Something that many of us struggle with is identifying the best way to learn. And, while different learning styles are often used in schools to cater to students’ needs, there are also many ways that these learning theories can help us in our adult lives.
Discovering your learning style is about working out which techniques – such as listening or using images and diagrams – allow you to understand and process information most effectively.
This isn’t just relevant if you’re returning to study, it can also be useful at home and at work, whether you’re following recipes or working on progressing your career. Plus, being aware of how you learn best can make the whole process much more enjoyable and far less daunting.
Here, we’ll explore some of the most popular styles of learning, and how to decide which one(s) might be best suited to you. We’ll also take a closer look at some of the benefits of knowing your learning style.
What are the four main learning styles?
Each person tends to have certain ways of learning and absorbing information that will help them get the most out of their experience – though, not everyone is fully aware of what their learning style is.
To help you discover what sort of learning style might work best for you, you could start by considering four widely known and accepted types: visual, auditory, read/write, and kinaesthetic. These styles were first described by Neil Fleming – a teacher from New Zealand – as part of what he called the VARK model.
We’ll look into Neil’s four learning theories below. However, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to feel limited to just one type of learning. Many people relate to aspects of multiple learning styles, and may switch between them depending on the nature of the information they’re trying to learn and process – and maybe even how they feel at the time.
While you might already have a sense of what kind of learner you are and will hopefully get some clues from the explanations below, this VARK questionnaire can also offer a clearer idea about what learning styles could work for you.
1. Visual learning
A visual learning style usually means that you learn and remember information best from visual cues, rather than words – and you think in pictures.
Visual learners are often sensitive to colour, tone, brightness, and contrast, and will usually prefer to read descriptive language with lots of adjectives that conjure up an image of the topic being spoken about.
Being a visual learner also means that typically you can communicate information more effectively using images, graphs, and other visual stimuli.
What can be the strengths of a visual learner?
If you’re a visual learner, chances are, you’re…
- Able to easily picture an image or object in your mind.
- Someone with a great sense of alignment and balance (visual learners usually like things in order and prioritise organisation).
- Someone who places a lot of value on planning – especially through the use of things like whiteboards and mindmaps.
- Generally quite creative and prefer to express yourself through art (for example, fashion or interior design).
- Someone with a good sense of direction, who prefers to see directions rather than hear them.
- Someone with a strong imagination and a tendency to daydream.
What are some of the best learning strategies for a visual learner?
If you think you may be a visual learner, then you may benefit from using some of the following learning strategies…
- Creating outlines or overviews by taking notes on key information and making use of headings, subheadings, and bullet points.
- Including blank spaces in your notes. When information is crammed together, it can look confusing and overwhelming, making it more difficult to take in.
- Colour coding notes using highlighters or coloured pens to increase your attention to the information and organise it more logically. It can also help with remembering the information, as we can learn to associate a particular colour with a specific fact or theory.
- Studying in a quiet space without other people. Because visual learners often need to focus on the information that they’re absorbing, working alone can offer fewer distractions.
- Making use of leaflets and handouts. Whether learning in a classroom or planning a trip with a travel agent; the eye-catching layout and mixture of key points and images in leaflets can make it easier to digest.
- Creating flashcards with key terms and things to remember. This helps to condense essential information and lay it out in an ordered way.
- Using graphs, charts, symbols and pictures to understand concepts. This organises information to make it clear, engaging, and more concise.
- Watching videos to reinforce your learning. Are you a big history fan? Why not find some good films or documentaries to help you learn more about your subject?
- Asking for a visual demonstration so you can see how it’s done and be able to recall it better later on.
2. Auditory learning
An auditory learning style is one where people digest information most effectively through hearing and listening, rather than writing or seeing.
Auditory learners are usually particularly attentive when listening to music, lectures, speeches, and podcasts. They can also be good at putting their thoughts into words.
What can be the strengths of an auditory learner?
If you’re an auditory learner, chances are, you’re…
- Good at following verbal directions.
- Able to deliver reports, speeches, and oral presentations confidently.
- Someone who can speak up and outline key points eloquently, for example in a meeting or group project.
- Someone with strong listening skills.
- A skilled storyteller, who can speak in a confident and entertaining way.
- Good at reading people by listening to their tone of voice.
- Someone who finds it helpful to understand and solve problems by talking them through.
What are some of the best learning strategies for an auditory learner?
If you think you may be an auditory learner, then you may benefit from using some of the following learning strategies…
- Talking through information and/or studying with other people. By verbalising facts and communicating thoughts, auditory learners can process and remember information better.
- Having a silent study space or listening to classical music. Music with lyrics can be distracting for auditory learners because they’re often able to focus on and memorise song lyrics very quickly.
- Using podcasts or audiobooks to learn and understand information. Listening to a discussion or story is often the preferable way for auditory learners to solidify their understanding.
- Recording yourself talking through concepts or stating facts. Speaking and then re-listening to this information can be an effective learning strategy.
- Reading out loud rather than in your head to process the information more deeply.
- Recording lessons or speeches to listen to as an alternative form of studying to note-taking.
- Getting involved in discussions and debates. Whether this is at a local club or in a lecture, auditory learners tend to thrive in a lively environment.
3. Learning through reading and writing
Arguably the most self-explanatory learning style, a ‘read/write’ learner processes and understands information through reading and writing.
This learning style applies to the traditional note-taking student, who learns through reading from a textbook and writing down key information.
The reading part is where ‘read/write’ learners understand the information, and the writing part is where the information is properly processed and digested.
What can be the strengths of a read/write learner?
If you’re someone who prefers to learn through reading and writing, chances are, you’re…
- Able to work independently.
