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Learning Styles: Kolb’s experiential learning

Experiential Learning Theory

Kolb’s learning theory sets out four distinct learning styles (or preferences), which are based on a four-stage learning cycle. (which might also be interpreted as a ‘training cycle’). In this respect, Kolb’s model is particularly elegant, since it offers both a way to understand individual people’s different learning styles, and also an explanation of a cycle of experiential learning that applies to us all.

Kolb includes this ‘cycle of learning’ as a central principle his experiential learning theory, typically expressed as four-stage cycle of learning, in which ‘immediate or concrete experiences’ provide a basis for ‘observations and reflections’. These ‘observations and reflections’ are assimilated and distilled into ‘abstract concepts’ producing new implications for action which can be ‘actively tested’ in turn creating new experiences.

Ideally (and by inference not always) this process represents a learning cycle or spiral where the learner ‘touches all the bases’, ie., a cycle of experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting. Immediate or concrete experiences lead to observations and reflections. These reflections are then assimilated (absorbed and translated) into abstract concepts with implications for action, which the person can actively test and experiment with, which in turn enable the creation of new experiences.

Kolb’s model, therefore, works on two levels – a four-stage cycle:

  1. Concrete Experience – (CE)
  2. Reflective Observation – (RO)
  3. Abstract Conceptualization – (AC)
  4. Active Experimentation – (AE)

and a four-type definition of learning styles, (each representing the combination of two preferred styles, rather like a two-by-two matrix of the four-stage cycle styles, as illustrated below), for which Kolb used the terms:

  1. Diverging (CE/RO)
  2. Assimilating (AC/RO)
  3. Converging (AC/AE)
  4. Accommodating (CE/AE)

Learning Styles

Various factors influence a person’s preferred style.  For example, social environment, educational experiences, or the basic cognitive structure of the individual.

Whatever influences the choice of style, the learning style preference itself is actually the product of two pairs of variables, or two separate ‘choices’ that we make, which Kolb presented as lines of an axis, each with ‘conflicting’ modes at either end:

A typical presentation of Kolb’s two continuums is that the east-west axis is called the Processing Continuum (how we approach a task), and the north-south axis is called the Perception Continuum (our emotional response, or how we think or feel about it).

learning styles

Kolb believed that we cannot perform both variables on a single axis at the same time (e.g., think and feel). Our learning style is a product of these two choice decisions.

It’s often easier to see the construction of Kolb’s learning styles in terms of a two-by-two matrix. Each learning style represents a combination of two preferred styles. The matrix also highlights Kolb’s terminology for the four learning styles; diverging, assimilating, and converging, accommodating:

Active Experimentation (Doing) Reflective Observation (Watching)
Concrete Experience (Feeling) Accommodating (CE/AE) Diverging (CE/RO)
Abstract Conceptualization (Thinking) Converging (AC/AE) Assimilating (AC/RO)

Learning Styles Descriptions

Knowing a person’s (and your own) learning style enables learning to be orientated according to the preferred method. That said, everyone responds to and needs the stimulus of all types of learning styles to one extent or another – it’s a matter of using emphasis that fits best with the given situation and a person’s learning style preferences.

Here are brief descriptions of the four Kolb learning styles:

Diverging (feeling and watching – CE/RO)

These people are able to look at things from different perspectives. They are sensitive. They prefer to watch rather than do, tending to gather information and use imagination to solve problems. They are best at viewing concrete situations from several different viewpoints.

Kolb called this style ‘diverging’ because these people perform better in situations that require ideas-generation, for example, brainstorming. People with a diverging learning style have broad cultural interests and like to gather information.

They are interested in people, tend to be imaginative and emotional, and tend to be strong in the arts. People with the diverging style prefer to work in groups, to listen with an open mind and to receive personal feedback.

Assimilating (watching and thinking – AC/RO)

The Assimilating learning preference involves a concise, logical approach. Ideas and concepts are more important than people. These people require good clear explanation rather than a practical opportunity. They excel at understanding wide-ranging information and organizing it in a clear, logical format.

People with an assimilating learning style are less focused on people and more interested in ideas and abstract concepts.  People with this style are more attracted to logically sound theories than approaches based on practical value.

This learning style is important for effectiveness in information and science careers. In formal learning situations, people with this style prefer readings, lectures, exploring analytical models, and having time to think things through.

Converging (doing and thinking – AC/AE)

People with a converging learning style can solve problems and will use their learning to find solutions to practical issues. They prefer technical tasks, and are less concerned with people and interpersonal aspects.

People with a converging learning style are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. They can solve problems and make decisions by finding solutions to questions and problems.

People with a converging learning style are more attracted to technical tasks and problems than social or interpersonal issues. A converging learning style enables specialist and technology abilities. People with a converging style like to experiment with new ideas, to simulate, and to work with practical applications.

Accommodating (doing and feeling – CE/AE)

The Accommodating learning style is ‘hands-on,’ and relies on intuition rather than logic. These people use other people’s analysis, and prefer to take a practical, experiential approach. They are attracted to new challenges and experiences, and to carrying out plans.

They commonly act on ‘gut’ instinct rather than logical analysis. People with an accommodating learning style will tend to rely on others for information than carry out their own analysis. This learning style is prevalent within the general population.

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