Improve Your College Grades by Embracing Your Learning Style

You've probably noticed that you tend to do better academically in some classes than others. In some cases, the subject matter makes the difference. You may be more interested in literature than math, or find science easier to understand than history. However in other cases, the difference may be related to your particular learning style.

Some educators theorize that most people absorb new information in three primary ways: visually, auditorily, or kinesthetically (VAK). Most people use all of these learning approaches, but may have a main learning style that works best for them. According to the VAK learning model:

  • Visual learners prefer to see information in images, charts/graphs and symbols.
  • Auditory learners understand concepts better if they hear them discussed, as in a lecture or discussion.
  • Kinesthetic learners pick up information best when they can touch physical items or move their own body around while studying.

Of course, college professors can't possibly customize their classes to match all student learning styles. However, if you take some time to understand how you best absorb and remember new information, you can actually adapt your college study skills — or sometimes even customize required class projects (perhaps create a podcast or record an audio interview for a history class) — in ways that work to your advantage. The result: possibly higher grades and less academic stress.

The key is making sure the classes you take suit your learning style, and when they don't, you know how to adjust your approach to succeed all the same.

Check Your Classes for "Good Fit"

At the beginning of each term, pay close attention to whether each of your courses is a good match for you. Carefully review the professor's syllabus. What kinds of projects are required? How much of your grade will depend on test scores versus homework? How much reading is involved?

If you notice red flags that could impact your ability to do well in the class, talk to your academic adviser or professor as soon as you can. In many cases, you may need to stretch yourself academically or adjust your study skills to meet your professor's requirements. However, there may be some cases when switching to a different class makes sense. For instance, maybe you're not a great test-taker, but you enroll in a class in which your grade is determined almost entirely by midterm and final test scores. In that case, you might be better off switching to a class that bases a larger percentage of your grade on homework and projects, so your test scores aren't quite as critical.

If changing classes isn't an option, though, don't worry. You may be able to improve how you do in a course just by using study strategies that take advantage of your particular learning style.

Strategies for Visual Learners

If you're a ferocious note-taker or love to read, visual learning tactics may work well for you:

  • Use color-coding: Use different colored-pens to clearly separate different steps of math or science equations.
  • Make flash cards: You may find it easier to memorize vocabulary in your foreign-language class or recall terms in your art history course if you write out and review words on notecards, or use online tools like Quizlet.
  • Add images: Whenever possible, use graphs, pictures, charts, infographics, films and other visual representations of what you're studying. If they're not easily available, try creating your own. You're more likely to remember the information if you can "see" it in your mind when you try to recall it.

Tips for Auditory Learners

As a child, did you learn math facts best with songs and rhymes? Nowadays, are you a fan of podcasts and TED Talks? These clues might indicate that you'd benefit from auditory learning tips:

  • Listen again: Consider audio-recording sections of your professors' lectures that cover challenging topics. That way, you can review them again later if you need a refresher. (You may not want to record every lecture. That much audio can quickly become overwhelming.)
  • Talk to yourself: Review concepts by explaining them aloud to yourself — or a willing study buddy. Restating the information in your own words can help plant it more firmly in your mind.
  • Block out unnecessary noise: Music and other people's conversations can quickly distract auditory learners. Invest in a pair of noise-canceling headphones or find a quiet spot like a study room when you really need to focus.

Ideas for Kinesthetic Learners

If you fidget a lot when you concentrate, or love playing sports or dancing, try using study skills that require movement or a hands-on approach:

  • Take movement breaks: This is good advice for all students, but especially for you. Set a timer and make a point to get up and move regularly during homework periods. If you're preparing for a particularly tough study session, release some of your energy before you start by going for a run or doing some yoga.
  • Create something: If you have a choice about a class project, tailor it to your needs. For instance, you could build a cardboard model to represent a period or event in your history class or do a dramatic scene reading for an English course.
  • Use motion as a tool: Try chewing gum, tapping a pencil on your desk or bouncing a tennis ball against a wall as you study. Repetitive motions may make it easier for you to memorize information or learn new concepts. Of course, make sure you're not disturbing other students around you with your "active" study techniques.

Not sure what kind of learner you are, or which study strategies would work best for you? Check in with your college's counseling or tutoring center or look online. Staff members may offer simple tests to help identify your learning style and suggest more ways to use it to your academic advantage.