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How do we learn? Top tips on using your learning style to your advantage

Michelle Greaves Michelle Greaves

Published: 28th July 2021

As with many sectors, most project managers undertake qualifications and examinations to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of their subject. For some, the practice of revising and writing in an exam setting may be quite daunting and not suit their learning style. So just how do we learn effectively and what’s the best way to approach studying for a professional PM qualification?

How do we learn?

Everyone is different but there are common ways in which we all learn, which we will come to later. But first, to retain the knowledge gained we need to convert our short-term memories into long-term ones. Often the easiest things to remember are those that have a strong memory associated with them (you will generally avoid candles if you got a good burn from one as a child). The more connections we make with an activity, the easier it is to enable us to convert the learning to long-term memory.

 There has been much research into the field of cognitive load theory   – in essence the amount of information our short-term memory can process. Depending on prior knowledge an individual will be able to cope with more or less weight on their short-term memory – and if we exceed this we will retain less. If I showed a complex diagram of a car engine to someone with little to no understanding of mechanics or a combustion engine, they would most likely be overloaded. We need to learn in chunks, gaining the next piece of information only when we are ready.

Other things will obviously help, like learning in short bursts of time, but another good place to start is understanding your learning style.

What is a learning style?

A learning style is the way that you take in information more easily. If you use your preferred learning style you will be more likely to retain the information, thus helping convert it to long-term memory.

Think about how you’d approach the dreaded flatpack….do you look at the diagrams? Do you read the instructions aloud or ask someone else to tell you what the next step is? Do you pick up and read the instructions yourself? Or do you pop the instructions to one side and start picking up screws and trying them in various holes to see where they fit?

These are examples of the different ways of learning information: visual, auditory, reading, and kinaesthetic. You probably know your learning style from the analogy above, but you can also find out your learning style using a VARK questionnaire.

Using your learning style to your advantage

Often when learning we attend training courses. When looking at what training course might be right for you, a good thing to look for is how the course meets all different learning styles. Here’s some top things to look for:

Visual

  • Use diagrams, colours and spider charts in your revision notes.
  • Look for courses / books that include lots of images, but not just pictures – mind maps and flow charts which take your through the course can help you identify patterns more easily.
Colorful organization chart with pen.

Auditory

  • Read notes out loud, or record yourself and play back the recordings.
  • Look for courses that include group discussions and podcasts.

Reading

  • Re-write the key points from your course onto revision cards – try to include bullet points of key items and lists.
  • Look for a course with comprehensive materials including a good study guide and an e-learning package.

Kinaesthetic

  • Kinaesthetic learners will do best by learning from experience. Give yourself time before an exam to put the learning into practice in your workplace, and complete as many practice papers as possible.
  • Look for courses with interactivity, particularly where case studies are used so that you can apply the knowledge to an example.

Everyone is, of course, different so it’s difficult for training providers/ teachers to meet your needs 100% of the time, but look for one who offers a blend of different learning options and then support their sessions with your own study.

Happy learning!

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