Perhaps you have not thought about how college instructors, and even particular courses, have their own inherent styles, which can be different from your preferred style of learning. Many instructors rely almost solely on lecturing; others use lots of visual aids, such as PowerPoint outlines, charts, graphs, and pictures. In science courses, you will conduct experiments or go on field trips where you can observe or touch what you are studying. In dance, theater, or physical education courses, learning takes place in both your body and your mind. And in almost all courses, you’ll learn by reading both textbooks and other materials. Some instructors are friendly and warm and others seem to want little interaction with students. It’s safe to say that in at least some of your college courses, you won’t find a close match between the way you learn most effectively and the way you’re being taught. As you read, you will start to understand how you learn best and then think of ways you can create a link between your style of learning and the expectations of each course and instructor.

Tools for Measuring Your Learning Style

There are many ways of thinking about and describing learning styles. Some of them will make a lot of sense to you; others might initially seem confusing or counterintuitive. Some learning style theories are very simple, and some are complex. You will notice some overlap between the different theories and tools, but using several of them might help you do a more precise job of discovering your learning style. If you are interested in reading more about learning styles, the library and campus learning center will have many resources.

The VARK Learning Styles Inventory

The VARK Inventory, a sixteen-item questionnaire, focuses on how learners prefer to use their senses (hearing, seeing, writing, reading, experiencing) to learn. The acronym VARK stands for “Visual,” “Aural,” “Read/Write,” and “Kinesthetic.” As you read through the following descriptions, see which ones ring true to how you learn.

  • Visual learners prefer to learn information through charts, graphs, symbols, and other visual means. If you remember data best that is presented in graphic form or in a picture, map, or video, you are a visual learner.

  • Aural learners prefer to hear information and discuss it with friends, classmates, or instructors. If talking about information from lectures or textbooks helps you remember it, you are an aural learner.

  • Read/Write learners prefer to learn information through words on a printed page. During a test, if you can sometimes visualize where information appears in the textbook, you are a read/write learner.

  • Kinesthetic learners prefer to learn through experience and practice, whether simulated or real. They often learn through their sense of touch. Recopying or typing notes helps them remember the material. They also learn better when their bodies are in motion, whether participating in sports, dancing, or working out. If you are a kinesthetic learner, you may find that even your sense of taste or smell contributes to your learning process.

Two or three of these modes probably describe your preferred ways of learning better than the others. At the college level, faculty members tend to share information primarily via lecture and the textbook, but many students like to learn through visual and interactive means. This difference creates a mismatch between learning and teaching styles. Is it a problem? Not necessarily, if you know how to handle such a mismatch. In this activity, you’ll learn strategies to adapt lecture material and the text to your preferred modes of learning.

The Kolb Inventory of Learning Styles

A learning model that is more complex than the VARK Inventory is the widely used and referenced Kolb Inventory of Learning Styles. While the VARK Inventory investigates how learners prefer to use their senses in learning, the Kolb Inventory focuses on abilities we need to develop so as to learn. This inventory, developed in the 1980s by David Kolb, is based on a four-stage cycle of learning.

According to Kolb, effective learners need four kinds of abilities:

  1. Concrete experience abilities, which allow them to be receptive to others and open to other people’s feelings and specific experiences. An example of this type of ability is learning from and empathizing with others.

  2. Reflective observation abilities, which help learners reflect on their experiences from many perspectives. An example of this type of ability is remaining impartial while considering a situation from a number of different points of view.

  3. Abstract conceptualization abilities, which help learners integrate observations into logically sound theories. An example of this type of ability is analyzing ideas intellectually and systematically.

  4. Active experimentation abilities, which enable learners to make decisions, solve problems, and test what they have learned in new situations. An example of this type of ability is being ready to move quickly from thinking to action.

Kolb’s Inventory of Learning Styles measures differences along two basic dimensions that represent opposite styles of learning. The first dimension is abstract-concrete, and the second is active-reflective.

Doing well in college will require you to adopt some behaviors that are characteristic of each of these four learning styles. Some of them might be uncomfortable for you, but that discomfort will indicate that you’re growing, stretching, and not relying on the learning style that might be easiest or most natural.

If you are a diverger, you are adept at reflecting on situations from many viewpoints. You excel at brainstorming, and you’re imaginative, people oriented, and sometimes emotional. On the downside, you sometimes have difficulty making decisions. Divergers tend to major in the humanities or social sciences.