- Someone who can often process information in greater detail, due to the two-step read/write learning process.
- Able to work diligently and to a high standard.
- Someone who usually performs well in written exams and essays.
- Able to stay focused and not get distracted easily.
- Someone with an extensive vocabulary who tends to speak using complex sentences.
What are some of the best learning strategies for a read/write learner?
If you think you may be someone who learns best through reading and writing, then you may benefit from using some of the following learning strategies…
- Using different note-taking techniques to study more effectively. For example, the Cornell Notes strategy allows you to organise and reflect on your notes. You separate your page by marking off a ‘header’ for the date and title, and a ‘footer’ for a summary of your notes. Then, the middle section of the page is divided in two by drawing a line down the middle. The left side is used to write the main body of your notes and any extra annotations or keywords can be added on the right.
- Changing visual explanations – such as graphs, diagrams, or pictures – into written ones or outlining the key concepts.
- Repeating the cycle of reading and writing your notes. For example, if you’re trying to remember some vocabulary when learning a new language, try writing the words again and again, before reading over them a few times. This can help you retain the information for longer.
- Using bullet-pointed lists to organise yourself. Laying information out in a clear and concise way can make it easier to skim over while studying.
- Coming up with some symbols or abbreviations that you can use when note-taking – to make sure that you aren’t writing for days!
- Highlighting and annotating your work to help you engage more deeply with the information and remember the key points.
4. Kinaesthetic learning
A kinaesthetic learner generally needs to be physically engaged in an activity to learn most effectively – for example, through touching, feeling, and role-playing.
This method of learning through doing often involves trial-and-error testing and may involve learning away from a desk, such as in an outdoor environment or on-the-job in a vocational role.
What can be the strengths of a kinaesthetic learner?
If you’re a kinaesthetic learner, chances are, you…
- Excel in more physical subjects such as art and drama.
- Have naturally fast response times and reactions.
- Have good hand-eye coordination and agility, due to strong sensory reactions.
- Can easily repeat something physical after doing it once because you have great muscle memory.
- Usually have an above-average sporting ability.
- Often have a lot of energy and enthusiasm.
- Have good problem-solving skills, because you experiment through trial-and-error.
- Become easily bored in a traditional classroom or desk-based learning environment.
What are some of the best learning strategies for a kinaesthetic learner?
If you think you may be someone who learns by being hands-on, you may benefit from using some of the following learning strategies…
- Working in short bursts and taking frequent breaks. Why not try out The Pomodoro Technique, which suggests that people work for 25 minutes before taking a five-minute break to increase productivity?
- Considering alternatives to sitting in a desk chair while working. There are many different options you could try, including using a standing desk, treadmill desk, or a yoga ball as a seat (to engage your core).
- Combining exercise with working/studying. For example, you could walk around while reading notes or do jumping jacks in between book chapters. Incorporating exercise into your breaks is a great way to do this.
- Similarly to visual learners, highlighting, drawing diagrams, and underlining important information can be very useful. The physical act of drawing or creating something is more likely to make it stick in your memory.
- Making the most of physical learning opportunities. This can apply to demonstrations, fieldwork, presentations, or anything else that can help you apply concepts in a practical way.
- Building or creating a story from the information you’re trying to learn. This can involve using building blocks or other materials to help you solve a maths equation, or drawing pictures that link to each key point you’re trying to remember.
- Using examples and concepts to help your understanding. For example, if you were learning about inflation, it could help to use Germany in the early 1920s as an example of hyperinflation.
What are some of the benefits of understanding your learning style?
As we briefly mentioned, knowing how you learn best can make the process easier and more enjoyable. Some other benefits include…
Achieving your full learning potential
Many of us have struggled with finding a method of learning that captures our attention and suits our personality – and if you’re someone who doesn’t enjoy learning, it could be that you simply haven’t found a style that works for you yet. But personalising the way that you learn to play to your strengths may transform your experience for the better…
Learning the steps you need to take to learn and process information most effectively can be the key to unlocking new opportunities, solving problems, and taking on new perspectives, whether that’s in your academic or everyday life.
Improving your working life
Understanding your learning style can also allow you to understand more about your ideal working environment.
For example, if you’re a kinaesthetic learner who’s often bored because you work in an office-based role, then why not try out a yoga ball as a desk chair, and take more regular breaks where you do something active?
Knowing your learning style could even help you realise what field of work you would prefer to be in – as it might be that a more physical, hands-on role would be best for you.
In this case, why not check out our article, 11 jobs that can help you stay active, for some ideas?
Boosting your confidence and self-esteem
If you’re someone who finds the process of digesting new information overwhelming, then adapting your learning style may seem daunting – but finding something that works for you and allows you to make marked progress can make a world of difference to your confidence and self-esteem.
It can also help us to prepare for situations in life where we know we’ll be learning something new – such as if you’re planning to take a college course or retrain in a new job role. This can take some of the pressure off of the experience and allow you to focus more deeply on the information itself.
And lastly, exploring different learning styles can help us to understand more about our strengths and weaknesses, and who we are as people.
We hope this article will give you some ideas for how you might learn best, whether you can relate to one style or parts of all of them.
As we’ve already mentioned, learning styles can be fluid and interchangeable and what might work for you in one situation, might not work so well in another. Therefore, it’s best to avoid putting yourself into a box – and instead, to have fun experimenting with what works best for you and when.
Whether you enjoy listening to music while you study, watching videos of demonstrations, doing a demonstration yourself, or making organised lists, the VARK model covers almost all aspects of learning; so hopefully you’ll find something that suits you.
To read more about different learning strategies, why not check out our article; 9 tips to help you get back into learning after a long break?