Consider Your Learning Style Before Signing Up for an Online Course

A January study found that 52 percent of more than 1,000 adults surveyed believed hands-on training was the best way to learn. 

Online puzzle and number games are a free resource for students looking for a fun, alternative method of SAT study.

Online students should think about their preferred learning style before signing up for a class, experts say.

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Reading. Reading. A test. More reading. 

That’s how Jana Reid, a high school teacher in Texas, recalls most of the time she spent during her online master’s program in English at Tarleton State University

Looking back, she wished she’d chosen a program with more emphasis on video tutorials, recorded lectures and interactions with peers. 

Someone who needed a more interactive experience would have "gone nuts,” says Reid, who said the process was painful but doable since she's a strong reader. “There was nothing hands-on about it.”

[Watch online students share time management tips.]

Reid is one of many adults who prefer a more interactive approach to learning, according to the 2014 Learning in America Survey

The study, commissioned by Everest College and released in January, found that 52 percent of more than 1,000 adults surveyed believed hands-on training was the best way to learn. Watching visual presentations from an instructor was the next most popular option, followed by reading from a textbook, using the Internet, collaborating with other students, learning through teaching others, listening to a lecture and watching videos. 

“What this survey is showing is people crave interactivity and engagement,” says John Swartz, regional director of career services for Everest College, a for-profit institution managed by Corinthian Colleges Inc.

Whether online programs are getting the message, however, isn’t quite clear.

In an ideal world, most online programs would cater to a wide array of learning styles and preferences – incorporating multimedia tools such as video chats, podcasts, white board demonstrations and films alongside reading, experts say.

[Determine whether to take an online math course.]

But that ideal world is a ways away, says Vernon C. Smith, special consultant to the provost for online education programs at Mount St. Mary's College. Few colleges, he says, are using all the tools at their disposal.

“Most institutions are not at that level of reflection,” he says. “For a while it was just ‘Get your course online’ because the demand was so high. Now we are getting into a new era of sophistication for students. It’s not just about accessibility – it’s about the quality of the experience.”

Since not all online programs cater to everyone's learning preferences, prospective students should do their research ahead of time to make sure their program can provide the experience they need, Smith says. 

Visual learners need to be sure their courses involve video, for example, while learners who crave interpersonal interaction should make sure there is plenty of engagement with their peers, he says.

"Understand the strengths of your particular program," Smith says. "More and more institutions are providing orientations. Smart institutions are having students see the technology involved so they can see what a lesson is going to look like."

Chad Adams, a 28-year-old Alaska resident who is earning an online master's in banking and financial management, says he wishes he would have done more research into his program to ensure that material was presented in different ways. 

Adams says his undergraduate online program at University of Massachusetts–Amherst was very engaging and catered to many different learning preferences. But he's less impressed with his current program at Boston University, which is heavy on reading and light on interaction with his professor or peers, he says.

"It really does feel like I am paying $3,000 for this class to read this book and try to teach myself," he says. "And that’s a little frustrating because I'm attending this university because I want somebody to teach me. I’m here to learn."

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Even if students find themselves in a situation where their class isn't well-suited for their learning style, that doesn't mean all hope is lost, according to some experts.

Laurel Springer Mayo, director of the Learning Innovation and Networked Knowledge Research Lab at the University of Texas—Arlington, says the most dedicated students will succeed even in the most challenging situations.

“The motivated student will find a way to make it work for them,” she says. “You can find ways to make your strengths matter to you. You have to put it in your head that you are going to do this. You are going to take the time out of your day. Successful students think that way more than 'I don’t learn that particular way. I can’t do it.’”

Trying to fund your online education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for Online Education center.