The Learning Cycle and Learning Styles

Learning Objectives

By the end of this section, you will be able to:

  • Understand and make effective use of the four step learning process.
  • Know how to benefit from your own learning style and to expand your learning skills with the techniques of other styles.
  • Explain strategies for effective learning if your learning style is different from your instructor’s teaching style.

The Learning Cycle: Four Steps to Learning

Attending and participating in class are important parts of the learning cycle. As you read about the learning cycle, think about how it connects to class attendance and participation.

Adult learning is different from learning in primary and secondary school. In high school, teachers often take much of the responsibility for how students learn, encouraging learning with class discussions, repeating key material, and creating study guides. In college, most of the responsibility for learning falls on the student.

Learning an academic subject means really understanding it, being able to think about it in meaningful ways, and applying that understanding in new situations. This is very different from simply memorizing something and repeating it back on a test. As seen in The Learning Cycle below, academic learning occurs most effectively in a cycle of four steps:

The Learning Cycle: Prepare, Absorb, Capture, Review

The Learning Cycle

Think first about the different situations in which you learn. Obviously you learn during class, whether by listening to the instructor speak or in class discussions in which you participate, which is why attending class is so important. But you also learn while reading your textbooks and other materials outside of class. In fact, 75% of college learning takes place outside of class. For example, you learn when you talk with an instructor during office hours. You learn by talking with other students informally in study groups. You learn when you study your class notes before an exam. All of these different learning situations involve the same four-step process.

  • The first step of the learning cycle is to prepare in advance for classes, readings, tests, and other learning experiences.
  • The second step is to absorb information and ideas effectively during classes, readings, and other learning experiences.
  • The third step is to capture the information, which typically involves taking notes during that particular learning experience to increase understanding and retention.
  • The fourth step is to review your notes to help solidify the learning and prepare for repeating the cycle in the next class or reading assignment.

Learning Styles

Lecture hall full of students talkingDifferent people have different learning styles. Style refers to a student’s specific learning preferences and actions. One student may learn more effectively from listening to the instructor. Another may prefer reading from the textbook while another benefits most from charts, graphs, and images the instructor presents.

Different systems have been used to describe the different ways in which people learn. Some describe the differences between how extroverts (outgoing, gregarious, social people) and introverts (quiet, private, contemplative people) learn. Some divide people into thinkers and feelers. A popular theory of different learning styles is Howard Gardner’s multiple intelligences, based on eight different types of intelligence:

  1. Verbal (prefers words)
  2. Logical (prefers math and logical problem solving)
  3. Visual (prefers images and spatial relationships)
  4. Kinesthetic (prefers body movements and doing)
  5. Rhythmic (prefers music, rhymes)
  6. Interpersonal (prefers group work)
  7. Intrapersonal (prefers introspection and independence)
  8. Naturalist (prefers nature, natural categories)

The multiple intelligences approach recognizes that different people have different ways, or combinations of ways, of relating to the world.

There are still more systems used by educators to describe the various ways in which people learn. All of these systems can help you learn more about how you as an individual person and college student learn best. The online assessments available in the Libguides can help you discover more about your preferences. One resource you’ll find there is a free, self-scored online assessment of your particular learning style at:

Knowing about learning styles in general, and the main one or two you prefer in particular, can contribute greatly to your success in college. Each different style helps students adjust to the thinking, learning, studying, and testing demands they’ll face in each of their courses. While students can certainly learn to use their own styles more effectively, no one style is considered right or wrong or better than any other, and a working knowledge of all styles enables students to be flexible as they adjust to a variety a teaching styles.

Most instructors tend to develop their own teaching style, however, and you will encounter different teaching styles in different courses. When the instructor’s teaching style matches your learning style, you are usually more attentive in class and may learn better.

But what happens if your instructor has a style very different from your own? Let’s say, for example, your instructor primarily lectures, speaks rapidly, and seldom uses visuals. This instructor also talks mostly on the level of large abstract ideas and almost never gives examples. Let’s say that you, in contrast, are more of a visual learner who learns more effectively with visual aids and mentally picturing concrete examples of ideas. The following suggestions can help when learning style doesn’t match teaching style:

  • Capitalize on your learning strengths. In this example, you could use a visual style of note taking, such as concept maps, while listening to the lecture. If the instructor does not give examples for abstract ideas in the lecture, see if you can supply examples in your own thoughts as you listen.
  • Form a study group with other students. A variety of students will likely involve a variety of learning styles, and when going over course material with other students, you can gain from what they have learned through their styles while you contribute what you have learned through yours.
  • Use ancillary, or supplementary, study materials. Many textbooks point students to online resource centers or include a CD that offers additional learning materials. Such materials usually offer an opportunity to review course material in ways that may better fit your learning style.
  • Communicate with your instructor to bridge the gap between his or her teaching style and your learning style. If the instructor is speaking in abstractions and general ideas you don’t understand, ask for an example.
  • You can also communicate with the instructor privately during office hours. For example, you can explain that you are having difficulty understanding lectures because so many things are said so fast.

Finally, take heart: studies show a mismatch between a student’s learning style and an instructor’s teaching style is not correlated with lower grades.

Key Takeaways

  • Students learn through a four-step process, and they can maximize their learning by conscientiously applying all steps throughout college.
  • There are many different kinds of learning styles, including Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences, and there a variety of online assessments available to help identify your preferences as well as how to use them to your advantage.
  • If your learning style doesn’t match the instructor’s teaching style, stay actively engaged by learning and studying with other students.


1. Number each the following actions to put them in the correct order of the four steps of the learning cycle:
___ Review your class notes to make sure you understand.
___ Listen carefully to what your instructor says.
___ Prepare for today’s class by looking over your notes on the reading you did for today.
___ Take effective notes.

2. How would you describe your personal learning style?



3. List two ways you can use your learning style to your advantage.