How do you learn?

The way in which you prefer to learn is an important dimension of tertiary study.  We all have different learning style preferences and it is important to have an understanding of these so that we can maximize our learning potential.  You can maximise your learning potential by asking: What is the task requiring me to do? What would be my natural approach to this task?

Sometimes your natural response is not the best response for the task at hand, so learning to respond differently to different types of tasks will help you to learn more efficiently and strategically. This is called “style flexing”. It requires you to first think about the task and what you are required to do, then consider what your ‘natural’ approach would be and finally to develop an approach that may not be your ‘natural’ approach, but will be the most effective approach for the task at hand.

Before you can style flex, you will need to understand what your natural learning styles are. There are many aspects of learning styles.  Some directly affect the way that you think about yourself as a learner, others relate to your need to organize your physical study space and still others affect the way in which you approach tasks, what motivates you and how you interact with others while learning.

Learning styles can be conceptualized in the following diagram which is loosely based on a chart by Smith and Renzulli. This section will focus in most detail on the cognitive aspects of learning and will explore the other elements on the diagram in less detail.

Learning Style image

Check your learning style

As you read about each of the dimensions of learning below, answer the questions under each section.  While this is not a formal questionnaire, jotting down your preferences in answer to the questions will help you to begin to understand how these dimensions affect your learning.

Consider how the external environment affects your ability to study, for example how does sound (noise or music) affect your learning?  Do you consider it helpful to listen to music for example?  Does noise affect your ability to concentrate?

While it is common for people to claim that music helps them to study, there is little research evidence that supports this in general. There are some authors who argue that baroque music actually facilitates learning. Some people find instrumental music without strong beat helpful. If you have decided that music helps, think about what type of music is best and experiment with and without it to see which is best for you in terms of your learning. As a rule of thumb, for most tasks, it is unlikely that singing along will facilitate learning! So if you must choose music, instrumental music is probably a wiser choice than music with lyrics.

How does light affect you?  Do you need bright lights?  Do fluorescent lights affect your ability to concentrate?  How can you set up your study area to account for any issues that emerge about lighting?

How does temperature affect you? If you are too warm, are you more likely to fall asleep?  How does air conditioning affect you?

How important is the design and layout of your study area? Do you need a specific space or can you study anywhere as long as you have your books and computer?  Should your space be tidy?  Consider what is best for you and try to ensure that you set up space for yourself that meets your requirements.

What motivates you to succeed?  Is it recognition from others or is it the personal satisfaction of doing well?   Is it different in different situations, for example study as opposed to say, sport?

Who do you consider to be most responsible for your results? How much emphasis do you place on the role of the teacher and how much do you take responsibility for your performance?  Are you likely to attribute success to the teacher when you do well and blame yourself when you do badly, or vice versa?

However you look at it, lecturers play a much smaller role in success in tertiary study than in other learning environments, simply because so much of the learning you are expected to do happens outside of the classroom or lecture theatre. Of course, there are inspirational lecturers and great teachers who will impact on your learning, but proportionally very little time is spent in their classes, so increasingly, tertiary learning tends to be the responsibility of the student.

How persistent are you able to be?  What is your natural tendency – to give up when the going gets tough or to doggedly and determinedly push on?

If you are not naturally persistent, this might be the time to make a real effort to develop persistence as a habit. Not surprisingly, persistence is often much more important than academic ability! There are many ‘smart’ people who drop out of university and many people who are not naturally ‘academically smart’ who succeed at university, simply because they refuse to give up.

How do you prefer to work? Alone? In pairs? In groups? Is it different for different subjects? Does it depend on how familiar you are with the material?

Study groups can be useful by making study more fun and gaining the benefit of other students’ understandings and ideas. Think about the stage of learning when you might like to meet with other students, for example when you are just starting to study, or after you have gained a basic understanding on your own. Try organizing a study group if you believe it will be helpful to you.

How much do you look to teachers or supervisors to direct your study or are you able to organize yourself?

Seeking clarification with lecturers is helpful and is often best done via email, particularly if it is difficult to make times to meet face to face. If you want to discuss something, it is often a good idea to make a time to see the lecturer rather than asking questions after class when he or she may be in a hurry.

What time of day is best for you in terms of maximizing your learning? Early morning? At night? When are you most alert?

This will be important as you consider when you should engage in private study. Of course you will want to study when you are most likely to absorb and understand the information, however, if you study well at night be sure to get enough sleep, otherwise you could find yourself missing classes, which tends not to be a good idea.

How does mobility affect your learning? Do you need to get up and walk around from time to time? Do you pace as you learn? Are you able to sit still for long periods of time?

What is your sensory preference? Do you learn best by seeing the information (visual) or by hearing it (auditory) or by doing something like making a model (kinaesthetic)?

We learn most effectively by using all of our senses, but we tend to have preferences that are the easiest way for us to absorb information in the first instance. Think about which of these methods makes learning easiest for you. Most people (around 80%) are visual learners – they learn best when they can see what they are learning. Visual learners will often draw pictures or diagrams and work things out with pen and paper. Auditory learners learn easily by hearing – they may be able to listen to and remember information without necessarily taking many notes. They will often discuss ideas with others or listen to recordings of lectures after the lecture to help them to learn. Kinaesthetic learners need to do something or experience ideas before they can learn them. Kinesthetic learners will sometimes pace as they learn or use models to help them learn. Remember, your primary sensory modality is important, but it is equally important to lay down memories using all your sensory pathways when you are learning. Thus if you lose the memory along one pathway, you will be able to trace it on another (see Chapter 10 for more about this).

