Types of Learning: What to Know When Attending College

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Many of us describe ourselves as a “visual learner” or someone who “learns best by doing.” This is a common way of talking about our preferences in school settings, but how helpful is it to consider these types of learning and how they apply to life as a college student?

In this article, we outline two of the most common models to describe learning styles of students, and then we explore how useful they may be – or may not be – for everyday college life.

Learning Style Models

Two of the most popular models for learning styles are known by their acronyms: the “VAK” model published in 1979 by Walter Burk Barbe, Raymond Swassing and Michael Milone, and the “VARK model” introduced by Neil Fleming in 1987.

Both models described visual, auditory and kinesthetic learners, while the VARK model included reading and writing learners as a fourth category.

1. Visual Learners

Visual learners prefer when information is presented in a graphic style, such as pictures, arrows, charts, diagrams, symbols and more. These learners are drawn to clear visuals of knowledge hierarchy, like how designers use visual hierarchy to emphasize key design components. Visual learners may also create their own pictures, symbols and more to go along with their written notes.

2. Auditory Learners

Auditory learners – sometimes also known as “aural” learners – prefer to listen to information that is presented verbally. They may also feel that they’re better able to focus by limiting other senses, such as closing their eyes while listening. These types of learners often thrive in groups in which there is verbal discourse, such as study groups. They may also enjoy reading aloud to themselves.

3. Reading and Writing Learners

Sometimes referred to as “written word” learners, these types prefer to study written material. They may be fast readers, able to read and comprehend material easier than if they watched a video or listened to the same information in a lecture. Written word learners may take copious notes and refer to them often while studying.

4. Kinesthetic Learners

The term “learn by doing” refers to kinesthetic or tactile learning, which can include physical movements or experiencing feelings or emotions. Kinesthetic learners prefer to be hands-on and use all their senses throughout their college coursework. They may feel more comfortable in courses in which they’re required to make models, perform experiments or gather data.

Effectiveness of Learning Styles

In one study, more than 90% of participants believed that people learn better when taught in their predominant learning style. Despite this popular belief, there is mounting evidence against the validity of learning styles, that they may be a myth.

In her TED Talk from 2015, Dr. Tesia Marshik discussed how the belief in learning styles may be problematic for both students and instructors. She presented examples of studies with evidence that learning may be more connected to meaning and concepts rather than senses like vision or hearing. Her entire TED Talk video is available below.

Neil Fleming, the creator of the VARK model, acknowledged some of the limitations of learning style models himself. In 2006, he wrote:

“Some also confuse preferences with ability or strengths. You can like something but be good at it or not good at it or any point between. VARK tells you about how you like to communicate. It tells you nothing about the quality of that communication.”

Applying Learning Styles in College

So, what does this mean for college students? While it may not be true that you’re able to learn more effectively in one style versus another, it can still be helpful to know your preferences when approaching classwork.

First, if you’re attending college online like students at Columbia Southern University, there are plenty of creative ways to incorporate your favorite learning styles. For example, if you prefer kinesthetic learning, you might exercise while reviewing your notes to help yourself feel more physically engaged. Or if you identify as a visual learner, you may enjoy organizing your thoughts with mind maps or color-coded sections.

While keeping that in mind, don’t limit yourself either. When information is presented to you in a way that’s outside your preferred learning style, don’t assume that you won’t be able to retain it. Also, your preferences may change. You may discover that approaching coursework in a new way may be more efficient than your preferred type of learning. You’re not as limited as you may think you are.


Here at Columbia Southern University, our staff provide support services to help our students have an enjoyable and productive online learning experience, whether it’s help with setting goals or providing tips for time management or writing.

To get started today and learn more about our online degree programs at the associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels, visit our website.

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