Learning came easy when you were a kid. Sure you took a few tumbles the first time you picked up the pogo stick, but quite naturally, you were going up and down stairs with ease before dinnertime. But then you grew up. And the game changed. Now it’s hard enough to figure out the new TV remote you got for Christmas, let alone tackle the Spanish Rosetta Stone you bought for that big trip this summer.

Compared to childhood, learning can be a bit more clunkly as an adult. But grappling with something new is much easier if we know how our mind works. Andragogy–the science of adult learning–has taught us much about how adults think, process information and ultimately learn new things. Such research has shown that we have three different styles of learning–visual, auditory and kinesthetic–and we typically favor one above the others when learning something new.

One Size Fits Few

For a child, learning is all about knowledge transfer. They are proverbial sponges. For an adult on the other hand, learning is more practical. Adults want to know how what they’re learning will help them accomplish something in the workplace or in life. Top of mind is: “What’s in it for me?”

Whether it’s learning an equation in Excel or how to weave a basket, we all assimilate and process information in different ways. You might already know something about your preferences. Maybe you’ve always known that you need to ‘do it to get it.’ Or maybe you’re more theoretical and prefer quiet reading. Are you more of an image or graph person?

What’s Your Learning Style?

While all of us have a blend of all three, we tend to have a preference for either visual (seeing it), auditory (hearing it), or kinesthetic (doing it) processing. There are many tests out there to determine your preferred learning style; below are a few good ones.

  • Learning Style Online Survey offered by the BBC. While our article only focuses on visual, auditory and kinesthetic styles, their website and survey assess five and includes social/emotional and metacognitive styles.
  • The Learning Style Inventory from the Pennsylvania State University. This questionnaire’s good for current students, as the results include advice on how to match your learning style with study habits.
  • The Index of Styles Questionnaire from the North Carolina University. This questionnaire gives you a more comprehensive analysis of how you learn, including active vs. reflective, sensing vs. intuitive, visual vs. verbal and sequential vs. global learning preferences.

The Three Styles

Did you determine your preferred learning style? Now let’s see what it all means.

If you’re a visual learner you’re all about pictures. You need to “see it to believe it.” If you’re asked to visualize a banana you’ll have no problem and will likely enjoy flipping the image of one around in your mind’s eye. If this is your preferred learning style, you’ll learn the best from overheads, videotapes, flip charts, diagrams, images and demonstrations. When working with new material, draw diagrams or use flip-charts to understand what you’re trying to learn.

Unlike visual learners, if your learning style is auditory, instead of show me, it’s ‘tell me.’ You need to hear it to believe it. You’ll respond best to lectures and audio recordings/clips as well as analogies/stories, Q&A sessions and step-by-step instructions. In a learning environment, you’re also at home in a group discussion, so try and get in as many as possible.

In the classroom, kinesthetic learners are the hands-on folks. They learn by doing. If this is your style, you’ll learn best from simulations/role-play, fill-in-the blanks, games, toys and note-taking. Try to engage your material with as many hands-on activities as possible. And remember too, you like to move, so you’ll need frequent, short breaks.

Meet Yourself Where you Are

Let’s look at an example in the workplace. Maybe your manager asks you to learn about a new product on the job. If you’re a visual learner, ask for pictures, diagrams; see if there’s a PowerPoint presentation you can review. For the auditory folks, ask someone to teach it to you, or try and find a lecture or podcast on the product; maybe someone would be willing to sit down with you and ‘talk it out.’ If you’re a kinesthetic learner, instead of plodding through the product manual, ask if you can play with the product or get a demonstration from one of the technical people or salesman.

If your learning style doesn’t currently match the places you learn, customize them to fit your preferences. If you’re an auditory learner and music distracts you, ask if you can turn down the radio in the office. Make your workspace more visually appealing if you’re a visual learner. And if you’re a kinesthetic, take frequent breaks to move your body.

Being able to match your style with a learning event improves your ability to process and learn information. Armed with this self-knowledge, you can approach learning more purposefully and absorb information as well as solve problems more effectively.

Give What You Have

Understanding your style also helps you better know the value you can provide. If you’re a kinesthetic learner, you can be an asset to the team as the group’s pitchman or stand-up presenter. While the auditory learners can head-up the creation of a podcast series, the visual learners might want to tackle webinars.

Whether it’s the classroom, workplace or a social situation, knowing other’s preferences helps you see (well okay…hear or feel) things from their point of view. Not only does this make you more compassionate in the event that you don’t see eye-to-eye, you can better tailor what you’re trying to communicate to how they will best process it. Ultimately, knowing your learning style is all part of Socrates’ ‘Know Thyself’ and by understanding your preferred style, not only can better tailor what you learn with how you learn, you can live a more thoughtful and productive life.