Understanding how you learn can help you study more effectively. We find out how to discover your preferred learning style and how to develop other study techniques for best results
There is no right or wrong way to go about it – we all learn differently, adopt different approaches and a different pace. How we learn is influenced by many things, too – our motivation on a given day, the trainer and the subject matter, the environment, the time of day, comfort of the chair, even the language that is used. The list is endless and on top of this there is our learning style – the unique collection of individual skills and preferences that affect how we acquire knowledge and skills.
We all use a mix of learning styles, although you may have a preference for one and use others less frequently or in different circumstances. There is no prescribed mix, nor are the styles fixed, but using the right mix helps you learn faster. The good news is, not only can you strengthen the approach you already use, you can also develop and take advantage of other techniques.
One popular theory about how people learn was devised by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford (1982), who identified four learning styles or preferences: activist, reflector, theorist and pragmatist.
Activists thrive in situations involving competitive teamwork and problem-solving. They like to lead discussions and loathe having a merely observant role (lectures and reading) and practising the same tasks repeatedly. They dislike theoretical statements and precise instructions with little room for manoeuvre. They are also a bit disorganised and ‘tend to leave things until the last minute,’ says Kathy Thompson, a coaching and learning expert.
Reflectors take their time to ponder data from different perspectives before coming to any conclusion. They prefer to take a back seat in classroom discussions, dislike pressure and tight deadlines. Reflectors work at their own pace and ‘tend to worry about things,’ says Thompson.
Theorists are good at dealing with abstract ideas. They think problems through step by step and tend to be perfectionists. ‘The most organised of the preferences, theorists love checklists and detailed notes,’ says Thompson. On the other hand, they dislike unstructured activities and when they have to do things without knowing the principles or concepts involved.
Pragmatists need to see a direct link between training and day-to-day situations, and seek immediate opportunities to implement what they have learnt. They are keen on trying out ideas and techniques to see if they work in practice and, according to Thompson, will typically look for short‑cuts to get there.
Having read the above descriptions, you may have already determined which learning style describes you best. But what about if you are still unsure?
‘Think about a recent learning experience – perhaps you had to learn to use new technical software – and what worked for you,’ recommends Sue Cohen, a learning and development specialist and founder of consultancy Sue Cohen Ltd. ‘Did you simply dive in to see what it could do? If so, you’re likely to be an activist. Did you watch others use it first and then read any relevant manuals? Your preferred style is that of a reflector. A theorist would read the technical manuals first and then discuss the software with the experts, and a pragmatist would first look for practical applications and only then try it out.’
‘Consider what techniques have worked for you and those that haven’t. If something hasn’t worked, you probably don’t learn in that way,’ adds Bob Hawken, an accountancy trainer and managing partner of financial training consultancy Hawken & Co. Hawken also recommends looking at out‑of‑work activities and hobbies as these can indicate a greater preference for a particular learning style. Still not sure? ‘Try learning something new, not necessarily accountancy related, using different approaches – which one had the best results?’ says Hawken.
You can also take the Honey and Mumford Learning Style Questionnaire. But don’t be surprised if you discover that, for example, you are both an activist and a pragmatist in nearly equal measures, with a hint of reflector and theorist thrown in. We all exhibit traits from each learning style, to a greater or lesser degree.
Whatever your dominant learning style, it may not suit the type of work and study you are required to do to pass your exams. Fear not, we are not stuck with our predispositions and have potential to learn in new ways. Effective learners make full use of their natural preferences, while also acquiring useful features from their less dominant styles. ‘Try to use a mix of all study methods as the more types you employ, the more likely the information will stick in your memory,’ says Hawken.
By all means, ‘if you’re an activist who enjoys taking part in classroom discussions, make the most of it. But make more time to take notes, too,’ says Cohen. Also, ‘if you act before you think, you’re apt to make potentially ill-informed judgments,’ adds Hawken. ‘For example, exam questions frequently contain points that are not particularly obvious. So, before proceeding to the next question, you need to review both the question and your answer to identify what you may be missing.’
If you are a typical reflector, you tend to listen and take notes rather than participate in classroom discussions. But you will also learn from getting involved, so try to ’take short-hand notes, which will allow you more time to join in,’ recommends Cohen. During exams, your biggest enemy is time as you tend to thoroughly consider all possible angles before you commit your thoughts to paper. ‘So, when revising, put yourself under a small amount of time pressure and gradually increase this as the exam approaches,’ says Hawken, until you are able to fully answer questions under exactly the same time constraints as when sitting an exam.
Once you know what you are most comfortable with and which areas you need to strengthen, Cohen suggests it may also help to find someone with a different learning style with whom to spend some time studying.
For example, theorists and pragmatists may benefit from revising together. A theorist is good at explaining rules and principles, whereas a pragmatist enjoys practising exam questions. As theorists tend to get bogged down with trying to understand how and why things work rather than getting on with practising questions, they may waste time on unimportant details. But, by working with a pragmatist, a theorist ‘might find that, by actually doing something with the information, it sheds light on how the theory and practice fit together,’ says Hawken. Equally, a pragmatist often loses interest if they cannot see practical application of what they are learning for their day-to-day job. ‘But those parts that are not of direct benefit may be very important for the exams,’ adds Hawken. A theorist may help to demonstrate this.
When it comes to learning, there is no right or wrong approach. But to improve your effectiveness, you need to know what your preferences are, use them to full advantage, and stretch yourself beyond them to harness the power of other approaches. Not only will you improve – you will open yourself up to many different ways of perceiving the world, too.