Kolb's model of learning styles is one of the best-known and widely used learning style theories. Psychologist David Kolb first outlined his theory of learning styles in 1984. He believed that our individual learning styles emerge due to our genetics, life experiences, and the demands of our current environment. In addition to describing four different learning styles, Kolb also developed a theory of experiential learning and a learning style inventory.
In his experiential theory, learning is viewed as a four-stage cycle. First, immediate and concrete experiences serve as a basis for observation. Next, the individual reflects on these observations and begins to build a general theory of what this information might mean. In the next step, the learner forms abstract concepts and generalizations based upon their hypothesis. Finally, the learner tests the implications of these concepts in new situations. After this step, the process once again cycles back to the first stage of the experiential process.
The learning styles described by Kolb are based upon two major dimensions: active/reflective and abstract/concrete.
The four learning styles that Kolb identified are:
- The Converger
People with this learning style have dominant abilities in the areas of Abstract Conceptualization and Active Experimentation. They are highly skilled in the practical application of ideas. They tend to do best in situations where there is a single best solution or answer to a problem.
- The Diverger
Divergers dominant abilities lie in the areas of Concrete Experience and Reflective Observation, essentially the opposite strengths of the Converger. People with this learning style are good at looking at the "big picture" and organizing smaller bits of information into a meaningful whole. Divergers tend to be emotional and creative and enjoy brainstorming to come up with new ideas. Artists, musicians, counselors, and people with a strong interest in the fine arts, humanities, and liberal arts tend to have this learning style.
- The Assimilator
Assimilators are skilled in the areas of Abstract Conceptualization and Reflective Observation. Understanding and creating theoretical models is one of their greatest strengths. They tend to be more interested in abstract ideas rather than in people, but they are not greatly concerned with the practical applications of theories. Individuals who work in math and the basic sciences tend to have this type of learning style. Assimilators also enjoy work that involves planning and research.
- The Accommodator
People with this learning style are strongest in Concrete Experience and Active Experimentation. This style is basically the opposite of the Assimilator style. Accommodators are doers; they enjoy performing experiments and carrying out plans in the real world. Out of all four learning styles, Accommodators tend to be the greatest risk-takers. They are good at thinking on their feet and changing their plans spontaneously in response to new information. When solving problems, they typically use a trial-and-error approach. People with this learning style often work in technical fields or in action-oriented jobs such as sales and marketing.
Similarity to Jungian Personality Theory
Kolb has suggested that his theory expands and builds upon Carl Jung's theory of personality, which is focused on how individuals prefer to interact and adapt to the world. Kolb's learning dimensions share a great deal in common with the dimensions found on the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI). The Jungian learning styles are also based upon the types identified on the MBTI.
The MBTI is a personality inventory based on Jung's work that looks at personality across four major dimensions. The Extraversion/Introversion dimension on the MBTI is very similar to Kolb's Active/Reflective dimension. People high on extraversion and active experimentation tend to be doers, while those high on introversion and reflective observation tend to be watchers. The Feeling/Thinking dimension on the MBTI is also very similar to Kolb's Concrete/Abstract dimension. Those high in the feeling and concrete experience areas tend to be more focused on the here-and-now, while those high in the areas of thinking and abstract conceptualization prefer to focus on theoretical concepts.
Support and Criticism for Kolb's Learning Styles
In one survey of students, Kolb and Goldman found that there was a correlation between student learning styles and their chosen departmental major. Students who planned to graduate in their selected major had learning styles that were strongly related to their areas of interest. For example, students entering management fields had a more accommodative style, while those pursuing mathematics degrees had a more assimilative approach. The results also indicated that students who were pursuing a degree aligned with their learning style had a greater commitment to their field than did students who were pursuing degrees not related to their learning preferences.
The concept of learning styles has been criticized by many and experts suggest that there is little evidence to support the existence of learning styles at all. One large scale study looked at more than 70 different learning style theories and concluded that each lacked enough valid research to support its claims. In a 2008 article, educator Mark K. Smith argued that Kolb's model is supported only by weak empirical evidence and that the learning process is actually far more complex than the theory suggests. He also noted that the theory fails to fully acknowledge how different experiences and cultures may impact the learning process.
Coffield, F., Moseley, D., Hall, E., Ecclestone, K. (2004). Learning styles and pedagogy in post-16 learning: A systematic and critical review. London: Learning and Skills Research Centre.
Kolb, D. A. & Goldman, M. B. (1973). Toward a typology of learning styles and learning environments: An investigation of the impact of learning styles and discipline demands on the academic performance, social adaptation and career choices of MIT seniors. Cambridge, Mass.: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved from http://archive.org/stream/towardtypologyof00kolb#page/n3/mode/2up
Kolb, D A. (1981). Learning styles and disciplinary differences. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc.
Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
Smith, M. K. (2001). David A. Kolb on experiential learning. Retrieved from http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-explrn.htm