Ways of Learning in College: Identify Your Ideal Educational Environment

Professor speaking to class split with woman working online at home

If you’ve been out of school for any length of time, you can appreciate just how much the landscape of higher education has changed over the years. Gone are the days when a college education was restricted to late teens and early twenty-somethings living in the campus dorms. Many colleges are scrambling to adopt innovative new education environments that meet the needs of today’s students.

The definition of college today is dramatically different than what you might remember, which can be intimidating as you’re considering going back to school. The current climate offers more educational models than the traditional brick-and-mortar lecture hall, which is great news for busy adults like yourself.

These days, schools understand that there are many different ways of learning. They’re offering more options when it comes to how you earn your degree, and some of them might surprise you. Take a look at the available education environments and see which one sounds like the best fit for you!

Traditional education environments

Even though new education models are being introduced at colleges around the country, traditional models are still a viable option for students who prefer a standard learning environment. These options are worth looking into if you’re a more traditional learner.

On campus

This option is still the most common higher education choice by a wide margin. Traditional education involves enrolling in an institution, choosing from that institution’s available programs (typically organized in degree tracks all students must follow) and attending those classes in person.

Whether students choose to attend full-time or part-time, those who choose this route can expect plenty of classroom interaction with their peers and professors, as well as the standard college schedule of courses and exams.

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People who struggle to stay on task with academic work should strongly consider this option. The National Communication Association (NCA) emphasizes that on-campus experiences connect students with faculty and peers in ways that bond them to their school and help them throughout their college career. “Without these retention factors students may be less likely to persist in school and complete their degrees,” according to the NCA.

Students who have any doubts about their commitment to a program can give themselves better odds by attending in person. While more flexible learning options are out there, the accountability of being physically present in classes and surrounded by professors and campus resources could be just what you need to stay on track.


Online education is exactly what it sounds like. Students work through online courses and receive grading feedback from instructors without ever setting foot in a college building. Though learning takes place virtually, these courses are typically facilitated through traditional colleges following the same degree track and semester schedule as on-campus courses. Online courses are equipped with varying capabilities such as video chats and class participation forums to make the environment more interactive.

“Online degrees continue to gain acceptance among prospective students because these degrees provide flexibility and access to highly valued credentials,” writes Learning House. Their report cites a 23 percent increase in online programs between 2013 and 2014.

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“Are you a self-starter? Are you easily distracted?” asks Dr. Philip Kim. “The online environment is academically rigorous. It takes organization and focus to stay on task with the pace of the class.” He says the online modality is ideal for students with a tight schedule, emphasizing that online courses are not easier than in-class courses, but they typically offer a more flexible schedule.

“The basic requirements in the virtual course room are clearly delineated and meeting deadlines can be scheduled into the student's routine,” says Linda Williams, educator and founder of Whose Apple Empowerment Center. You’ll likely spend just as many hours in an online course, but you have more freedom of when you log those hours.

Williams says this educational option is ideal for students with young children or those acting as caregivers for someone else. The flexibility of location is also major perk for students who are already part of the workforce.

Contemporary education environments

Colleges are adapting their learning environments to best serve the changing needs of their students. These contemporary education options may seem foreign to you, but they’re well worth considering if they fit your learning needs.


Gamification is a cutting-edge education model that incorporates a video game concept into the learning environment to keep students engaged and motivated. This education option rethinks the way courses are structured, acting as a pushback against the more passive, lecture-hall environment with minimal student engagement. Students might be tasked to work on projects that simulate real-life activities, or entire units might be structured like a game.

“I changed the weekly headings to levels, made assignments into quests, discussions into side quests and quizzes into mini-bosses. I also changed the point values so a course was worth one million points,” says Derric Clark, program champion of game studies at the University of Advancing Technology. Clark says these changes allowed students to compete for high scores in the course using secret avatar names.

Clark sees gamification as a way to capitalize on students’ competitive nature. He sees very positive changes in academic achievement when gamification is involved. “It rewards good practices and behavior, something most people respond well to.”

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“Realists and results-oriented students will get a lot out of the exercise,” says Candi Hamilton Walker, a student who participated in gamified courses in completion of an MBA at the Auburn University College of Business. If you enjoy video games or found the course description above fascinating, you might want to seek out gamified college courses.

Walker says this way of learning is particularly suited to students who learn through interaction, discussion and competition. If you get antsy during a typical class or have trouble staying engaged with your coursework, gamification could be the education model to change all that.

Competency-based education

Competency-based education (CBE) is another modern model in education that uses knowledge, not time, as the metric of student success, according to the CBE Network. This student-centered, accelerated approach focuses on skills and “competencies” that employers and educators determine students should know for each subject.

Students can use past work experience or take exams to demonstrate their competency and receive college credit. That means students aren’t wasting time in required classes that are teaching skills they already have. CBE also allows students to set their own pace, taking their time on more difficult subject matter while testing out of those they have already mastered.

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Students looking to graduate as quickly as possible will be drawn to the efficiency of a competency-based program. The ability to test out of courses or skills at your own pace can speed up the process compared to a traditional degree program with required courses and semester schedules.

If you have a good amount of practical work experience, you’ll find this way of learning particular pleasing. Your pre-existing skills and knowledge can count towards college credit. Competency-based programs are also ideal for adult learners looking to save time and money while capitalizing on their previous experience.

What’s your ideal education environment?

No two students are alike, which is why there are so many ways of learning available in higher education today. Now that you’re more familiar with your options, you’re one step closer to determining which best suits your proficiencies and priorities.

Are you intrigued at the idea of turning your real-world experience into college credits? Learn more about how competency-based education is changing mainstream learning.


Brianna Flavin

Brianna is a content writer for Collegis Education who writes student focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen University. She earned her MFA in poetry and teaches as an adjunct English instructor. She loves to write, teach and talk about the power of effective communication.

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