Improve your learning skills – here’s how

Posted by on May 14, 2013

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We are all learning – all of the time we are learning.  Yes, even when we are asleep, we are learning [1].

So, if we are learning all of the time, why do we need to improve our learning skills?  The short answer, in one word – “survival”!  What I mean is that our world is a place of constant change.

Technology, in particular, brings ongoing change into our everyday lives and into our workplaces.  To survive, we need to keep up with whatever change brings, which usually means that we need to be learning new stuff.  Sometimes we even need to reinvent ourselves, and start new careers.

A recent global study has predicted massive change in employment needs and opportunities over the next 10 years, mainly from advances in technology and education..  Many developed economies (US, Europe, Korea, Australasia, Singapore) will have shortages of skilled workers, while many developing countries (India, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia) will have talent surpluses.  China is expected to have a even balance either way [2].

So then, if we need to be continuously learning, how do we learn, and is there a ‘best way’ to learn?  Let me borrow a quote from the University of Canberra:

Learning is not one, simple activity. It takes place at different levels of consciousness, and in different ways, in everything we do. Moreover, individual people learn in different ways and have their preferred learning styles [3].

I have emphasised the last three words above, because, in my experience, this is a key to helping every one of us improve our learning skills.  Let me put my case.

A long time ago (back in the early days of desktop PCs), I offered 1-on-1 training on word processing and other software products.  Many of my clients had a real fear about learning anything to do with computers, and it often took several sessions before we could overcome this.  I also found a number of people who considered themselves to be slow, dumb, or even stupid because they didn’t “get it” like others did when they were learning in a group.

Then, around the time the internet arrived (via dial-up modem), a friend introduced me to the concept of preferred learning styles (Dr Steve Corich, if you are reading this – please take a bow!).  At first I was a little sceptical, but I needed something to help break the ‘log-jam’ that I was seeing so often.  So, I learned about the VAK model (Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic), and then I put it to the test.  I explained the concept to my clients:

  • each person has their own preference for how they take in information
  • by finding our own preference, we can know the best way to take in information
  • when we struggle to learn, information is not being presented in the way we need

Using this approach revolutionised my sessions.  Not only was I able to help many clients understand more about their own learning needs, I was also able to customise my approach to meet different needs.  Let me give you two examples:

A mother who was returning to work after her youngest child had started school – her husband had a computer at home, which the older children used.  Her husband and children had ‘told’ her how to use the computer, but she was terrified of it, and felt that she was stupid.  It turned out that she was a ‘hands-on’ (kinaesthetic) learner – she learned by ‘doing’, not by being ‘told’ (auditory) or even by being ‘shown’ (visual).  Needless to say, I changed my tack to suit her preferred learning style – and she was away!  All of a sudden, she understood herself.  And, as she learned a bit, her confidence grew, she was prepared to ‘have a go’.  More learning, more success, more confidence – she was free!

A young man with a creative gift as an artist, but who had always found the classroom to be a place of difficulty.  Seriously lacking in self-confidence when it came to learning, he needed to learn how to use a computer for some of his Polytechnic subjects.  I offered to help him with this.  Even after I explained the learning styles concept to him, he was sure that he was an auditory learner (but I wasn’t).  When he completed the VAK questionnaire, to his surprise he was primarily a visual learner, with a bit of kinaesthetic preference (but no auditory).  I used a demonstration-explanation-practice approach, and we had good success learning how to use the computer.  But, perhaps even more importantly, he now understood something about himself – i.e. his preferred learning style.  For the first time in his life, he was able to work out how he needed to take in information so that he could learn – show me once, show me twice, let me try, and away I go!

The VARK model: Visual, Auditory, Read/Write, Kinaesthetic preferences

The four preferences of the VARK model

These are two examples from many cases where I have used preferred learning styles to help me unlock someone’s potential for learning.  I now use the VARK model (Visual – Auditory – Read/Write – Kinaesthetic), mainly because I personally am inclined to a read/write approach to learning [4].  Once I understood the VARK model, I recognised something about myself – and why I sometimes found learning difficult.  I need to do things like making notes and creating check-lists.

While there are a number of other models for preferred learning styles, what I particularly like about the VARK model is its simplicity, which also makes it very easy to remember.

Each VARK model preference is best satified by particular forms of input: a Visual prefers graphical information; an Auditory prefers spoken information; a Read/Write prefers information as written words; a Kinaesthetic prefers information through tactile experiences

Table 1. VARK model preferences explained

In my experience, most people will display a combination of at least two preferences, with one being dominant.  For me, while the concept of preferred learning styles is not perfect, it has been (and still is) very useful guide to use when trying to help someone improve their learning skills.

In saying that, I know that there are many critics of the concept of preferred learning styles.  Some of these argue that VAK, VARK, and other similar models, lack scientific support.  My response to that is:  “I know what I have seen; I know what works (usually, for people who are struggling with learning, or confidence, or both)”!

If you sometimes find that learning something new can be difficult, or if you know of someone who has had such an experience, it may be worthwhile checking out one of our free nuggets below.

The first free nugget for this Post is from the website  This short Post (30 November 2012) – How Do You Learn? My Exploration of the VARK Learning Model by Kara Gibbons –describes how Kara used the VARK model in her first year of university:

Our second free nugget is from the Kansas University Student Health website.  This Post (1 March 2013) – What’s Your Learning Style? by Amy Baldwin, also about using the VARK model, is about a 5 minute read (excluding the linked videos):

Coming next:  Coaching and demonstration techniques (in the meantime, enjoy the free nuggets!).

[1]  Science Nation – The Connection between Memory and Sleep, Jan 2013 (2min:33sec):
[2]  Challenges of hiring the right talent (China Asia Daily – Friday, May 3, 2013):
[3]  University of Canberra:
[4] information about the VARK model can be found at:


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