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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 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 the classes that seem to fit naturally with your personality.

According to a recent Student Health 101 survey, nearly 30 percent of respondents “like a hands-on approach” when learning, but 71 percent haven’t had an opportunity to verify this—and learn more about their preferences—by using a learning-style assessment.

Many campuses offer one-on-one sessions with an expert to go through such an exploration, but you don’t have to wait. There are numerous ways to determine your learning style using an “inventory,” and a number are available online, each taking fewer than 30 minutes to complete.

Tools to try now

Learning Inventories

Here are some free, online learning assessment tools that you can use to help figure out your learning style. You may also have access to assessment, with expert guidance, through your school. Contact your counseling center, career services, or dean’s office to find out more.

North Central Texas College, VAK Learning Styles Assessment

Pennsylvania State University, Learning Styles Inventory

North Carolina State University, Index of Learning Styles Questionnaire

VARK®, A Guide to Learning Styles

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

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

  • Visual
  • Auditory
  • Read/Write
  • Kinesthetic

The 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.

Dr. Robert Sherfield, a professor at the College of Southern Nevada in Las Vegas, starts each semester by providing his students with a learning styles inventory. “I think you have to begin by understanding that [you] do have a dominant learning style,” he 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.

James D., a senior at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, used a learning styles inventory to confirm what he thought about his learning preference. “It was always apparent to me that I tended toward reading, visualizing problems, and making notes, but after taking the assessment, I realized that if I built my study habits around [being a visual learner], I would have more success in learning the required material,” he explains.

As a result, James has found ways to adapt the content provided in his classes and other resources to best meet his needs. “I have made a conscious effort to arrange my study materials in such a way that I can visualize every aspect of a problem or piece of information, allowing me to study effectively,” he says.

Jaclyn T., a junior at Bryant University in Smithfield, Rhode Island, didn’t always know her learning preference. “When I was in high school, I would read materials over and over again, but never retained the information,” she says. Fortunately, during her first semester of college, she took a learning styles inventory.

“[I’m] definitely kinesthetic,” reports Jaclyn, which means she learns best by doing activities and engaging her hands and body. “If I had known about the learning style that best suited me, I would have been much more successful during my high school career,” 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.

One thing you can do to alleviate this stress is review your class’s objectives early on and talk with your instructor, or with classmates, about how to adapt the material. Dr. Sherfield, for example, encourages his students to examine course information using a variety of learning styles.

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 (textbooks, research articles, online guides) and read a variety of sources. You can then translate the material into your own words in a notebook, digital document, or flashcards.

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. “My advice would be to not limit yourself to any one learning style,” says Dr. Sherfield. “Yes, one style is going to be your best mode of learning, but you will not always be in a situation where you can use it to your advantage.”

Jaclyn, like many students, learned to emphasize the read/write study method, even though that’s not her natural tendency. So she’s found a way to integrate the physical representations of information she needs—as a kinesthetic learner—into the read/write style.

“I rewrite the notes I have taken in class,” she says. “After rewriting my classroom notes, I write notes that come directly from the textbook.” This exercise, in the literal sense, helps her 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.”

Jacyln emphasizes how important it is to understand your learning style. “You may be able to succeed in college without ever knowing your learning preference, but I would be willing to bet you are going to spend far more time studying than necessary.”

Here’s James’ advice: “Take the results of the inventory and build your study habits around [the] style most suited to you.” This strategy will allow you to continue to develop your preference, play to your strengths, and get the most out of your studies.

Take Action

  • Take a learning styles inventory to determine your preferences. You can work with an expert at your school or use a free online tool.
  • Use your preference as a guide to organizing your course material and how you study.
  • As necessary, adapt your learning strategies to your professors’ 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.