How Do You Learn The Best? – The 4 Learning Styles

Learning new things is fun but it can sometimes be very challenging. I am pretty sure all of us have attended classes that were unbearably boring or training courses that hadn’t met our expectations.
I, for instance, will never forget the completely incomprehensible mathematics classes I had to survive throughout my high school years.

Was my teacher bad at explaining? Well, not necessarily. I mean there were quite a few people in our class who could perfectly understand the explanations she was giving so I cannot say that she was the only one to blame for the fact that I found her classes absolutely intolerable.

Now, you may ask if I was actually paying attention to what she was saying and the answer to this question is definitely yes. I wasn’t particularly interested at mathematics but I really wanted to get into university and that made me pretty keen to learn.

And well, at this point you may be wondering about whether I was just “bad with numbers”. Let me tell you that I was not. Actually, since I started working, I have realized that I am pretty good at mathematics!

Oh yes, and forget to mention one more thing – those mathematics classes that I found incredibly intolerable and that made me want to escape from school, get a new identity and start a new life in Argentina – sounds crazy but that’s always the first thing I think of when something goes wrong in my life – were not even that boring. According to some of my classmates they were simply phenomenal.

Hmmm…..kind of a mystery, isn’t it? There’s a teacher who is pretty okay at explaining and a student who’s keen to learn and who doesn’t have any significant learning difficulties (missed to mention that earlier). So what went wrong?

Well, I think I know the answer. My teacher’s way of teaching didn’t match my learning style. And I guess we cannot even blame her for that as this problem goes well beyond the teachers. It’s about the whole education system!

Now, why do I write about this topic on a blog that’s primarily about Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder? Because I think it’s a very important problem to talk about and it does have an impact on our mental health!

There are millions of students all around the globe who feel stupid for not being able to understand certain things they learn at school. People who have been told that they were good for nothing because they just couldn’t get good grades no matter how hard they had studied. And we are not able to change the whole system from one day to another. But one thing I can do is sharing my experiences and I really hope this will help some of you. And well , I am very passionate about this topic as I am a Learning & Development Professional – and back at school and at university, I was often told that I’d never have a proper career if I continued to live my life with my “rebellious” approach.

The 4 Learning Styles

So let’s take a look at one of the reasons why you may find it difficult to stay focused during a class or a training session:

Your teacher’s (presenters, facilitators etc.) style doesn’t match your learning style.

Now, what do we mean by “Learning Style”?

Learning styles were developed by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford and they identified four distinct learning styles or preferences:

  • Activist
  • Theorist
  • Pragmatist
  • Reflector

These are the learning approaches that individuals naturally prefer. It’s recommended that in order to maximize one’s own personal learning, each learner should understand their learning style and seek out opportunities to learn using that style.

Source: Honey & Mumford – Website of the University of Leicester

And well, we obviously shouldn’t categorize ourselves as these learning styles are not definitive and most people are a mixture of several of them. Take, for instance, me as an example – I am a mixture of “pragmatist” & “activist”. Now, what does that mean? Let’s look at the different learning styles! 🙂

Activist

Learning by doing – that’s what normally works for an activist. Activists need to get their hands dirty, enjoy the challenge of new experiences and often act before thinking.

They can learn the best by:

  • brainstorming activities
  • problem solving
  • group discussions
  • puzzles
  • competitions
  • role-plays
  • games

And as you might have already guessed, the worst possible learning experience for an activist is a presentation full of theories, abstract concepts and without any interaction. (A perfect description of my university – do not tell you its name ’cause I don’t want to do any negative publicity!)

Theorist

Well, if you think that the example that I gave above – about the presentation full of theories and concepts – is not that scary, you’re likely to be a theorist.

What do theorists like?

  • understanding the theory behind actions
  • models, concepts and facts
  • analyzing and synthesizing
  • systematic & logical theories

And what do theorists not like? Things that do not fit with theories they’re already familiar with or classes/ training sessions that do not explain the theory behind the practice.

Pragmatist

Okay, but how does it work in practice?

Pragmatists need to be able to see how to put the learning into practice. In the real world!

What they like:

  • Experimenting
  • Problem solving
  • Discussions
  • Case studies
  • Time to think about how to apply learning in practice

What is the worst possible learning experience for a pragmatist? Now, as a person whose main learning style is pragmatist I can give you the most perfect example – my mathematics classes I was talking about! Numbers, letters and theories without any practical examples. Okay, there’s a Pythagores Theorem but how does it work in real life?

