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David A. Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory and the Learning Styles Inventory

Introduction

David Kolb’s prominent work is his Experiential Learning Theory Experiential learning is the process of gaining knowledge from experience and applying it to education, work, and development. It occurs when the learner directly experiences the realities of the theory, concept, or fact that they are learning. Kolb (1984) describes experiential learning as a four stage cycle involving four adaptive learning modes: concrete experience (CE), reflective observation (RO), abstract conceptualization (AC), and active experimentation (AE) (p. 40).(ELT) and the Kolb Learning Style Inventory Kolb’s learning style inventory (LSI) is a self-description test based on his experiential learning theory that determines a learner’s strengths and weaknesses into one of four learning style categories: converging, diverging, accommodating, or assimilating (Kolb & Kolb, 2005). (LSI). After a 17 year process of exploring the implications of the experiential learning theory and experimenting with techniques of learning from experience, Kolb published his theory in his 1984 book Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.

Kolb’s (1984) book provides a systematic statement of the theory of experiential learning and how it applies to work, education, and adult development (p. xi). Kolb asserts the principle that a person learns through his or her discovery and experience. He developed the ELT theory in order to explain the connections between the human developmental stages of maturation, learning processes, and experiences. He believes that experience shapes the way learners grasp knowledge, which then affects their cognitive development.

The Kolb ELT model (1984) outlines the following four adaptive approaches to learning: concrete experience (CE), reflective observation (RO), abstract conceptualization (AC), and active experimentation (AE). It also defines four distinct learning styles:A learning style is the individual unique processing structures or ways of learning people tend to adopt or program themselves towards (Kolb, 1984, p. 64). diverging, assimilating, converging, and accommodating (pp. 75-78).

Description of the Experiential Learning Theory

Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning theory consists of a four stage learning cycle where a learner will encounter all four stages of the cycle in varying degrees: experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting; however, at the most basic level, a learner will generally show a preference or strength in only one of the stages. The preferred learning stage determines a learner’s learning style defined in Kolb’s LSI. Kolb’s theory draws on the origins of experiential learning from the works of the prominent 20th century scholars Dewey, Lewin, and Piaget (Kolb 1984), and develops a holistic model of the experiential learning process and a multi-linear model of adult development (Kolb & Kolb, 2005).

Kolb and Kolb (2005) describe experiential learning as a process of constructing knowledge from a creative tension among the four learning modes that is responsive to contextual demands. This process is portrayed as an idealized learning cycle where the learner experiences all four modes – experiencing (concrete experience or CE), reflecting (reflective observation or RO), thinking (abstract conceptualization or AC), and acting (active experimentation or AE) - in a recurring process that is responsive to the learning situation and to what is being learned. The experiential learning theory proposes that the learning cycle varies according to individuals’ learning style and the learning context in which they are participating (p. 2).

Kolb (1984) proposes that learners, through their choice of experience, program themselves to grasp reality through varying degrees and then transform their reality. The self-programming through experience determines the extent to which the learner will emphasize the four modes of the learning process (p. 64). To assess individual orientations towards the four modes of the learning process, Kolb developed the Learning Style Inventory (LSI).

The Kolb Learning Style Inventory (LSI)

Much of Kolb’s research on the experiential learning theory focuses on the concept of learning style, using the Learning Style Inventory to assess individual learning styles and to help individuals identify the way they learn from experience. The LSI is based on Kolb’s experiential learning theory and is unique from other tests of learning style used in education because it draws upon a comprehensive theory of learning and development (Kolb & Kolb, 2005, p. 2).

The concept of learning style describes individual differences in learning based on the learner’s preference for using different modes of the learning cycle. Kolb and Kolb (2005) explain that hereditary make-up, unique life experiences and the demands of our present environment, all contribute to developing a preferred learning mode (p. 4). They also indicate that we resolve the conflict between being concrete or abstract and between being active or reflective in four patterned, characteristic ways: diverging, assimilating, converging, or accommodating (p. 4). These four patterns are the defined learning styles in Kolb’s LSI.

Kolb and Kolb (2005) created the LSI to fulfill two purposes:

  • To serve as an educational tool to increase individuals’ understanding of the process of learning from experience and their unique approach to learning (p. 8).
  • To provide a research tool for investigating experiential learning theory and the characteristics of individual learning styles (p. 8).

