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Learning Styles: Kolb's Theory of Experiential Learning

Cognitive styles or Learning styles could be defined as an individual's orientation for approaching learning tasks, or preferred way in which a learner processes information. Learning styles characterize a person's typical manner of thinking, remembering or problem solving, they simply denote a tendency to behave in a certain manner, and they are consider to be bipolar dimensions. Unlike Learning styles, abilities describe peak performance in a unpopular fashion ranging from zero to a maximum value.


David A. Kolb


The Theory of Experiential Learning: David A. Kolb

One of the main exponents of Learning styles is David A. Kolb who in his book "Experiential Learning" (1984) proposes a Theory of Experiential Learning in which he identifies four principal stages: Concrete Experiences (CE), Reflective Observation (RO), Abstract Conceptualization (AC), and Active Experimentation (AE). The CE/AC and AE/RO dimensions are polar opposites in terms of learning styles, and Kolb suggests four types of learners: Divergers, Assimilators, Convergers, and Accommodators, depending upon their position on these two dimensions.

The concept of experiential learning explores the cyclical pattern of all learning from Experience through Reflection and Conceptualising to Action and on to further Experience. Kolb's work builds on the work of Piaget, Dewey and Lewin, and it explores the processes associated with making sense of concrete experiences and the learning styles involved in doing so.

Experiential learning occurs as a direct result of the learner's participation in events, it utilises the participants' own experience and their own reflection about that experience. It is a learner centred approach which starts with the premise that people learn best from experience (learning-by-doing). It is particularly effective due to its holistic approach of addressing cognitive, emotional and the physical aspect of the learner.


Kolb's Learning Cycle



The learning cycle has been determined by observing that learning invariably follows a pattern that can be divided into four stages. Kolb argues that the learning cycle can begin at any one of the four points however, the following is the most often suggested pattern for the learning process:

Stage I - Concrete Experience

An individual carries out a particular action and then observes the effect of the action in this situation. Experiencing or immersing oneself in the "doing" of a task is the stage in which the learner simply carries out the task assigned. The engaged person is usually not reflecting on the task at this time but rather just carrying it out with intention.

Stage II - Reflective Observation

Reflection involves stepping back from task involvement and reviewing what has been done and experienced. The skills of attending, noticing differences, and applying terms helps identify subtle events. One's paradigm (values, attitudes, values, beliefs) influences whether one can differentiate certain events. Understanding of the effects of an action in the particular instance is required in order to anticipate what would follow from the action if it was to be taken again under the same circumstances.

Stage III - Abstract Conceptualization

Conceptualization involves interpreting the events that have been noticed and understanding the relationships among them. It is at this stage that theory may be particularly helpful as a template for framing and explaining events. One's paradigm again influences the interpretive range a person is willing to entertain. Understanding the general principle under which the particular instance falls does not imply ability to express the principle in a symbolic medium.

Stage IV - Active Experimentation

Application through action in a new circumstance within the range of generalization. Within this context planning enables taking the new understanding and translates it into predictions about what is likely to happen next or what actions should be taken to refine the way the task is handled.

The timing of the Learning cycle is consider to be particularly important. On the one hand, if one waits until after a task is completed there is no opportunity to refine it until a similar task arises on the other hand, continual reflection leaves the person spending more time on thinking than getting the task done. The logic of the learning cycle is to make many small and incremental improvements.

Two aspects of the Learning Cycle can be seen as especially noteworthy: the use of concrete, 'here-and-now' experience to test ideas; and use of feedback to change practices and theories.

Experiential learning is charectirised by the following:

  • Recognises that people learn best from their own experiences and their own reviews.
  • Subscribes to the notion that what people do is more important than what they know.
  • Moves beyond knowledge and into skill by generating a learning experience.
  • Understands that to be remembered over a long period of time the learning process should be enjoyable, motivating and rewarding.
  • Respects the individuals ideas and choices.
  • Provides opportunity to take on challenge in an atmosphere of support.
  • Generates space and time to stand back and reflect when pressures or doubts become too strong.
  • Cultivates a realisation that the attempt at doing something new or different is more significant than the result.
  • Produces an awareness that effective learning requires small controlled steps outside comfort zones.


David Kolb's Learning Styles

David Kolb and Roger Fry argue that effective learning entails the possession of four different preferred manners of dealing with information processing: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. As a result they developed a learning style inventory (Kolb 1976) which was designed to place people on a line between concrete experience and abstract conceptualization; and active experimentation and reflective observation. Using this Kolb and Fry proceeded to identify four basic types of learners: Convergers, Divergers, Assimilators, and Accommodators.


Experiential Learnin Cycle


Kolb's learning Styles


Convergers grasp experience through abstract conceptualization and transform their experience through experimentation. The convergers prefer dealing with objects, rather than people, and are often considered unemotional. They are strong in practical application of ideas, can focus on hypo-deductive reasoning on specific problems, and are believed to have narrow interests.

Convergers (abstract conceptualization/active experimenter) are motivated to discover the relevancy or "how" of a situation. Application and usefulness of information is increased by understanding detailed information about the system's operation.

Divergers grasp experience through concrete modes and transform their experience through reflective observation. They are good at generating ideas, tend to be more "people oriented", and are usually more emotional. They are strong in imaginative ability, good at seeing things from different perspectives, and are believed to have broad cultural interests.

Divergers (concrete/reflexive learners) are motivated to discover the relevancy or "why" of a situation. They like to reason from concrete specific information and to explore what a system has to offer and they prefer to have information presented to them in a detailed, systematic, reasoned manner.

Assimilators grasp experience through abstract conceptualization and transform their experience through reflective observation. They tend to be less interested in people and more interested in concepts. They are strong at creating theoretical models and excels in inductive reasoning.

Assimilator (Abstract conceptualization/Reflective observer) are motivated to answer the question, "what is there to know?" They like accurate, organized delivery of information and they tend to respect the knowledge of the expert. They aren't that comfortable randomly exploring a system and they like to get the 'right' answer to the problem.

Accommodators grasp experience through concrete experience and transform their experience through active experimentation. They are intuitive and often become impatient when a problem does not conform to their ideas. Their greatest strength is doing things, they are more of a risk taker and they perform well when required to react to immediate circumstances.

Accommodators (Concrete experience/Active experimenter) are motivated by the question, "what would happen if I did this?" They look for significance in the learning experience and consider what they can do, as well as what others have done previously. These learners are good with complexity and are able to see relationships among aspects of a system.

Kolb recognizes that there are strengths and weaknesses associated with each style and that being 'locked into' one style can put a learner at a serious disadvantage.



Kolb, A. and Kolb D. A. (2001) Experiential Learning Theory Bibliography 1971-2001, Boston, Ma.: McBer and Co,

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kolb, D. A. (1981) 'Learning styles and disciplinary differences'. in A. W. Chickering (ed.) The Modern American College, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kolb, D. A. (1976) The Learning Style Inventory: Technical Manual, Boston, Ma.: McBer.

Kolb. D. A. and Fry, R. (1975) 'Toward an applied theory of experiential learning;, in C. Cooper (ed.) Theories of Group Process, London: John Wiley.



Other approaches to Learning Styles

4MAT: a teaching methodology that asks teachers and trainers to center instruction on the learner

Learning styles framework developed by Dunn & Dunn

Learning styles and the Multiple Intelligences theory

Articles on Experiential Learning and Critiques of David Kolb's theory of experiential learning