Learning Styles


Understanding your own preferred Learning Styles can help you study more effectively by using techniques that can really improve the way you:

a) perceive information;
b) process information and;
c) organise and present information.


Why tell me now?

Studying at university makes very different demands on you compared with school and college.


The scope of study at university is much wider than you'll have been used to. You won't be able to read everything there is to read on your subject.


In higher education the focus is on you; you will be expected to study on your own much more than you may have been used to.


You're given much more responsibility at university for organising your own schedule.


You are expected to do much more reading at university than you've been used to — especially if you've been on a gap year or are a mature student. It's not called ‘reading for a degree' for nothing.


A lot of university teaching happens in lectures where you may be one of 200 students. Often it's up to you whether you attend — and whether you learn anything there.


Essays at university are longer, you need to write in an objective academic style and give references.

Time scale

They often set essays and assignments weeks before you have to hand them in. And there won't be anybody to remind you that they are due in.


There are many subjects in which it's impossible to get 100%. First Class Honours Degrees are awarded for a ‘high level of critical and analytical ability' and ‘originality of thought' rather than for just getting the answers right.

All of this means that the ways of studying which helped you get to university may not be enough now that you're here. So, although it probably seems perverse to offer advice about learning styles at this point in your academic career, that's just what we're going to do.


What are these Styles of Learning?

There are several competing theories about how people learn, and websites where you can assess your natural learning style. If you want to follow this up further, there are references at the end of this section. To give a highly simplified overview, the theories cover three main aspects of how people study:

a) perceiving information
b) processing information
c) organising and presenting information

a) Perceiving information

When we gather information about the world around us (including the information we need in order to study), we employ all our senses. But some of us employ one sense more than others. The VARK system assesses how much people rely on:

  • sight (Visual),
  • hearing (Auditory),
  • Reading / Writing, and
  • other sensations (Kinaesthetic, which includes touch and temperature as well as movement).

People say things like, ‘I'm an auditory learner' (meaning that they are comfortable absorbing information which they've heard or discussed); or ‘I'm a kinaesthetic learner' (if they prefer to learn through practical classes and hands-on activities, rather than by reading books and listening to lectures). In fact, each of us uses all available senses to absorb information. But you may find it helpful to confirm what your strengths are with regard to perception. If you want to do this, visit the VARK website, fill in the test, and check your results.

b) Processing information

Once you've acquired information (by listening, reading, etc.), you then process it mentally (by thinking about it and memorizing it). You will have a natural preference for how you:

Grasp information

Do you prefer to deal with:

  • abstract concepts and generalisations, or
  • concrete, practical examples?

Order information

Would you rather receive facts:

  • in a logical, sequential way (to build up a picture one step at a time), or
  • with an overview straight away (to show the big picture first, then the details)?

Engage with information

Do you prefer:

  • active experimentation or
  • reflective observation?

Visit Improving your own Learning and Performance (University of Surrey) to assess your style of information processing and get tips on making best use of your strengths.

c) Organising and presenting information

Finally, there is how you choose to share information with others. You will have a preference for how you:

  • organise information — with a holistic overview, or with detailed and logical analysis
  • present information — verbally or using images.

We haven't found a website where you can match yourself against these criteria, but you're probably getting the idea.


What should I do now?

This is not just a matter of intellectual curiosity; it affects every student at university. Most academics have stayed in higher education because they possess these characteristics:

  • VARK: auditory, reader / writer
  • Processing information: abstract, logical, sequential, reflective
  • Organising and presenting information: analytic verbal.

Although the university does not analyse its students, it seems likely that only a minority share these characteristics. And that means you will probably need to translate the style of university teaching into something which you find more congenial.


If you are a Visual Learner, you will remember things best when you've seen them.

  • You will like a stimulating and orderly environment.
  • You probably like to use diagrams and charts.
  • You probably like reading, and may be a good speller.

Study tips to help people who are visual learners

Write things down to help you learn them:

  • Draw pictures, charts and maps to help you understand things
  • Use mind-mapping
  • Use planners, organisers or goal-setting charts
  • Highlight important points with colour (but not in books which you've borrowed!)
  • Try visualising ideas and facts in your mind
  • Try changing places in the room while you're studying, to get a different perspective
  • Use models if they're available
  • When you need to revise, read over and recopy your notes.

You can see more information at the VARK website.


If you are what's called an Auditory Learner, you will learn best when you're listening (for example, in a lecture) and when you're involved in discussion. You will remember things best when you've heard them.

Study tips to help people who are auditory learners

The key thing is to make use of sound:

  • Talk things through as you learn them, with a friend or tutorial group
  • Get a friend to read aloud to you
  • When you have to learn facts, try reciting them to yourself, or even singing them aloud.
  • Find out if you study best in silence, or with music playing in the background
  • Realise that some people aren't as good as you at remembering what they are told.

You can see more information at the VARK website.


University education is ideal for you. You are comfortable reading text and writing notes and essays. When you are studying graphs, charts and diagrams, convert them into words.

You can see more information at the VARK website.


If you are what's called a kinaesthetic learner, you will learn best when you're moving around. You will remember things best when you've done them (rather than just read about them). You may have trouble with spelling. In lectures you may make lots of notes but tend never to look at them again.

Study tips to help people who are kinaesthetic learners

  • Move around as you learn and revise
  • Work through problems physically
  • Mentally review what you've been studying while you're swimming or jogging
  • Use models and machines when you can
  • Take plenty of breaks while you're studying.

You can see more information at the VARK website.

Most people use all four modalities

If you are one of them, there are tips for you at the VARK website.

For all learners

You will need to make the most of your strengths as a learner, and practise strategies that will allow you to build up the weaker areas. That's what the rest of this website tries to do.

If you want explore how people learn, there are dozens of interesting websites. You might want to use this list to get started on your exploration or take a look at exercises for changing your VAK style.

> return to the list of quick-reference guides


Further Reading

Your next step should be to print out and work through the study guide Learning Styles


Fleming ND (2001) Teaching and Learning Styles: VARK Strategies Honolulu Community College ISBN 0-473-07956-9.

VARK is an extension of the concept of VAK which comes from NeuroLinguistic Programming (Bandler, R, Grinder J, O'Stevens J. (1981) Frogs into Princes: Neuro Linguistic Programming. Real People Press) and the work of Dunn R, Dunn K. (1978) Teaching Students Through Their Individual Learning Styles: A Practical Approach. Virginia, Reston Publishing.

Honey P, Mumford A. (1992) The Manual of Learning Styles 3rd Ed. Maidenhead, Peter Honey.

Kolb DA (1984) Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey, Prentice Hall

Gregorc AR. (1982) Style Delineator. Maynard MA, Gabriel Systems.

Riding R, Rayner S. (1998) Cognitive styles and learning strategies: Understanding style differences in learning and behaviour London: David Fulton.

University of Southampton

last updated on October 16, 2008
contact details and credits
all resources © University of Southampton