This helps me develop study practices that let me take advantage of my strengths and do my best work. It [also] helps me be patient with myself when pedagogy doesn’t match my learning style, Being patient helps make it easier to make adjustments when studying.

As Sarah mentions, one thing you can do to alleviate this stress is review your class’s objectives early on to know what to expect from your course, and to plan on how to study accordingly.

Detailed examples and suggestions for each learning style

Dr. Robert Sherfield, a professor at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas, likes to present information in ways that encourage different learning styles.

Let’s say you’re in his course about emotional intelligence. One goal is to have students understand the function of the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotions and the behaviors associated with them. Using this as an example, here are some tips for learners with different preferences:

For Visual Learners:
“I would visually show them where the amygdala is in the brain and then show them a video of someone getting very mad at someone else. I would ask them to analyze the argument and how it could have been avoided,” says Dr. Sherfield.

If you are a visual learner, you may want to spend your study time making charts or graphic representations of your course material. You will definitely want to use the visuals in your textbooks and in other supplemental information as well. Look for diagrams, charts, videos, and other materials online, too.

For Auditory Learners:
Dr. Sherfield explains, “I would have them listen to someone whose life was changed because their amygdala, or emotional brain, took over and caused serious harm. Then, they could ask questions of this person.”

If your learning style preference is auditory, you may find talking through the material with classmates, or recording your notes and listening back to them, to be effective study strategies. Anna C., a senior at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, suggests, “Sometimes even just reading out loud with classmates or as you read or write can help.”

For Read/Write Learners:
Dr. Sherfield would offer a lecture and discussion of the material, which gives read/write learners an opportunity to take careful notes during class and review them. It can also help to seek out pre-written materials (e.g.,textbooks, research articles, and online guides) and read a variety of sources. You can then translate the material into your own words in a notebook, digital document, or flash cards.

For Kinesthetic Learners:
If you are a kinesthetic learner, you would want to find a way to turn the psychological concepts taught by Dr. Sherfield into something you can engage in physically. This might sound challenging, but with a little bit of creativity it is definitely possible.

For example, you could act out the roles played by different parts of the brain with classmates, or make a drama out of the interactions between people, based on their emotions. You might also benefit from examining a 3-D model of a brain, visiting a science museum that includes a related exhibit, or talking with neuroscience students who do hands-on research.

Adapting to Your Environment

Not all learning situations will lend themselves to your preferences. It is important to be flexible and creative so that you can get the most from your experiences.

Remember, when you revisit material on your own, you can employ study tactics that play to your strengths.

Jeffrey Hall, a professor here at Ashford University online, suggests taking advantage of technology to help reframe information in a way that works for you.

“[You can] download audio textbooks to listen to on the go, use text-to-speak software to hear how your words sound when spoken, or [use] mind mapping software to get visual representations of a subject,” he says.

Sarah, like many students, learned to adapt her study habits to better suit her visual learning style, even though the material is not always presented in that way. By integrating visual representations of the concepts she’s learning into her studying, she is able to commit the information to memory.

A good long-term strategy is to develop not only your dominant learning style, but also the others. Get to know what they are and how to use them.

Vicki B., a sophomore at The Alamo Colleges in San Antonio, Texas, says, “All the different styles rely on some form of repetition and review to some extent. Learning to review material with this in mind can open you up to use different styles.”

Regardless of your learning style, take some time to identify your strengths and preferences when it comes to retaining new information. You may learn something about yourself that you never knew and find a better way to study in the process.

Take Action

  • Take a learning styles inventory to determine your preferences.
  • Use your preference as a guide to organizing how you study.
  • As necessary, adapt your learning strategies to your instructors’ teaching styles. Consult them for ideas about making the information come alive.
  • Work on developing the styles you don’t prefer so that you have options.

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Amy Baldwin, EdD, is the director of University College at the University of Central Arkansas. She is the author of The Community College Experience, The First-Generation College Experience, and The College Experience, all published by Pearson.