Understanding Your Preferences
and Using Them to Improve Learning

See also: Lifelong Learning

Our page on Learning Styles describes various models of learning, and how you might use these to improve your learning. It explains that the jury is still out on whether learning should be tailored rigidly to fit particular styles, but that variety in learning experiences is always going to be helpful.

This page discusses other aspects of how you like to live and work, and how these may affect the way that you learn. These include your preferences about structure and direction, whether you like to work with others, and the environment in which you work.

The SHAPE of Your Learning

The elements that affect your study and learning can be described via an acronym, SHAPE.

This stands for:

Styles – and see our pages on Learning Styles and Revision Skills for Learning Styles for more.

Habits – we all develop habits over time, which may be more or less helpful. To improve your habits, you need to identify the bad ones, and retrain yourself.

Attitude – your learning is affected by your beliefs and your mindset. For more about this, see our pages on Positive Thinking and the Importance of Mindset.

Preferences – as well as habits, we all have preferences for our learning and the environment: hot, cold, the lighting, company and so on. These will affect how we learn, and are the focus of this page.

Experience – previous experience also influences preferences: a good or bad experience under particular circumstances may affect how you approach similar circumstances later. It is worth considering this when thinking about why you might prefer particular learning options.

Identifying your Preferences

Identifying your preferences for learning and studying is relatively straightforward, but it can make a huge difference to the effectiveness with which you learn.

There are four main areas to consider:

1. Structure

Structure refers to how organised you like your work and your workspace to be.

People who prefer a relatively structured approach tend to make lists, keep their workspace very tidy, and use bookmarks and tags to ensure that they can find the information they want. They also tend to work within a routine.

People who prefer a relative lack of structure tend to remember things in their heads, leave their papers out on their desks or workspaces, and study what interests them that day.

It is important to stress that both approaches are valid. For more about this, you may like to read our page on Myers-Briggs Type Indicators, as the level of structure is similar to the Judging-Perceiving (J-P) spectrum in MBTI.

However, both approaches also have their advantages and disadvantages.

For example:

  • Those who prefer an unstructured approach have a very flexible approach to learning, and are likely to be able to stay interested. They may, however, tend to miss deadlines, especially in areas in which they are less interested.

  • Those who prefer a structured approach are likely to be very productive and get things done. They may, however, find that they struggle with tasks that call for creativity, and might benefit from introducing more flexibility to their thinking.

Anyone who tends towards one or other extreme needs to consider how to adopt elements of the other approach. This will broaden their skills and thinking, and make them more rounded and capable.

2. Direction and Drive

This element describes whether you like external direction, or prefer to drive and develop your projects in your own way.

People who prefer external direction will tend to like clear assignments. They will appreciate being given a structure around their learning (for example, teachers, tutors or lecturers providing an overview of the course content early on). They may prefer clear guidance about how to approach problems, and ideas for how to start.

People who prefer less external direction like to develop their own ideas. They will prefer to find their own sources of information, and not need a clear structure to lectures or courses. They will prefer to try things out for themselves, and not be told what to do.

This matters because it affects your attitude to your work and study, and whether you find it worthwhile and satisfying. It is worth taking time to consider your preference in this area, and seeing if you can tailor your learning or work to fit it better.

Case study: A Question of Approach

Melanie’s boss, Richard, was always keen to tell her how to do things. Every task that he set her was carefully outlined, so she knew exactly what to do.

It was driving her mad. She hated being told what to do and just wanted a chance to show that she could think things through for herself. Even when she asked him not to tell her what to do, but let her try her ideas first, he still couldn’t stop himself.

Fast forward a month or so: Richard left his post. In his absence, Melanie was free to work as she wanted. She loved being able to do her own thinking, and ask for advice when necessary from Richard’s boss. When her new manager arrived, she was careful to explain her working preferences. Her new boss was happy to respect these, especially since Melanie had demonstrated her capability in Richard’s absence.

Fast forward a few years, and Melanie was a team manager herself. Remembering her early experiences, she was always careful to ask team members whether they preferred guidance from her before they started, or to do some thinking first, and then to respect these preferences in how she delegated work.

3. Working with Other People

This element is closely related to the Introvert-Extrovert (E-I) domain of Myers-Briggs Type Indicators. Some people prefer to work with other people, and others prefer to work alone, and do their own thinking first.

Again, both approaches are equally valid, and it is important to respect others’ preferences.


It is possible for this preference to lead to some serious misunderstandings.

For example, if you prefer to work with others, but you work or study with an introvert, who prefers to work alone, you may need to give them time to do their own studying before you start discussing things together. They will probably come to your shared time/discussion fully prepared, with their ideas in order and a clear view.

You will therefore need to be prepared for them to be irritated that you have done no preparation for your shared study time because, to you, it is important to discuss things together first!

4. Environment

Finally, your study environment can very much influence the effectiveness of your learning. This can be divided into issues of high and low stimulus.

  • People who prefer high levels of stimulus will probably prefer bright lights and background music. They may be able to work in places where there is a lot going on: a café, for example. They may prefer to move around when working, and also work on several things at once.

  • People who prefer low levels of stimulus will tend to be easily distracted by noise or lights. They may prefer to work in a quiet room with lower light levels, and reduce the temperature of the room.

It is important, however, to remember that all stimuli are not the same. Some people work well with one stimulus, but not another (for example, they may want bright light, but no noise, or a cool temperature, but background music). Preferences may also change for different types of work.

The crucial issue is therefore to understand your own environmental preferences, and the circumstances under which you work most effectively for particular types of work.

Understanding Drives Effectiveness

For all four elements outlined here, understanding your own and others’ preferences will increase your effectiveness. It is therefore important to take a bit of time to think about these issues before launching into work or study.