The Kolb Learning Style Inventory identifies four learning styles that are associated with the four patterned characteristic approaches to learning: diverging, assimilating, converging, and accommodating. The preferred learning style is dependent on the learner’s two dominant modes of the four phases of the learning cycle

The Four Learning Styles

Kolb and Kolb (2005) define the four learning styles as follows: diverging, assimilating, converging, and accommodating. A brief summary of each learning style follows; summarized from The Kolb Learning Style Inventory – Version 3.1 – 2005 Technical Specifications, p. 5.

Diverging
An individual with diverging style has CE and RO as dominant learning abilities. People with this learning style are best at viewing concrete situations from many different points of view. They tend to have broad cultural interests and like to gather information. They are interested in people, tend to be imaginative and emotional, and often specialize in the arts. Working in groups, appreciating diverse viewpoints, and receiving personal feedback are some characteristics of the diverging learning style (Kolb & Kolb, 2005, p. 5).

Assimilating
An individual with an assimilating style has AC and RO as dominant learning abilities. People with this learning style are best at understanding a wide range of information and putting it into concise, logical form. People with an assimilating learning style are less focused on people and more interested in ideas and abstract concepts. They tend to be effective in information and science careers. Lectures, readings, having time to think things through, and exploring analytical models are examples of some of the ways an assimilator prefers to learn (Kolb & Kolb, 2005, p. 5).

Converging
An individual with a converging style has AC and AE as dominant learning abilities. People with this learning style are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. They are able to problem solve and make decisions by seeking appropriate solutions to questions or problems. People with a converging learning style tend to be effective in specialist and technology careers. They tend to learn best when given simulations, practical applications, lab work, and opportunity to experiment with new ideas (Kolb & Kolb, 2005, p. 5).

Accommodating
An individual with an accommodating style has CE and AE as dominant learning abilities. People with this learning style have the ability to learn from primarily “hands-on” experience. They enjoy carrying out plans and involving themselves in new and challenging experiences. They are prone to acting on “gut” feelings rather than on logical analysis. People with an accommodating learning style tend to be effective in action-oriented careers such as marketing or sales. They enjoy setting goals, working with others, and using different approaches for completing a project (Kolb & Kolb, 2005, p. 5).

Description of Kolb’s Theory on Experiential Learning and Development

Kolb (1984) explains that there is a quality of learning that cannot be ignored. It is assertive, forward, moving, and proactive. Curiosity about the here-and-now and anticipation of the future drives the learning experience (p. 132). Kolb, unlike some traditional conceptions that state learning and development are independent processes, believes that learning is the process whereby development occurs and the two processes are dependent upon each other (p. 132). The experiential learning theory of development focuses on the transaction between internal characteristics and external circumstances, between personal knowledge and social knowledge.

The Three Stages of Development
Kolb’s ELT states that learning is the major determinant of human development and how individuals learn shapes the course of their personal development (Kolb & Kolb, 2005). The ELT development model (1984) defines three stages: acquisition, specialization, and integration. The acquisition stage occurs from birth to adolescence, and is where basic abilities and cognitive structures develop. Specialization occurs from the beginning of formal schooling through the early work and personal experiences of adulthood, where social, educational, and organizational socialization forces shape the development of a sense of individuality. This occurs through the acquisition of competence in dealing with the demands of a chosen career. Integration occurs in midcareer and later life, where nondominant modes of learning are expressed in work and personal life. This stage often brings social security and achievement (Kolb, 1984, pp. 143-144).

The Three Levels of Adaptation
The acquisition, specialization, and integration stages of development are represented by three levels of adaptation, each one representing successively higher-order forms of learning.

In the acquisition stage of development, adaptation takes the form of performance governed by a simple registrative consciousness. In the specialization stage, adaptation occurs through learning. An increasingly interpretative consciousness governs learning. In the integration stage, adaptation occurs through the achievement of holistic development governed by a consciousness that is integrative in its structure. The governing factors of the three levels of adaptation (registrative, interpretative, and integrative) define the three levels of consciousness (Kolb, 1984, pp. 145-146).

Kolb (1984) summarizes that each developmental stage of maturation is characterized by acquisition of a higher-level structure of consciousness than the stage preceding it, although earlier levels of consciousness remain; that is, adults can display all three levels of consciousness. The registrative, interpretative, and integrative levels of consciousness govern the process of learning from experience through the selection and definition of that experience (p. 146).

Related Research Articles

References

Kolb, A.Y., & Kolb, D.A. (2005). The Kolb Learning Style Inventory – Version 3.1: 2005 Technical Specifications. Haygroup: Experience Based Learning Systems Inc.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.