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Learn How to Lean into Your Learning Style as an Online Student

Knowing your learning style and how to make the most of it can give you a leg up in your online classes. Read on to learn more.

Two women smiling and looking at a laptop screen together in a cozy room, suggesting a collaborative learning style or studying environment.

Imagine yourself as the captain of a ship, adrift on an endless sea without a compass or even the stars above to help you find your way. Concise and obvious as it may be, there’s only one word that would describe your predicament: lost. In a similar (albeit less dramatic) sense, setting sail on the vast ocean of online learning without a strong grasp of your learning style(s) to guide you can be a daunting and overwhelming endeavor.

The concept of “learning styles” refers to the innate behaviors, preferences, and patterns that guide our acquisition of knowledge and skills and can be traced back thousands of years. Knowing your learning style can help you develop study methods that complement your natural means of knowledge acquisition and make you a more efficient and effective student, all of which is crucial to your academic success. Indeed, much like a ship captain’s compass, this knowledge will allow you to chart your way through your entire educational journey. Keep in mind, however, that as helpful a tool as this is, knowing your learning style isn’t enough on its own to guarantee smooth sailing.

To help you cast off, we have created this guide to approaching online education through the lens of your unique learning style(s). In it, you will find descriptions of each major learning style as well as style-specific study recommendations. Keep reading to gain the insight and tools you need to confidently navigate the deep and turbulent seas of online learning.

Visual: Seeing is Believing

According to the popular VARK learning styles model, learners who benefit from a visual approach tend to see the “big picture.” Converting words into visual elements, such as symbols, drawings, graphics, maps, and diagrams, helps visual learners absorb and retain new ideas. Design and layout are also key to their understanding of novel concepts, so if you think you might learn best visually, take note of how white space, colors, and shapes help solidify your understanding of new material.

Visual learners, particularly those studying online, may struggle with lecture-based instruction in the sense that they tend to “zone out” or let their minds wander in order to mentally visualize content. Internalizing material this way means you often do very well with creative tasks and are highly imaginative. As Lincoln Land Community College notes, visual learners tend excel at planning ahead because they can understand information in a broader context. Visual learners are also good at tasks that require concentration and close attention to details.

Academic Success Strategies

There are many steps visual learners can take to optimize their own learning. Consider the following points if you’re ready to lean into your strengths as a visual learner:

  • According to Columbia State Community College, visual learners should look at professors and other lecturers (even in online meetings) while they talk. A handout from Montana State University explains that doing so allows them to focus on body language and facial expressions, which are important visual cues for understanding content.
  • Converting words into pictures by creating symbols or diagrams for important vocabulary or concepts helps the most important points “stick” with visual learners.
  • Visual learners can use color and layout to their advantage, so taking steps like using color-coded highlighters and flash cards or reorganizing notes into other visual layouts such as mind maps can be extremely helpful.

Online Learning Challenge: Text-Heavy Content

Like your peers studying in a traditional format, you are often expected to independently digest enormous amounts of text as an online student. However, unlike an in-person student, you do not have the benefit of seeing your instructors’ body language and facial expressions as they discuss assigned readings from behind the slides on the screen they’re sharing.

To compensate for this deficit, make an effort to break up lengthy blocks of text with sketches, symbols, highlighting, or any other strategy that helps you pause to create mental images. Paper texts are convenient for this purpose, and research shows that they produce superior results in terms of recall and concentration. However, thanks to browser extensions like Helperbird, readers can do many of the same things (and more) with digital texts.

Auditory: Tune Into Success

Auditory learners are exactly what they sound like—students who find it easier to absorb information when it can be listened to or heard. The VARK model states that auditory learners do best when material is presented via almost any audio form, including lectures, group discussions, radio, phone, and more. But auditory learners also need the chance to work through their thoughts aloud (and in their own words) by asking questions and reflecting or paraphrasing information.

An article from the University of Phoenix notes that learners with an auditory preference may become bored or disengaged with silent tasks (such as those that are strictly written or visual) that require them to work alone. However, in spite of this, auditory learners are usually great listeners who excel at recalling information they hear. Furthermore, they are often comfortable with public speaking and engaging in discussion.

Academic Success Strategies

If you prefer the auditory modality, you’ll be glad to hear that you don’t have to study in silence. In fact, there are many ways you can enrich their learning. Here are a few examples:

  • VARK recommends that auditory learners summarize their notes and record themselves reading a summary of what they are studying aloud to listen to and review.
  • Auditory learners should ask questions, participate in (and initiate) discussions with their instructors and fellow students, and obtain verbal feedback on their understanding.
  • An article from Lifehack.org suggests using speech-to-text software for taking notes and drafting written assignments. This approach keeps auditory learners’ thoughts on track by engaging their aural preference while simultaneously allowing them to produce an editable written document.
  • Because auditory learners are usually skilled at recalling details they hear, they should experiment with taking notes only after carefully listening to a lecture or presentation.

