David Kolb is an American educational theorist and psychologist. He is well known for his learning style model known as experiential learning theory. Published in 1984 his theory operates on two levels: a four stage cycle of learning and four separate learning styles. His theory mainly focuses on the learner’s internal cognitive processes.
According to Kolb, experiential learning is the process of obtaining and transforming experiences that result in new knowledge. The learner is in touch with the realities being studied in contrast with the learner who only reads about, hears about, talks about, or writes about but never comes into contact with as part of the learning process. Kolb’s experiential learning style theory is based on a four-stage learning cycle, in which the learner experiences each step as they gain new or modify existing information. These four are:
- Concrete Experience (feeling) – a new experience/situation is introduced or a reinterpretation of an existing experience.
- Reflective Observation (watching) – reviewing/reflecting the experience.
- Abstract Conceptualization (thinking) – begins to form new ideas or modifies existing ideas based on reflections from the previous stage.
- Active Experimentation (doing) – applies their ideas to their surroundings resulting in new experiences.
Kolb views learning as an integrated process. Each stage supports and influences the next. The learner can enter the cycle at any stage with a logical sequence. Effective learning can only occur when the individual can carry out all four stages of the model, consequently, no stage of the cycle will be effective on its own.
Kolb’s learning styles are based on his four-stage learning cycle. To determine one’s preferred style is based on two variables: how one approaches a task and our emotional response to it. When perceiving the information, we fall into the category of concrete experience or abstract conceptualization. As we process the information we do so as either active experimentation or reflective observation. Our learning style results from a combination of two preferences in each of these categories. Here are the four Kolb learning styles:
- Diverging (feeling & watching) – prefer to watch rather than do. They have broad interests in different cultures, open minded in receiving feedback and prefer to work in groups. Tend to have a strong imagination, strong in the arts, as well as emotional. Characteristics are concrete experience and reflective observation.
- Assimilating (watching & thinking) – appreciate good clear information. They are less focused on people and more interested in ideas and abstract concepts. They enjoy exploring analytical models, readings and lectures. Characteristics include abstract conceptualization and reflective observation.
- Converging (doing & thinking) – Apply their learning to practical issues. They are attracted to technical tasks and experimenting with new ideas rather than social or interpersonal issues. Characteristics tend to be abstract conceptualization.
- Accommodating (doing & feeling) – enjoy doing things practically, “hands on” and rely on intuition rather than logic. Attracted to new challenges and experiences. Characteristics usually are concrete experience and active experimentation.
There are many advantages to Kolb’s model. The model provides a blend of traditional teaching, including hands-on learning and each stage includes a different preferred learning style, ensuring all learning styles are used as you go through the model. There are a few disadvantages however, accommodating a range of learning techniques in a group may prove difficult for trainers as well as, it’s not always obvious applying the model to the real world. An example of applying this model to the real world is changing bad habits. Take tardiness, come to work late (concrete experience), look at the reason for arriving late (reflective observation), think about the good and bad impacts on yourself for arriving late (abstract conceptualization, analyze how you can arrive at your destination without being tardy and do practical ways of arriving without being late (active experimentation).
With all this Kolb’s experiential learning theory helps trainers develop the most appropriate learning methods for target learners and helps them focus on activities that enable learners to go through the four stages of the learning cycle.
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