Jane N. Erin, Professor Emerita, The University of Arizona

Lupita and Hayley were friends since high school, where they attended the same resource room for students with visual impairments. After their first semester in college, they caught up for lunch and enjoyed the opportunity to laugh together about their freshman experiences. They were surprised to discover that both of them managed some academic tasks differently than they had in high school.

Although Lupita had been an avid braille reader since kindergarten and preferred reading hardcopy braille through her school years, in college she mainly read braille using a braille notetaker with a braille display. She told Hayley that she often used human readers for subjects like math and sciences, where many concepts were communicated through graphs and tables. During high school, her teacher of students with visual impairments had assisted with these subjects, and she had not thought about how live readers might be helpful. In addition, since reading assignments were longer now, she began to listen to some assignments through computer speech or prepared audio formats.

Hayley told Lupita that she also managed some tasks differently in college. She had learned braille after she became visually impaired in middle school, but she had continued to read some print and to use auditory materials as she tried to improve her braille skills. In college, she used all three media for different purposes. She downloaded printed notes from course websites and reviewed them visually, and she also took tests at the testing center in enlarged print on the computer. In class she took personal notes on a braille device and later reviewed them auditorily, and she also relied on listening for longer reading assignments. She confessed that she did not always complete all of the reading assigned because she had discovered that in many classes, listening and notetaking were more important than reading the assignments in detail. She also made it a point to meet other students and arrange some study time to compare notes.

Lupita and Hayley had both developed individual styles for completing required work, based on their learning preferences and available senses; both had been successful in their courses. College requirements cause most students to alter learning strategies, whether they are visually impaired or sighted. Instead of nightly homework and reading assignments, students receive a syllabus that lists activities, exams, and long-term assignments over several months. The instructor may not provide regular in-class guidance and reminders about assignments. Many new college students realize the differences suddenly when they find they have overlooked an assignment by failing to check the syllabus.

Although students in a college class have the same assignments, they may approach the work in very different ways. Students have various strengths and preferences in the ways they learn; one of the most important tools to bring to college is an awareness of your unique learning style. When you have a visual impairment, knowledge of personal learning style is particularly important, since you may need specialized materials or other adaptations.

In finding the most effective ways for you to learn in college, consider your answers to the questions below. Use the following links to skip to a specific section.

  1. How do you prefer to learn?
  2. What is your most accurate way of learning?
  3. Where do you like to study and read?
  4. Do you prefer to learn and study alone or with others?
  5. How do you plan your studying?

How do you prefer to learn?

Some people have childhood memories of curling up with a good book, either in print or braille; as adult learners, they want words at their fingertips or eyes. Reading in braille or print allows the reader to preview text and to re-read interesting or confusing sections. However, audio materials are now an option for all students; students with visual impairments more often listen to school materials than their sighted peers do. Recognizing how you prefer to get information is important in deciding how you will be most comfortable studying.

How do you learn most quickly? Because the quantity of reading usually increases in college, students also need to consider their most efficient way of reading and studying. Students with visual impairments should know their reading speed in each medium they use (print, braille, listening.) If you finished high school within the last 10 years, your teacher of students with visual impairments may have conducted a Learning Media Assessment with you to determine your most efficient reading medium. If you don’t already have this information, you might contact your former teacher to obtain a copy. However, you can easily compare your speed in reading and listening by having someone work with you on timing your rate of reading and listening with several equal-length passages from the same text. Use a stopwatch on your iPhone or notetaker to time yourself, or ask someone to record the time it takes to read a 200-word passage in braille or print, and then listen to a 200-word passage from the same book and record the time needed. Try several examples of each passage since one very easy or difficult example can skew results. Listening is faster than reading for most people, so it is useful to know how much time you will save if you decide to listen to information rather than read.

What is your most accurate way of learning?

Even if listening is faster than braille or print for you, you may retain and understand information better when you are reading in braille or print instead of listening. You can check this by asking someone to write a list of comprehension questions you can answer after you listen to and read different passages from the same text to see if you recall more when you read or listen.  Also try to retell what you have heard or read to see what types of information you recall. If you remember more from passages you have read than from those you have heard, then you will probably choose to study by reading, at least in more difficult subjects where you must understand new information.

Where do you like to study and read?

Some learners prefer to study in a specific place, and to have a quiet background that enables them to concentrate. Others are more flexible about their preferred location: sitting in a comfortable chair or lying in bed, near a radio or television, is more relaxing for other learners. You might try several available spaces to see what you prefer.

Do you prefer to learn and study alone or with others?

Some people are social learners, preferring to learn and study with others. Others like a quiet, private space for learning. If you like a setting free of distractions, arrange housing that allows for this. If you have roommates, be ready to assert your needs for private study time and location. Of course, the primary reason for college attendance is to succeed academically; however, if you opt for your own room or spend more time in a separate setting to study effectively, be sure that you also make time to enjoy social contact with others.

Your preferred way of studying may not necessarily result in the best performance. You may enjoy studying with others who are taking the same class, but your test performance may be better if you spend more time intensively reviewing notes and the reading materials. Many people prefer a combination of studying with others and working independently, and you might try different balances of social and independent study to find out what works for you.

How do you plan your studying?

There is wide variation in how people plan use of time for academic work.  While people who follow a regular schedule for study and academic work are more likely to be successful, there are many ways to manage study schedules. Some people like to concentrate on one subject intensively for hours or on one day each week, while others will study and review several subjects daily or weekly.  You probably know successful students who seem to wait until the last minute to prepare most assignments and to study for exams; they have learned to take advantage of short-term memory that can translate into purposeful responses.  As you prepare for classes, be aware of what makes you become anxious about an assignment: if anxiety is interfering with your performance, following a planned schedule and giving yourself more lead time may help.

Your personal learning style is based on your innate preferences for learning media, tools and environment and also on what adaptations you need because of your visual impairment. During your first semester, it may be useful to keep a brief log of your study habits. You can note the time you spend studying each week, document your methods for notetaking and reviewing, and record your reading medium and use of technology. Look for patterns of performance. Are your grades better when you do some studying each week, cram before exam time, or both? Do you remember more when you study on your own or with others? Do you do better in subjects for which you use a different medium (e.g., reading for literature assignments as compared with listening to political science texts?) Recognizing your unique learning footprint can allow you to step forward successfully in your academic endeavors.

By Jane N. Erin, Professor Emerita, The University of Arizona on Wednesday, Aug 17, 2016