Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory

Kolb’s Learning Style Theory is based on Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory. Experiential learning theory is influenced by the work of 20th century educational theorists such as John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget, Wiliam James, Carl Jung, Paulo Freire, Carl Rogers and many others who in one way or the other gave experience a central role in their theories regarding human development (Kolb, 1981, Kolb, 1984, Kolb & Kolb, 2005). Experiential learning theory (ELT) defines learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 41). The ELT model contains two dialectically related modes of grasping and transforming experience. The dialectically related modes for grasping experience are the Concrete Experience (CE) and Abstract Experience (AE) and the dialectically related modes of transforming experience are the Reflective Observation (RO) and the Active Observation (AE) (Kolb, 1984, Kolb & Kolb, 2005).
Kolb’s experiential learning style theory categorizes the learning cycle into four stages (concrete experience, abstract experience, reflective observation, and active observation), each its own individual learning style preference (Kolb, 1984; Sirin & Guzel, 2006) and summarized in Figure 1. Concrete experience is the process whereby a learner learns through actively experiencing an activity. This is sometimes referred to as learning through hands-on experience. Reflective observation is the process whereby a learner learns through conscious reflection about the activity. Abstract conceptualization on the other hand referrers to the learning process where by a learner learns by being presented with a theory or a model that has to be observed. Finally, active observation referrers to the process whereby the learner learns through testing a theory or a model. According to Kolb and Kolb (2005), experiential learning can be referred to as a “process of constructing knowledge that involves a creative tension among the four learning modes that is responsive to textual demand” (p. 194). Thus in ELT learning follows the learning cycle- the learner experience the phenomenon, reflect on it, think about it, and finally the learner acts on the distilled abstract concepts in a recursive process that is responsive to the situation and the phenomenon being learned (Kolb & Kolb, 2005).
The Kolb learning style theory has identified four types of learners. These are: 1. Divergers, 2. Assimilators, 3. Convergers, and 4. Accommodators. Dorney (2005) described the four types of learners as either exhibiting an only one type of the learning styles (pure) or exhibiting a combination of the four types (extreme cases). Kolb and Kolb (2005) describes divergers as learners having CE and RO as their dominant learning abilities. Learners with this learning style have a greater ability of viewing concrete situations in many diversified points of views. Individuals with the diverging learning style performs better is situations such as brainstorming sessions where ideas are generated. Divergers have interest in people and culture. They tends to be imaginative, emotional, with broad cultural interest and tend to specialize in the arts. During formal learning activities, individuals with diverging learning style prefers to work in groups, listens openly and like to receive personalized feedback. On the other hand, learners with the assimilating learning style have AC and RO as their dominant learning abilities. Assimilators are best at developing concise and logical pattern of information from a wide ranging source of unrelated information. They are less focused on people and culture, however, they are heavily interested in ideas and abstract concepts (Kolb &Kolb, 2005, Rusian, 2005). Assimilators places more value on the soundness of theories rather than practicability. They are a very important group of learners especially in information and science careers. In formal learning activities, assimilators prefers to receive information through reading, lectures, and exploring models. They enjoy having time to think things through.
Learners with a converging learning style have AC and AE as dominant learning abilities. Convergers functions really well at finding practical solutions to ideas and theories. Persons with the converging style prefer to solve technical problems rather than solving social and interpersonal problems. They are an important group of learners in bringing effectiveness in specialists and technology careers. During formal learning activities, convergers prefer to experiment with new ideas through experimentation, simulations, and practical application (Danish et al. 2009, Kolb &Kolb, 2005, Rusian, 2005). Lastly, learners with the accommodating style have CE and AE as their dominant learning abilities. They learn best from hands-on experience. Accomodators rely more heavily on other people for information, analysis, and solving problems rather than relying on themselves or their own technical analysis. They are a very important group of learners especially for bringing effectiveness in action oriented careers such as marketing, teaching, and sales. During formal learning activities, accommodators prefer to work with others to get their work done. They are more action oriented than thinking oriented (Danish et al. 2009, Russian, 2005)
Criticisms of Kolb’s Learning Theory
Despite of the wide use of Kolb’s learning style inventory in education, there are still many criticisms leveled at the theory. Coffield et al. (2004) points out the following flaws: 1) Reliability of the instrument (Learning Style Inventory) is still contested and unresolved, 2) validity of the learning style inventory is still contested and unsettled, (3) there is no evidence that support matching improves academic performance in further education, and lastly, (4) the notion of learning cycles may be problematic as it does not account for all individuals’ information processing preferences. Furthermore, the research on the fluid nature (flexible stable) of learning styles remains both confusing and confused (Robotham, 1999).
A Review of the Studies Conducted Based on the Kolb Learning Theory
Many studies have been conducted based on the Kolb learning style theory. SoyLu –Yilmaz & AkkoyunLu (2009) examined the effect of learning styles on achievement in different learning environments. Thirty nine college level students in an education and instructional technology undergraduate program in Turkey participated in the study. The study used Kolb’s learning style inventory to identify students’ learning styles. For this study, students were categorized into two learning styles: 18 students (53%) were identifies as identified as divergers and 16 students (47%) were identified as assimilators. In other words, students fell into either the diverger group or the assimilator group. The study found no significant difference between instructional strategies in a computer- mediated environment (narrative + music + text + static pictures). Furthermore, In addition, there was no significant change in student achievement when students’ learning style was matched with the instructional strategies (p = .53). Raksasuk (2000) examined the effects of matching learning styles with participatory interaction modes on student achievement among 195 first year students attending a web-based instructional course on library and information science in Thailand. Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory was used to identify students’ learning styles in this study. Of the 195 students, 66 were identified as assimilators, 44 were identified as accommodators, 55 were divergers, and 40 were convergers. Raksasuk found no significant effect in the amount of information learned when instruction was matched to students’ learning styles preference.
Another study by Tulbure (2012), compared two groups of pre-service teachers (with educational sciences (N= 85) and economic sciences major (N = 97) to in order to identify their learning style preferences, the most effective teaching strategies for each learning style and some possible differences between their academic achievement. A total of 182 students participated in the study. The study used Kolb’s learning style inventory to identify student learning styles. Four types of learning styles were identified. For the educational major group, 31% were assimilators (N = 26), 28% were divergers (N = 24), 23% were convergers (N = 20), while only 18% (N = 15) were classified as accommodators (N = 15). For the economic major group, 36% were identified as convergers (N = 36), 25% were identified as assimilators (N = 24), 20% as divergers (N = 19), and 19% as accommodators (N = 18). The results were as follows: Convergers showed statistically significant results with cooperative learning, investigation, and problem solving. Divergers showed statistically significant results when cooperative learning and investigations are used as instructional strategies. Accommodators showed statistically significant results when investigation, debate, and problem solving instructional strategies were used. Assimilators showed statistically significant results when only when problem solving was used.
Bhatti and Bart (2013) examined the effect of learning style on scholastic achievement. One hundred and ninety three undergraduate students studying social science at a Division I Research University participated in the study. Kolb’s learning style inventory was used to identify students’ learning styles. Of the 193 students, 28 were identified as convergent, 49 divergent, 76 assimilators, and 40 accommodator. The major findings of the study was that the dominant learning style was assimilator and that gender and learning styles influenced student achievement. Another study by Smith (2010) investigated the learning style preferences among licensed nurses who were enrolled in a course. The study used Kolb’s learning style inventory to identify the nurses learning styles. The majority of the nurses were identified as accommodators (31%), followed by assimilators and divergers (20%), and the least preferred learning style was convergent (19%).
In summary, Kolb’s learning style theory proposes four types of learners. These are: accommodators, divergers, convergers, and assimilators. Research using this model has identified convergers as the common learning style. However, in my literature review, the discipline seems to determine what the common learning style would be. For example, assimilators dominated the learning style landscape for the social science study, in the nursing field study, accommodators were the majority, and in the economic sciences major group, divergers were the majority. The convergent learner found in this theory is closely aligned to the kinesthetic learner on the VARK theory. However, the Kolb’s learning style inventory is mainly used to identify adults learning styles rather than children as the VARK theory does.

