David Kolb is an American psychologist, professor, and educational theorist. He is renowned for his work on experiential learning and individual learning styles. His Learning Style Inventory was one of the first tools developed for assessing learning preferences and is still widely used today. Kolb’s unique perspective on learning has had a major influence on the educational sector as it has awakened educators to the importance of discovery and experience in the teaching-learning process.
David Kolb's Childhood
David Allen Kolb was born on December 12, 1939, to Ethel May and John August Kolb. He described his hometown in Moline, Illinois as a “small midwestern farm town.” Partly due to the influence of his mother, Kolb developed an interest in learning and ideas from an early age. As a result, he stood out among his peers, most of whom did not seem very interested in education at the time. Kolb recalls that he was sometimes teased and called “brain” by other students. He was even bullied a bit in school. In spite of this, he describes his early educational experience as “good” and notes that he enjoyed playing football during those years.
Kolb had his first encounter with experiential learning in the 6th grade. His teacher at the time asked the class to sit in a circle and gave each student the task of picking a country, learning about it, and acting as its representative in a United Nations forum. That experience is fresh in Kolb’s mind despite the fact that it occurred roughly 70 years ago.
Kolb initially wanted to become a minister but later developed doubts about organized religion. He recalls being particularly disturbed by the way a preacher in his church tried to indoctrinate him and make him repeat religious dogma, a practice which struck him as profoundly wrong. Nevertheless, Kolb never lost his desire to help people and eventually decided that psychology was a means by which he could accomplish that goal.
Kolb obtained his BA in psychology, with a minor in philosophy and religion, from Knox College in 1961. At first, he was slightly disappointed with the psychology program which was heavily influenced by behaviorism. He spent a lot of time cleaning rat cages and conducting experiments with rats, and wondered about the usefulness of such experiences.
In time, the department hired a new professor from Harvard—a personality theorist—who had a significant impact on Kolb. Kolb finally felt as if he was being taught what he had expected to learn in a psychology program—theories about people, individual differences, and human nature. It was this professor who encouraged Kolb to pursue graduate studies at Harvard. Kolb earned his MA from Harvard in 1964 and his PhD in social psychology, also from Harvard, in 1967.
In 1965, Kolb began working as an Assistant Professor of Organizational Psychology and Management at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Sloan School of Management. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1970. During his time at MIT, Kolb developed an interest in finding the “best fit” for individual learners, which eventually blossomed into his theory of experiential learning.
In 1971, Kolb served as a Visiting Professor at the London Graduate School of Business Studies. In 1976, he joined the faculty at Case Western Reserve University (Cleveland, Ohio) as a Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Weatherhead School of Management. He is presently Emeritus Professor of that post.
Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle
Kolb published his model of experiential learning in 1984. His theory was greatly influenced by the work of forerunners John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget. Kolb defined learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” Experience is viewed as the basis for learning, prompting the acquisition of abstract principles which can then be applied to various situations.
In Kolb’s model, learning is presented as a four-stage cycle of grasping and transforming experience. Of the four stages shown in the diagram below, concrete experience and abstract conceptualization are the two modes of grasping experience; reflective observation and active experimentation are the two modes of transforming experience. Each stage lays the foundation for the one to follow.
A brief description of each stage in the learning cycle is presented below:
- Concrete experience (CE) - This is usually the starting point of the learning cycle. In this stage, the individual encounters a new situation or experience which is perceived via the senses. The experience is typically a personal one but the learning process may also start when the individual observes, hears about, or reads about someone else’s experiences. In cases of shared experiences, the individual’s perceptions of the situation may be combined with the perceptions of other people who were present at the same event.
- Reflective observation (RO) - This is where the individual actively thinks about and mulls over the new experience. He or she reviews what happened, tries to see how each part of the experience fits with the other parts, examines apparent inconsistencies, and ponders over the outcome of the experience.
- Abstract conceptualization (AC) - In this stage, the individual tries to make sense of the points extracted from the reflective phase, generating abstract principles that can be applied to future situations. The focus is on drawing conclusions and on learning lessons based on the experience. The individual may also come to see ways in which principles derived from the previous experience may need to be modified.
- Active experimentation (AE) - Here, the individual tests out the new ideas and lessons garnered from the experience. He or she actively experiments with the conclusions previously drawn, resulting in new concrete experiences...and the cycle starts again.
Let’s now consider an example of how the learning cycle might play out in real life. Imagine you have just attempted to cook rice for the first time. After removing the pot from the stove, you find that the rice is undercooked and the grains at the bottom of the pot are burnt (concrete experience). You then proceed to review in your mind the steps you had taken when cooking and check them against the recipe to see if you had followed the instructions carefully (reflective observation).
Based on your reflection, you determine that the flame had been too high and you needed to add a bit more water for the type of rice you were cooking (abstract conceptualization). You decide to throw out the first pot of rice and start again from scratch, adjusting the flame and amount of water (active experimentation). The outcome of this second attempt will result in a new concrete experience...so the cycle of learning continues.
