Work smarter.

There are a lot of things high school didn’t teach me.

Like, how come I can find the square root of pi but I don’t know how to calculate a mortgage payment? I can easily name the powerhouse of the cell – but I can’t fix a broken power cable.

And why did no one ever teach me how to study?

The Beast from Disney's Beauty and the Beast (1991) tries to read.

I mean, I’ve been taking tests almost my whole life. Teachers always told me to study, but they never taught me tactics that would help me study. So, for most of my life, exam prep was guesswork.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Well, if you’re looking for savvy study strategies ahead of the upcoming exam season, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s how you can pinpoint your unique learning preference and use it to master material efficiently:

Finding your learning style

Before you can calculate your ideal study strategies, you have to determine how you learn. And, you can do that by taking the VARK questionnaire. Created by Neil Fleming, an educator from New Zealand, in 1987, the VARK model of understanding recognizes four major learning styles:

1. Visual learning style

an eyeball.

People with a visual learning preference like to receive new information – you guessed it – visually.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean YouTube and Instagram are their best bets at an A+. According to VARK, digital information isn’t always visual information – and vice versa. For example, a YouTube video consisting only of words on a screen isn’t useful to someone with a visual learning preference. Instead, VARK suggests these students benefit from the use of visual devices, like:

  • Graphs
  • Charts
  • Diagrams
  • Logos
  • Infographics
  • Maps, and
  • Things that use colour and shape, such as food, decorations and buildings

These learners thrive when they can detect patterns in information. They might struggle to sift through large chunks of text – but when the paragraphs are broken up by illustrations or when the page layout is compelling, they find it much easier.

2. Aural learning style

An ear.

Also called the auditory learning style, this method of understanding prioritizes aural devices, such as

  • Podcasts
  • Lectures
  • Debates
  • Deep discussions, and
  • Things that use pitch and inflection, like music, voice acting and spoken-word poetry

Students who prefer aural information are the ones who never seem to have a notebook in class but, somehow, still ace all their assignments – they gauge everything they need to know just by listening to the lesson.

3. Reading and writing learning style

A book.

The reading and writing learning style is often confused with visual learning – but it’s a completely different thing. While visual learners look for drawings and patterns, students with a reading and writing preference prioritize printed words above all else. They like to take in information through:

  • Notes
  • Lists
  • Categories
  • Essays
  • Clear titles and headings
  • Definitions, and
  • Dense texts with specific and intentional wording.

Students inclined to the reading and writing learning style would make great lawyers – they’re often hyper-aware of sentence structure and are skilled at challenging meaning based on word order.

4. Kinesthetic learning style

Give me an example

Although kinesthetic technically means “physical movement“, this learning style isn’t all about exercise. People with a kinesthetic learning preference best take in new information through practical and tactile devices like:

  • Case studies and real-world examples
  • Autobiographies
  • Documentaries
  • First-hand experiences
  • Problem-solving activities, and
  • Things that make use of the five senses.

For kinesthetic learners, abstract ideas can be hard to grasp – they want theory to be supplemented with concrete applications.

Applying study strategies

Li Shang says "Let's get down to business."

Now that you know how your brain retains data, you can develop study strategies that will help you nail your final exams.

For visual learners

You’ll learn best with patterns and symbolism in your material – so, try to incorporate images into your learning however you can. Here are some examples:

1. Represent numerical information with graphs and charts

Visualizing quantitative data – like dates, ratios and percentages – will help you comprehend them.

2. Colour-code your notes

A multi-pack of highlighters goes a long way! Attaching colours to specific terms and concepts will help you recall them in a pinch.

Colour-coded notes.

3. Leave white space in your notes

Large blocks of text can be overwhelming and unhelpful. If you lay out your notes in a visually appealing way, you’re more likely to refer to them.

4. Turn your notes into mind maps

And, for twice the learning power, colour-code them.

A mind map.

For aural learners

Hearing information aloud is key for you. Here’s how you can leverage your learning preference:

1. Record lectures and re-listen to them

In the shower, while making dinner, on a walk – whenever you have a minute! However, it’s a good idea to get your instructor’s consent before recording their lessons.

2. Tune into a relevant podcast

There are almost a million active podcasts today. And, they cover almost everything under the sun. You can find episodes, interviews and podcasts dedicated to your course material by searching on Listen Notes.

Pingu listens with headphones.

3. Read your notes aloud

Hearing yourself articulate your thoughts will help you memorize them.

4. Teach your course material to someone else

Preferably a friend or family member – diving into Plato’s allegory of the cave with a stranger on the bus might not leave the best impression. But, if you’re an aural learner, explaining a concept will help you internalize it.

Thanks for coming to my TED Talk.

For reading and writing learners

Your learning happens best on paper – literally. Here are some strategies that use words to their utmost advantage:

1. Make flashcards

This works especially well for definitions and technical terms. On one side, write the term; on the other, write what it means. Then, quiz yourself by matching expression to meaning!

2. Write out detailed notes

The more information you write down, the better. Write out comprehensive summaries of all your lessons and supplement them with points that came up during class discussions or presentations.

Fish from Spongebob Squarepants take notes.

3. Create a study sheet

See if you can write all the most important points from your course onto a single page. Then, read, re-read and re-read again!

4. Categorize and list course material

For reading and writing learners, anything that can be made into a list should be made into a list. To illustrate, you could turn a 50-minute lesson about event planning into a list of the top 10 most important hosting strategies.

A list.

For kinesthetic learners

Remember – kinesthetic, here, means “concrete”. Here are some study strategies that will help you become a real-world example of success:

1. Ask for demonstrations

If an instructor is explaining a general concept or theory, ask if they can contextualize it with a real-life instance. This will help bring abstract ideas back down to Earth.

2. Try things for yourself

Don’t just watch your instructor show you how to perform a new skill. Instead, jump into the ring and give it a go first-hand.

Spongebob says "it's my turn."

3. Chew gum or light a scented candle

Using your five senses can help you remember information. If you associate the material with the taste of Trident, you’ve got a better chance of recalling it during crunch time.

4. Apply material to your own life

If you’re a kinesthetic learner, thinking of anecdotes related to course content can help you remember it. For instance, when learning about how histamines can affect your gastrointestinal tract, it could be helpful to think about how you experience stomach pain when you eat something you’re intolerant to.

A stomachache.

Exams are much less scary when you can approach them strategically – and now you know how. All that’s left to do is prepare, review and crush your final tests.

And, remember: no matter how you learn, you have what it takes to succeed.

Studying for your final finals? Check out these 2020 grads’ advice for career-building during a pandemic.

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