Online Learning Challenge: Limited Auditory Stimuli

The nature of online learning usually doesn’t allow individuals with an auditory learning preference to get the input they need. After all, fully online programs do not require students to attend lectures or participate in live discussions. Instead, a great deal of online study is silent and independent.

To compensate for this lack of auditory stimuli, VARK advises online auditory learners to watch lecture recordings and take advantage of any opportunities to video conference with their instructors and peers. You can also independently seek out and consume supplemental audio materials—such as videos, podcasts, and audiobooks—related to your studies.

Reading/Writing: Words of Wisdom

Learners with a read/write preference are most comfortable consuming written information. According to the VARK description of this style, these individuals thrive on the written word in all forms, but they learn especially well from reading and producing texts. In general, those who have a strong preference for this type of learning will do well even in the absence of auditory or visual elements as long as they have access to in-depth texts.

Promethean offers an in-depth resource on the strengths and weaknesses of students with read/write learning preferences. On the plus side, read/write learners tend to be self-sufficient and can essentially teach themselves many concepts by independently diving into written texts. However, they may find it difficult to focus during lectures or discussions if they are not allowed to take notes or refer to a written outline.

Academic Success Strategies

If you consider yourself a reading/writing learner, you may have noticed that you have an easier time with text-heavy online learning than some of your peers, but you can still employ strategies to maximize your success. Here are a few considerations:

  • The Success Center of the Community College of Rhode Island has many helpful recommendations for read/write learners, including paraphrasing concepts and principles and writing statements that describe the overarching trends expressed in charts, diagrams, and graphs.
  • An article from College Raptor recommends that these students seek out further reading on the topics they are studying to deepen their knowledge and gain other perspectives.
  • Strategies from VARK advise read/write learners to repeatedly reread and rewrite notes and organize them into points according to hierarchies.

Online Learning Challenge: Digital Distractions

If you consider yourself a reading/writing learner, you may have noticed that you have an easier time with text-heavy online learning than some of your peers, but you can still employ strategies to maximize your success. Here are a few considerations:

  • The Success Center of the Community College of Rhode Island has many helpful recommendations for read/write learners, including paraphrasing concepts and principles and writing statements that describe the overarching trends expressed in charts, diagrams, and graphs.
  • An article from College Raptor recommends that these students seek out further reading on the topics they are studying to deepen their knowledge and gain other perspectives.
  • Strategies from VARK advise read/write learners to repeatedly reread and rewrite notes and organize them into points according to hierarchies.

Kinesthetic: Learning by Doing

Kinesthetic learners acquire information best through experience and practice, whether simulated or real. That is, they learn very well by moving and doing things themselves, but they also respond favorably to demonstrations, simulations, case studies, and videos of real things and events. Overall, if something is concrete, connected to reality, and strongly engages the senses, it is likely to hold great appeal for the kinesthetic learner.

As Lincoln Land Community College notes, kinesthetic learners may struggle with tasks that require them to sit still, such as reading or writing. Furthermore, they may become distracted during auditory or visual presentations because they prefer direct involvement in what they are learning. But as the Universal Technical Institute remarks, kinesthetic learners also possess significant strengths—they excel at hands-on subjects like art and science; they are highly curious, and they crave exploration.

Academic Success Strategies

Although having kinesthetic learning style may present some academic challenges, there are plenty of ways that you can put your natural inclination to engaging with material physically to ensure your academic success. Here are some specific strategies:

  • Houghton University recommends that kinesthetic learners engage with content by using as many manipulative strategies as possible, including making visuals (maps, charts, graphs, etc.), preparing and using index cards, and constructing models.
  • The University of Cincinnati says that kinesthetic learners should pay attention to the physical texture of notes and read textbooks or other required materials through transparencies of various colors. Additionally, they should take advantage of opportunities to visit exhibits or attend trips related to their studies.
  • Tacoma Community College recommend that these students move around while studying, incorporate motions that help focus the mind (foot tapping, gum chewing, squeezing a stress ball, etc.), and rewrite class notes.

Online Learning Challenge: Limited Tactile Material

When considering kinesthetic learners’ strong preference for concrete, grounded, experiential learning, it is not difficult to see how the virtual nature of online learning might present a challenge. This is especially true in the case of fully online programs that do not include any type of face-to-face component.