If you are an assimilator, you like to think about abstract concepts. You are comfortable in classes where the instructor lectures about theoretical ideas without relating the lectures to real-world situations. Assimilators often major in math, physics, or chemistry.

If you are a converger, you like the world of ideas and theories, but you also are good at thinking about how to apply those theories to real-world, practical situations. You differ from divergers in your preference for tasks and problems rather than social and interpersonal issues. Convergers tend to choose health-related and engineering majors.

If you are an accommodator, you prefer hands-on learning. You are skilled at making things happen, and you rely on your intuition. You like people, but you can be pushy and impatient at times, and you might use trial and error, rather than logic, to solve problems. Accommodators often major in business, especially in marketing or sales.1

In all your classes, but especially in liberal arts and social science courses, you will need to develop the strengths of divergers: imagination, brainstorming, and listening with an open mind. The abilities that are characteristic of assimilators, developing theories and concepts, are valuable for all students, especially those in the sciences. If you major in the health sciences or in engineering, you will routinely practice the skills of convergers: experimenting with new ideas and choosing the best solution. Finally, whatever your major and ultimate career, you’ll need to get things done, take some risks, and become a leader, all skills that are characteristic of accommodators.

The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator

One of the best-known and most widely used personality inventories that can also be used to describe learning styles is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, or MBTI.2 Whereas the VARK measures your preferences for using your senses to learn and the Kolb Inventory focuses on learning abilities, the MBTI investigates basic personality characteristics and how they relate to human interaction and learning. The MBTI was created by Isabel Briggs Myers and her mother, Katharine Cook Briggs. The inventory identifies and measures psychological type as developed in the personality theory of Carl Gustav Jung, the great twentieth-century psychoanalyst. The MBTI is given to several million people around the world each year. Employers often use this test to give employees insight into how they perceive the world, go about making decisions, and get along with other people. Many first-year seminar or college success courses also include a focus on the MBTI because it provides a good way to begin a dialogue about human interaction and how personality type affects learning.

All the psychological types described by the MBTI are normal and healthy. There is no good or bad or right or wrong; people are simply different. When you complete the Myers-Briggs survey instrument, your score represents your “psychological type,” or the combination of your preferences on four different scales. These scales measure how you take in information and how you then make decisions or come to conclusions about that information. Each preference has a one-letter abbreviation. The four letters together make up your type. Although this reading doesn’t include the actual survey, you will find a description of the basic MBTI types below. In each case, which sounds more like you?

Extraversion (E) versus Introversion (I): The Inner or Outer World.

The E-I preference indicates whether you direct your energy and attention primarily toward the outer world of people, events, and things or the inner world of thoughts, feelings, and reflections. Personality characteristics of extraverts and introverts are summarized here:

Extraverts Introverts
Outgoing, gregarious, talkative (may talk too much) Shy, reflective; careful listeners
People of action (may act before they think) Consider actions deeply (may think too long before acting or neglect to act at all)
Energized by people and activity Refreshed by quiet and privacy
Good communicators and leaders Less likely to voice their opinions; often viewed as unaware of people and situations around them

Sensing (S) versus Intuition (N): Facts or Ideas.

The S-N preference indicates how you perceive the world and take in information: directly, through your five senses; or indirectly, by using your intuition. Personality characteristics of sensing and intuitive types are summarized here:

Sensing Types Intuitive Types
Interested above all in the facts, what they can be sure of; dislike unnecessary complication; prefer practicing skills they already know Fascinated by concepts and big ideas; prefer learning new skills over those already mastered
Relatively traditional and conventional Original, creative, and nontraditional
Practical, factual, realistic, and down-to-earth Innovative but sometimes impractical; need inspiration and meaning; prefer to look to the future rather than at the present
Accurate, precise, and effective with routine and details; sometimes miss the “forest” for the “trees” May exaggerate facts unknowingly; dislike routine and details; work in bursts of energy

Thinking (T) versus Feeling (F): Logic or Values.