Figure 1. Kolb’s learning experiential model and four learning styles

Source: http://www.businessballs.com

Bhatti, R., & Bart, W. (2013). On the effect of learning styles on the scholastic achievement. Current Issues in Education, 16(2), 1-6.
Coffield, F., Mosley, D., Hall, E., & Ecclestone, K. (2004). Should we be using learning styles? What research has to say to practice? London, Learning and Skills Development Agency.
Danish, K., & Awan, A. (2009). Learning styles learners and their career choice. Professional Med Journal, 16(2), 162-168.
Kolb. D. (1981). Experiential Learning theory and the learning style inventory: a reply to freedman and stumpf. Academy of Management Review, 6(2), 286-296.
Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning theory and the learning style inventory: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Kolb, A., & Kolb, D. (2005). Learning style and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Management Learning and Education, 4(2), 193-212.
Raksasuk, Norumol (2000). Effect of learning style and participatory interaction modes on achievement of Thai students involved in web based instruction in library and information science distance education. (Doctoral Dissertation). University of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.
Robotham, D. (1999). The application of learning theory in higher education teaching. Unpublished article, Wolverhampton Bussiness School, Wolverhampton, UK.
Russian, C. (2005). Preferred learning styles of respiratory care student at Texas University-San Marcos. The Internet Journal of Allied Health Sciences and Practice, 3(4), 1-6.
Sirin, A., & Guzel, A. (2006). The relationship between learning styles and problem solving among college students. Education Sceinces: Theory and Practice, 6(1), 255-264.
SoyLu –Yilmaz, M. & AkkoyunLu, B. (2009). The effect of learning styles on achievement in different learning environments. The Turkish Online Journal of Educational Technology, 8(4): 43-50.
Smith, A. (2010). Learning styles of registered nurses enrolled in an online nursing program. Journal of Professional Nursing, 26(1), 49-53.
Tulbure, C. (2012). Investigating the relationship between teaching strategies and learning styles in higher education. Acta Didactica Napocensia, 5(1): 65-74.


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