Reflector

Reflectors learn by observing and thinking about what happened. They may avoid leaping in and prefer to watch from the sidelines, view experiences from a number of different perspectives, collecting data and taking the time to work towards an appropriate conclusion.

Learning activities that work the best for them are:

  • paired discussions
  • self analysis and personality questionnaires (so reflectors will hopefully like today’s post)
  • observing others
  • coaching
  • interviews
  • feedback from others

When do they learn the least? When being rushed or put in the spotlight.

What Is Your Primary Learning Style?

You can find out by completing this questionnaire. (not from my blog, it’s on Mint HR but that’s the best free one I could find.)

And well – do not forget to share the result in the comment section! 🙂 As I said earlier, mine is pragmatist.

Does Your Learning Style Affect Your Mental Health – Or The Other Way Around?

That’s a topic that I am planning to explore in more details in my future posts – well, please let me know if you’d be interested at reading about it at all.

At this moment, what I definitely know is that my learning style definitely had an impact on my mental health. My main learning styles are pragmatist and activities and I grew up in a country that has a very theoretical education system which doesn’t really welcome innovative ideas.

There are obviously many teachers who try to make things better and who do everything they can to make their students feel comfortable but their power is very limited – it’s the government that decides what and how students should study and many of the people in charge do not see any problem with our current education system. Sorry, didn’t want to get political just felt I had to share.

So back to my mental health – as I have OCD which in my case comes with a constant feeling of uncertainty, back at school (and mainly at university because that’s when my OCD really started to go out of control) I used to question my own capabilities. Do I have dyscalculia or why am I so horrible at math? Am I not as intelligent as the other people around me or why is it so difficult for me to pass an exam? Why do I feel like falling asleep during classes?

So yes, my learning style did affect my mental health but did OCD affect my learning style?

That’s something that I am not sure about. Logically thinking, I guess OCD sufferers could learn better with methods that normally work for activists – a class or a training course with a lot of activities can keep you engaged and can help you forget about your intrusive thoughts but this is just what I think – haven’t found any research data about the topic.

Your Thoughts

As you know, there’s one thing I enjoy more than sharing my stories – reading yours.

What is your primary learning style? How’s the education system in your country? What learning methods work for you the best? Do you think there’s any correlation between the different learning styles & mental health?

Share your thoughts in the comment section! 🙂

Further Reading

From Mark Wester:

6 thoughts on “How Do You Learn The Best? – The 4 Learning Styles

  1. I’m a reflector and I like this post, so you are right 🙂 I would like to read if there is any connection between learning style and mental health. I suppose it has a great deal to with your personality and having the space to express that. I believe that learning styles are very important and when you get stuck in the wrong one for you it can seriously affect self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you 🙂 Glad to read that! 🙂 my primary learning style is pragmatist but I love most of the learning activities that are usually recommended for reflectors – especially self analysis and personality questionnaires and observing others.

      Indeed – being forced to follow a learning style that doesn’t work for you does affect ones self-esteem a lot. At the moment, I’m reading through different research materials to find actual statistics/ research data about this topic. 🙂
      What makes my research pretty difficult is that it obviously depends on country too….in Hungary, the education system has an extremely theorist approach while in some Western European countries, they are trying to make it a little bit more blended.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. At universities they are blending it more and more, which is not easy when you’re used to the theoretical approach.
        You really feel the difference when you have a more ‘experienced’ based teaching vs the theoretical approach. In the beginning it can be a bit anxiety inducing but after a while you’ll get used to it. But the preference stays although I think it’s good to experience all types. In the workfield, there are also all those types mixed in.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This was really interesting! I’m a reflector and a little bit of a pragmatist. As a socially anxious person, in school my heart used to sink if we had to do class games or discussions, it would distract me from being able to learn.

    It’s a shame that our educational institutions don’t take these personal preferences into account more!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you 🙂 Glad to read that you’ve found this interesting.

      It’s indeed a shame that our educational institutions don’t take the different learning styles into account.

      I do understand it requires a lot of extra effort from the educators but it’s worth it. Especially that most of the primary/ high school teachers spend many years with their students which means that they have plenty of time to get to know them! In my case, what is often difficult is that most of my training sessions are relatively short so it’s not always possible for me to find out what learning styles the participants have but what I normally do is make the sessions as blended as possible so that everyone could enjoy at least one part of it.

      And well yes, for a socially anxious person group discussions and games are probably not the best way to learn. I think the best thing a teacher/ trainer can do is making sure if everyone feels comfortable with participating – when I see someone doesn’t feel comfortable with certain parts of the game, I will just ask them to take notes/ observe what the others are doing and that usually works for them! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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