The T-F preference indicates how you prefer to make your decisions: through logical, rational analysis or through your subjective values, likes, and dislikes. Personality characteristics of thinking types and feeling types are summarized here:

Thinking Types Feeling Types
Logical, rational, analytical, and critical Warm, empathetic, and sympathetic
Relatively impersonal and objective in making decisions, less swayed by feelings and emotions; sometimes surprised and puzzled by others' feelings Need and value harmony; often distressed or distracted by argument and conflict; reluctant to tackle unpleasant interpersonal tasks
Need and value fairness; can deal with interpersonal disharmony Need and value kindness and harmony
Fair, logical, and just; firm and assertive Facilitate cooperation and goodwill in others; sometimes unable to be assertive when appropriate
May seem cold, insensitive, and overly blunt and hurtful in their criticisms Occasionally illogical, emotionally demanding, and unaffected by objective reason and evidence

Judging (J) versus Perceiving (P): Organization or Adaptability.

The J-P preference indicates how you characteristically approach the outside world: by making decisions and judgments or by observing and perceiving instead. Personality characteristics of judging and perceiving types are summarized here:

Judging Types Perceiving Types
Orderly, organized, punctual, and tidy Spontaneous and flexible
In control of their own world and sphere of influence Adapt to their world rather than try to control it; comfortable dealing with changes and unexpected developments
Quick decision makers; like to make and follow plans Slow to make decisions; prefer a wait-and-see approach
Sometimes judgmental and prone to jump to conclusions or make decisions without enough information; have trouble changing plans Tendency toward serious procrastination and juggling too many things at once without finishing anything; sometimes messy and disorganized

How to Use Your Strongest—and Weakest—Preferences

Because each of the four different preferences has two possible choices, sixteen psychological types are possible. No matter what your Myers-Briggs type, all components of personality have value in the learning process. The key to success, therefore, is to use all the attitudes and functions (E, I, S, N, T, F, J, and P) in their most positive sense. As you go about your studies, we recommend this system:

  1. Extraversion: Take action. Now that you have a plan, act on it. Do whatever it takes. Create note cards, study outlines, study groups, and so on. If you are working on a paper, now is the time to start writing.

  2. Introversion: Think it through. Before you take any action, carefully review everything you have encountered so far.

  3. Sensing: Get the facts. Use sensing to find and learn the facts. How do we know facts when we see them? What is the evidence for what is being said?

  4. Intuition: Get the ideas. Now use intuition to consider what those facts mean. Why are those facts being presented? What concepts and ideas are being supported by those facts? What are the implications? What is the big picture?

  5. Thinking: Critically analyze. Use thinking to analyze the pros and cons of what is being presented. Are there gaps in the evidence? What more do we need to know? Do the facts really support the conclusions? Are there alternative explanations? How well does what is presented hang together logically? How could our knowledge of it be improved?

  6. Feeling: Make informed value judgments. Why is this material important? What does it contribute to people’s good? Why might it be important to you personally? What is your personal opinion about it?

  7. Judging: Organize and plan. Don’t just dive in! Now is the time to organize and plan your studying so that you will learn and remember everything you need to. Don’t just plan in your head, either; write your plan down, in detail.

  8. Perceiving: Change your plan as needed. Be flexible enough to change something that isn’t working. Expect the unexpected and deal with the unforeseen. Don’t give up the whole effort the minute your original plan stops working. Figure out what’s wrong, come up with another, better plan, and start following that.3

Multiple Intelligences

Another way of measuring how we learn is the theory of multiple intelligences, developed in 1983 by Dr. Howard Gardner, a professor of education at Harvard University. Gardner’s theory is based on the premise that the traditional notion of human intelligence is very limited. Gardner argues that students should be encouraged to develop the abilities they have and that evaluation should measure all forms of intelligence, not just linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligence. As you might imagine, Gardner’s work is controversial because it questions our long-standing definitions of intelligence. According to Gardner, all human beings have at least eight different types of intelligence:

  1. A verbal/linguistic learner likes to read, write, and tell stories and is good at memorizing information.

  2. A logical/mathematical learner likes to work with numbers and is good at problem-solving and logical processes.

  3. A visual/spatial learner likes to draw and play with machines and is good at puzzles and reading maps and charts.

  4. A bodily/kinesthetic learner likes to move around and is good at sports, dance, and acting.

  5. A musical/rhythmic learner likes to sing and play an instrument and is good at remembering melodies and noticing pitches and rhythms.

  6. An interpersonal learner likes to have many friends and is good at understanding people, leading others, and mediating conflicts.

  7. Intrapersonal learners like to work alone, understand themselves well, and are original thinkers.

  8. A naturalistic learner likes to be outside and is good at preservation, conservation, and organizing a living area.

learning styles Particular ways of learning, unique to each individual. For example, one person prefers reading to understand how something works, whereas another prefers using a “hands-on” approach.