There are, however, ways for kinesthetic learners to adapt to online learning and thrive academically. For example, as VARK points out, there is a wealth of real-world information available online through video. Kinesthetic learners can use this media as a reasonable alternative to in-person laboratory sessions and live demonstrations because it still satisfies their innate need for the tangible material.

More Than 4: Additional Learning Styles

Although most learners identify with at least one of the four major modes we discussed above (visual, auditory, read/write, and kinesthetic), there are actually many more ways to describe learning preferences and intelligence types (which are often, if somewhat inaccurately, used interchangeably). In the section below, we’ve described a few of these less commonly referenced learning styles. Keep reading to get the details on each one.

Logical/Analytical Learners

A guide from Bay Atlantic University describes logical/analytical learners as those who learn by searching for connections, causes, patterns, and results. They are energized by learning activities that require reasoning, problem solving, and deduction. If you identify with this style, you likely excel when interacting with fact-driven content and detail but may struggle with processing open-ended information, seeing the big picture, or fully understanding emotion-driven humanities concepts.

Nature Learners

Individuals with naturalistic intelligence seek interaction with and exploration of the natural environment. They enjoy being outdoors and engaging in activities such as gardening, hiking, camping, observing animals, and interacting with pets. Verywell Mind notes that these learners are very good at categorizing and cataloging information, but they are generally uninterested in topics that cannot be connected to nature.

Social/Linguistic Learners

Social/linguistic learners thrive on interacting and communicating with others. In the classroom, they enjoy all types of positive exchanges with other people, including working on group projects, sharing stories, asking questions, and role-playing. If interactions with others allow you to gain a deeper understanding of relevant topics, you likely excel at communicating effectively with others, but may struggle with tasks that require you to work independently and silently.

Solitary Learners

An article from College Raptor describes solitary learners, also known as intrapersonal learners, as individuals who prefer to learn by themselves versus learning in a group. Generally, these students tend to find it easier to focus when they have quiet time to think without being pressured to talk to others about their ideas. You may be a solitary learner if you find that you are skilled at analyzing information and developing unique ideas, but sometimes undercut your own learning potential by being reluctant to seek others’ perspectives.

Beyond VARK: A Look at Other Learning Models

Although the VARK model is by far the most common categorization model for learning styles, it is certainly not the only one. In reality, there are a variety of other systems out there to describe and help you take advantage of the way you learn. Continue to the section below to learn about several other influential models and see if you recognize your learning style among them.

4MAT Model

The 4MAT model is a process that allows teachers to deliver instruction that will theoretically meet the needs of the four categories of learners it recognizes—innovative, analytic, common sense, and dynamic. The process itself has 12 steps divided into four quadrants, and instruction proceeds along the steps in order. A major similarity 4MAT shares with VARK is its use of four learning styles/modes. Otherwise, there are no clear parallels between the two models .

Felder-Silverman Learning Style Model

In the Felder-Silverman learning style model, there are four dimensions of personality (each set on a two-word continuum) that correspond to specific learning preferences. These dimensions are sensing-intuitive, visual-verbal, active-reflective, and sequential-global. You can discover your learning style according to this model by completing a questionnaire called the Index of Learning Styles (ILS). Because its use of continuums, the Felder-Silverman model is somewhat more nuanced than the more popular VARK model. That said, there are some similarities; the visual-verbal dimension of this model is similar to VARK’s visual and verbal styles. Likewise, the active end of the active-reflective continuum is similar to VARK’s kinesthetic classification. Understanding your unique learning style and how best you can cater to it may involve pulling from several different models.

Honey-Mumford Model

The Honey-Mumford Model describes learning styles as a continuum that we move through over time. Like the other models we’ve described, it also posits four learning styles: reflectors, theorists, activists, and pragmatists. Reflectors like to observe, review, and consider information from multiple perspectives before drawing conclusions; theorists prefer to integrate their learning into complex theories; activists take action first and consider the implications afterward; and pragmatists prefer practical learning with clear real-world applications. The only Honey-Mumford category that bears any similarity to the VARK structures is the activist, which describes learners who prefer a hands-on, learn-by-doing style similar to VARK’s kinesthetic learner.

Kolb Learning Style Model

As with the other models, the Kolb Learning Style Model proposes four learning styles: accommodating, diverging, converging, and assimilating. Each style has its own place along the two continuums (processing via thinking or feeling and perception via watching or doing) that make up the Kolb learning cycle. If you have an accommodating learning style, you learn best through a combination of feeling and doing; diverging learners prefer to feel and watch, converging learners to think and do, and assimilating learners to think + watch. Unlike the learning styles in the VARK model, which focus on the external sensory means of learning, the Kolb learning style model focuses on the internal aspects of learning.