Ideally, a learner goes through all four stages of experiencing, reflecting, thinking and acting. Kolb believes each stage is essential, with no one stage being effective on its own. Although a learner can enter the cycle at any stage, Kolb contends that effective learning will only occur if all four stages are completed.
Kolb’s Learning Styles
Emerging out of Kolb’s learning cycle is his classification of individual learning styles. Kolb suggests that each learner has a preferred mode of grasping and transforming information and that this preference determines their learning style. He proposed four distinct styles of learning, each of which involves an emphasis on two phases of the learning cycle.
To better understand how Kolb arrived at his learning styles, take a look at the diagram below:
Kolb represents each stage of the learning cycle along two intersecting axes. The vertical axis is known as the “Perception Continuum” and relates to how people approach a given task. On this continuum, we choose a manner in which to grasp information, whether through feeling (concrete experience) or thinking (abstract conceptualization) . The horizontal axis is known as the “Processing Continuum” and deals with how we make information meaningful. Here, we choose a way to transform or process our experience, whether through doing (active experimentation) or watching (reflective observation).
In Kolb’s view, the modes of learning at each end of an axis are ‘conflicting’ and an individual cannot experience both at the same time (e.g., thinking and feeling). Any attempt to do both is thought to produce internal conflict which is resolved by an unconscious choice. The individual simultaneously and subconsciously chooses whether to ‘do’ or ‘watch’ and whether to ‘think’ or ‘feel.’ The choices they habitually make determines their preferred learning style.
The four learning styles identified by Kolb are as follows:
- Diverging (CE/RO) - These individuals prefer to learn by watching others as opposed to doing. Given their preference for reflection, they are able to view concrete situations from multiple perspectives. They gather information through observation and then actively use their imagination to solve problems.Their strength lies in their imaginative ability and their propensity for brainstorming and generating new ideas. Divergers are emotional, people-oriented, and prefer to work in groups. They are open to different viewpoints and appreciate receiving personal feedback. These individuals tend to excel in humanities, social sciences and liberal arts.
- Assimilating (AC/ RO) - People who favor this learning style enjoy contemplating abstract concepts. They focus more on ideas than on people. Their strength is in assimilating diverse observations into a concise, logical theory or explanation. They are more interested in the soundness and precision of ideas than in their practical value. In formal settings, they prefer to learn via reading, attending lectures, and exploring theoretical models, as opposed to making use of practical opportunities and experimentation. They often excel in mathematics and basic sciences.
- Converging (AC/ AE) - These individuals enjoy contemplating ideas but are also good at solving practical problems. Their strength is in applying theories and abstract concepts to real-world, practical situations. They prefer to work on technical tasks rather than social issues. They excel at tasks involving the identification of the single best answer, such as those found on conventional tests of intelligence. Convergers enjoy experimenting with new ideas and tend to do well in areas such as engineering, technology, and healthcare.
- Accommodating (CE/ AE) - Accommodators prefer to learn via hands-on, practical approaches. They tend to “go with their gut,” solving problems by means of trial-and-error rather than engaging in logical analysis. Their greatest strength lies in doing things and making things happen—they take initiative, set goals, and actively work to reach them. They welcome challenges and actively seek out new experiences and opportunities. They are not afraid to take risks and they adapt well to changing circumstances. They tend to do well in practical fields such as business, especially in the areas of sales and marketing.
According to Kolb, each individual naturally favors a particular learning style. This preference depends on several factors, including social influences and educational experiences. Kolb believes the learner’s developmental stage also affects his or her learning preferences. Kolb specified three stages of development and suggests that people gradually learn to integrate conflicting modes of learning as they progress through the stages. In other words, as individuals grow, they gradually move away from an over-reliance on one learning style and progress toward learning in a more holistic way.
The three developmental stages Kolb identified are briefly described below:
- Acquisition - lasts from birth to adolescence; the individual develops basic abilities and cognitive structures.
- Specialization - begins with formal schooling and extends throughout the early experiences of adulthood; the individual develops a specialized learning style shaped by social forces.
- Integration - lasts from the mid-career stage to late adulthood; the individual expresses his or her non-dominant learning modes in personal and work-related contexts.
Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory
As the name suggests, the Kolb Learning Style Inventory (LSI) is an assessment tool developed by Kolb to determine an individual’s preferred learning style. According to Kolb, it is most useful for “self-exploration, self-understanding, and self-development.” The LSI was one of the first tools developed for assessing learning styles and is still very popular today.
The LSI consists of 12 statements describing different ways of responding to everyday situations. For each statement, the respondent has a choice of four endings, each corresponding to one of the four stages in the learning cycle. The individual ranks each statement from 1 to 4 according to his or her preferences. The results are then used to assign the individual to one of the four learning styles in Kolb’s classification system. (The newest version of the LSI expands Kolb’s typology from four to nine different learning styles).
Applications of Kolb’s Theory
Kolb’s theory of experiential learning has been applied to several contexts, including:
Education - Kolb’s model has been used by educators to determine students’ preferred learning style so they can tailor their teaching methods to appeal to their learners. For example, students who display strengths in concrete experience would benefit from the use of games, role plays and group discussions, whereas students who favor abstract conceptualization would learn better by reading, listening to well-organized explanations, and studying alone.