How does food intake affect your ability to learn? If you eat a big meal are you likely to want to sleep? Are there particular types of food that affect your concentration? How does excessive sugar affect you?

Drinking plenty of water and eating healthy food is generally a good idea, but beyond this, some authors recommend fish and fish oil to assist with concentration and brain function. More importantly, consider how diet affects your learning. Junk food can give you a quick sugar fix, but can leave you feeling lethargic and lacking motivation.

Cognitive issues have to do with the way that people prefer to process information. There are three major dimensions to consider:

Analytical vs Global Thinking

Analytical thinking is often associated with left brain thinking, while global thinking is more often associated with right brain thinking. Clearly, we use both sides of our brains all the time, but most people have tendencies to be more analytical or global in their thinking. What we need to be able to do is to use both types of thinking depending on the situation, for example, global thinking is often associated with creativity, so thinking about or visualizing the ‘big picture’ when trying to be creative can be useful, but when trying for example to critique a piece of text, analytical thinking is necessary. Knowing how we prefer to think can be useful, for example in responding to the teaching style of teachers. If your teacher is analytical and so presents information in bits before giving you the big picture, and your preference is for the big picture first, then you need to find the big picture, by looking beyond the information that is presented in the lecture. Looking through the text book and seeking that overall view that may not be presented by your teacher or lecturer, or even reading a general text, like an encyclopaedia or doing a Google search may give you a useful general orientation to the topic before you are presented with the details by your teacher.

Impulsive vs Reflective Responding

Do you tend to be impulsive or reflective in your approach to learning? In other words, do you tend to rush in with an answer quickly (impulsive) or would you be more likely to consider carefully before making a response (reflective)? Does it depend on how comfortable you are with the subject matter? For example, does the more you know, make you realize how little you really know, so you think more deeply, or when you know something well do you tend to answer more quickly and reflect less on possible answers?

There are times when a reflective approach is necessary, for example when writing an assignment. Often this will be done over a number of weeks and ongoing reflection about your response to the question will usually give a far better result than responding without having done much reading or thinking. This is a good reason to start assignments early. On the other hand, if you reflect too long, for example in tutorials, it may be very difficult for you to engage in discussion at all! Again, try to vary your approach depending on the requirements of the task. Sometimes people tend to respond impulsively when they lack confidence, for example when answering questions in exams, and this can lead to inaccurate guessing. Think about how you respond in different situations and take charge so that you can respond using the strategy that will yield the best result for you in a particular situation.

Deep vs Surface vs Achievement Approaches

These approaches were first identified by John Biggs.

How do you approach learning tasks? Read the columns in the table below and try to decide which approach (Surface, Deep, Achievement) is most like you.


  Surface Deep Achievement
Focus Tend to look for ways to complete the task as quickly as possible, without too much attention to detail Tend to get immersed in a topic and do much more reading and studying than is necessary for the requirements of the task Tend to work out what is required to achieve top marks and simply do what is required regardless of interest in the task
Motivation Task completion and avoidance of failure as opposed to intrinsic interest in learning Understanding and making meaning, researching and finding information for own interest Desire to achieve excellent results rather than interest in topic or desire to complete a task
Amount of effort Only what is required to find information to complete a task Depends on own interest level and what is required to understand topic Determined more by what is necessary to succeed than interest


While these statements represent a simplified view of approaches to learning, it might be useful to consider these dimensions. For example, if you always adopt a surface approach, it is unlikely that you will do well on certain types of tasks, for example most university essays require you to read and analyse in depth. If you adopt a surface approach, you may get the task done in the set time frame, but you may not include sufficient detail to achieve a high score.

On the other hand, people who approach most tasks from a ‘deep’ perspective may find they fall behind because they read too much and spend too much time pondering ideas. Deep learners sometimes do not do as well as they would like to because they are more interested in learning than in achieving high grades; sometimes once they have done the reading/learning, they are so satisfied with what they have learnt that they lose motivation to write up the assignment! If this rings true for you, now that you understand about your learning approach, you need to push through and complete the task. Your deep understanding should help you to do well.

It is important that we all learn to style flex or consider what our natural tendencies are and then adapt our learning approach or style to the task at hand, so for example a task that is only worth 5% will probably require a surface approach, but the assignment that is worth 50% will most likely require a more in-depth approach. Equally, we can learn from achievement oriented learners by following their example: we can read assessment criteria sheets and check out course objectives so that we understand and can demonstrate the requirements of both the task and the overall course. We can also learn to resist the temptation to delve in depth when depth is not required.

You should have an idea now of the range of issues that affect your learning. Clearly these issues can be much more significant than your intelligence alone. Learning to understand who you are as a learner and being able to style flex by taking account of your learning needs, puts you in control of the learning process and is at the core of what it means to be a strategic student. Rather than reacting to situations, using your natural style, you can develop a proactive approach to tertiary study by developing a strategy or plan that you reflect on and modify when necessary. In general, this will facilitate better learning and produce more satisfying results.

If you would like to take some formal tests of your learning style, there are many tests available on websites: simply Google learning styles and look for free tests. Remember that while you may have some natural preferences, you can and should learn to style flex.

Reflection and Conclusion

Factors that affect learning

Which elements seem most relevant to you?

Different learning approaches

Do you most commonly display deep, surface or achievement learning styles? Or do you ‘style flex’ depending on the task?

Style flexing

In order to take control of learning, you need to think about learning styles at the conscious level so that you can plan to style flex. Is this something you can imagine yourself doing? How can you make sure that you think about style flexing when you are studying?