The University 411 – Part 1: Identify Your Learning Style

Lately it’s dawned on me that “learning how to be a student” is a skill that isn’t taught efficiently. Honestly, I think the first year of university is chaotic simply because you’re having to negotiate what’s a lecture vs seminar vs lab vs workshop, and how do I prep for each, and what do I do once I’m there, and oh crap, now I have to study off the crappy notes that I’ve taken; did anyone take better notes?? You might be lucky and have a teacher (at grade school or university) that sets aside a day to tackle some of this info, or your university might cover it in orientation or have dedicated services to help you negotiate *how to be a student,* and, as well, you’re bringing the study skills that you’ve learned throughout your education. But you might’ve picked up some bad habits or have a study technique that isn’t the “right fit” for you. So for the next few posts I’ll be taking about all the ins and outs of being a student.

First and foremost is identifying your strengths and weaknesses. In my first year of university, I quickly realized that I wasn’t a student that could take in audio information, i.e sit through a lecture and retain info. (And it wasn’t until the third year of my five year undergraduate programme that I slowly started developing this skill!). It quickly became the joke amongst my friends that since I never went to any of my lecturers, I can hold down the fort (our preferred table in the cafeteria). But, as I was pursuing a Bachelors in Science at this point, I had the benefit of having a dedicated textbook for each of my classes. (This differs from the humanities, in my experience, as we’re not given a textbook of, say, “Romanticism Literature: Key Dates, Ideas, and Peoples”). Not only that, for my first-year science-modules the instructors identified in the syllabus which part of the textbook they’ll be going over in each lecture. So, while I didn’t attend the vast majority of my lectures, I still spent that time learning, sitting down at our cafeteria table with the textbook and a notebook. I did the practice questions recommended in the syllabus. At the end of the day/week, I’d go home and RE-WRITE my notes. Where my first set of notes were a mess of scribbles, the revised notes were cleaner. They were colour-coded with different pens and highlighters. What I didn’t realize even at that time was that this process – of revising notes – was, in fact, studying. As I explain further in my next post, The University 411: Note-taking Part 1, or the Jasnah Kholin Method, I was turning that short-term memory into long-term memory by re-processing it. Doing this every day/week, meant that I was constantly studying, right from day 1. So, when it came time for the final exams, I pissed off all my friends by flipping through a magazine as we waited outside the examination hall instead of desperately cramming in material. For the most part, this process worked for me. (The one noticeable exemption was organic chemistry, but EVERYONE failed organic chem that year.)

I realized then that I retain information best by reading and writing, rather than listening. This knowledge also lead me to switch programmes from Science to Arts. While I eventually developed the skills for different modes of learning, it made sense to me to go with a programme which favoured my learning-style. So identifying your learning style might also give you a good indication of your suitability for a programme. This isn’t to say that you SHOULDN’T go into a programme where your learning style works against you. But identifying your style, your strengths and weaknesses, will allow you to develop skills to shore up those weak spots. I know a number of people with dyslexia who achieved a literature degrees, for instance, as well as a number of people with dyscalculia (number dyslexia) who achieved a maths degree. Your weaknesses doesn’t bar you from pursuing education. But identifying them allows you to then seek out the tools you need to address those weak spots. This might be a quick patch job for the task/course at hand, or a slow repair that you develop over time.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a handy way for you to figure out what are your strengths and weaknesses. There isn’t a “test” that you can take to identify if you’re an audio learner, or visual learner, or verbal learner, or a kinesthetic (hands-on) learner. To be frank, I wouldn’t trust any test of this sort; you’re unlikely to be solely one type of learner. More likely, you’re a mixture of all four as it depends on the SITUATION. While I wasn’t an audio learner in a lecture situation, I WAS in seminar as it combined the verbal element. So while in lecture – where you have an instructor talking at the front of a large hall with 100-300 students and no audience participation – I kept daydreaming, in seminar – a small room of 10-30 people in a discussion led by the instructor – I did much better. Still not amazing, mind you, not to start. But better. Over time, I took the audio-learning skills from seminar environment and were able to apply it to the lecture environment too.

For those students (and teachers) who struggled with the online/Zoom mediums this covid year, figuring out the ins and outs of WHY it didn’t work for you might help you start thinking about how to MAKE it work. If your university is continuing online classes (or a combo), identify what works for you. Do you need a social element or smaller group discussions if you’re shy? Can you arrange “study groups” with a few of your classmates outside of lecture time? Is the visual part of it fatiguing? Maybe you need to close your eyes and just listen, instead of straining your eyes at the screen? Maybe it’s the environment itself? Have you cozied up with a cup of tea and find yourself dozing? How are you taking notes during this time? ARE you taking notes?

In the next few posts, I’ll be talking about these different ways of learning more as we cover note-taking, organization, study tips, etc. As there is a huge range of situation/environments which you’ll experience as a university student, we’ll be covering a number of different modes and mediums. As the Northern Hemisphere preps to go back to school this autumn (apologies, I have no idea what timetable the Southern Hemisphere is on), I hope this blog series will help new and returning university students figure out the best tools to help them.

Pictured above: Stock Photography i.e. not my cat

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