Of course, in typical educational settings, teachers are faced with a diverse array of learners. All four learning styles may be represented in a single classroom. In such situations, a variety of techniques reflecting all four components of the learning cycle would be ideal. There are two primary benefits of this approach: (1) it supports each student’s learning preference, increasing the likelihood that they will engage with the content, and (2) it challenges them to develop non-dominant learning modes so they can approach future learning situations with greater flexibility.
Academic advising and career counseling - By assessing students’ learning styles and providing them with feedback, academic advisors and counselors can help students to identify their preferences and strengths. This information also helps students to identify modes of learning that they may need to strengthen if they want to be successful in their chosen fields.
Business - In the sales and marketing industry, workers benefit from knowing the learning styles of prospective customers because it helps them to design more effective marketing strategies. In real-world settings, however, this is not always possible. As a result, it is wise for sales and marketing representatives to make use of various types of demonstrations, explanations and presentations so that people of different learning styles are able to understand exactly what the company is promoting or selling.
Criticisms of Kolb’s Learning Theory
While there is much value in Kolb’s explanation of how we learn from experience, critics have noted several issues with his model:
- It oversimplifies the learning process - Kolb presents learning as a neat, clearly defined sequence of stages, each feeding into the next. In real life, however, learning is rarely ever so ‘neat and tidy.’ Instead of progressing smoothly from one stage to the next, we may need to return to previous stages.
For example, if after reflecting on an experience we are unable to arrive at satisfactory conclusions (abstract conceptualization), we may need to go back to the concrete experience stage in order to gather more observations. We may need to pay closer attention to what we see, hear, feel, smell, and/or taste. We may need to ask additional questions and perhaps, find out other people’s perception of the experience. Only then might we be able to reach a hypothesis we deem worthy of testing.
- It ignores important aspects of learning - Kolb’s learning theory does not account for the social and cultural contexts in which learning occurs. The theory also fails to take into consideration preconceived expectations that the individual brings to the experience, as well as their goals, emotions, past memories, and (unique personality).
- It has weak empirical support - Some critics argue that there is very little empirical support for Kolb’s model and that the initial research base was small. Additionally, since the model was developed, only a limited number of studies have been undertaken to test its predictions. Few of these studies have been conducted with people from different cultures, age groups, educational level, and socio-economic backgrounds.
Doubts have also been raised about the validity and reliability of Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory. As a self-report measure, the results are based solely on how learners rate themselves and are therefore questionable. Another limitation of the inventory is that it only indicates relative strengths within the individual; it does not indicate the individual’s strengths in relation to other people.
David Kolb's Books, Awards, and Accomplishments
Kolb has written numerous book chapters, monographs, and journal articles. He has also authored and co-authored several books, including:
- How You Learn Is How You Live: Nine Ways of Learning that can Transform Your Life, 2017
- The Experiential Educator: Principles and Practices of Experiential Learning, 2017
- Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (2nd ed.) 2015
- Organizational Behavior: An Experiential Approach (8th ed.), 2007
- Conversational Learning: An Experiential Approach to Knowledge Creation, 2002
- Innovation in Professional Education: Steps on a Journey from Teaching to Learning, 1995
Between 1984 and 1996, Kolb was awarded four honorary degrees in recognition of his work on experiential learning. These were awarded by SUNY Empire State College (1996), Franklin University (1994), International Management Centre, Buckingham (1988), and the University of New Hampshire (1984).
His other awards include:
- Decision Sciences Institute Distinguished Paper Award, 2011
- The National Society for Experiential Education Educational Pioneers of the Year award (with Alice Kolb), 2008
- Case Weatherhead School of Management Research Recognition Award, 2002-2003
- Council for Adult & Experiential Learning (CAEL) Morris T. Keeton Adult and Experiential Learning Award, 1991
Kolb has been a member of several professional organizations, including the American Psychological Association, the Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research (SIETAR), the International Association of Applied Social Scientists, and the National Center on Adult Learning (NCAL). He has also served on the editorial review board of several journals, including the Academy of Management Review, the Journal of Management Development, Human Relations, and Academy of Management Learning and Education.
Kolb is also the Chairman of Experience Based Learning Systems Inc. (EBLS), an organization which he founded in 1981 with the goal of advancing research and practice in experiential learning.
Kolb and his wife, Alice, currently live in Hawaii and remain active members of their organization, EBLS. They also facilitate sessions as part of an online certification course offered by the Institute for Experiential Learning.
The couple enjoys going for early morning walks on the beach where they spend time reflecting and meditating. On weekends, Kolb can be found working actively in his garden. He has become a fan of Hawaiian music, which he describes as “very spiritual and connected with nature.”
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Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L.D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: Theory, research and practice (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
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Smith, M. K. (2013). David A. Kolb on experiential learning. Retrieved from The Encyclopedia of Pedagogy and Informal Education. https://infed.org/mobi/david-a-kolb-on-experiential-learning/