Chapter 2: Learning styles – examples for use

Zorislava Zagorac, Ana Ivanis, Sabina Nuhbegovic, Thorsten Steiner


Modern approaches to education and knowledge transfer use findings of various studies on learning principles. They are derived from neurobiological research or based on experiential learning theories. The later - experiential learning theories - will be discussed in this chapter.

Experiential learning theory (ELT) is one of the most famous approaches especially in the higher education. Experiential learning theory and learning styles find their application in wide range of disciplines. It is used in education to improve students’ learning abilities, and in management to improve teams’ performances. Theory of learning styles is also useful in computer and information science particularly to study end-user software use and end-user training. They can be applied in medicine and nursing to improve patient/physician or patient/nurse relationship.

Purpose of this chapter

Learning styles are discussed here to make teachers realize that students – and teachers - have different approaches to learning and that adapting the way of presenting and dealing with content may facilitate the acquisition of knowledge on the cognitive and practical level. The Model of David Kolb of experienced learning is discussed as an example to apply a learning style theory to planning and performing teaching. It is also used to exemplify criticism to a learning style model.

The Kolb Model

The Model of David Kolb of experiental learning is discussed here as an example to apply a learning style theory to planning of and performing of teaching (Kolb, D. A. et al. 2000; Kolb, A. Y. and Kolb, D. A. 2006; Kolb, D. A. 2007). Kolb's model of learning cycle describes the process of acquiring and capturing experiences with modifying of behaviour as a result of the learning from the experience.

In Kolb’s theory learning takes place in a cyclic way. This cycle consists of four stages (Figure 1):

  1. Experiencing or immersing oneself in accomplishing a given assignment.
  2. Reflection includes summarizing experiences gained during the task solving, defining strengths and weaknesses of the working flow.
  3. Conceptualization involves analyzing and interpretation of events by putting them in logical order and relationships.
  4. Planning involves new understanding of the task and designing future steps in solving similar tasks based on experiences gained during task solving.

The concept of learning style describes individual differences in learning based on the learner’s preference for employing different phases of the learning cycle. Because of our hereditary equipment, our particular life experiences, and the demands of our present environment, we develop a preferred way of choosing among the four learning modes (Kolb, A. Y. and Kolb, D. A. 2006).

The learning process might start from any stage of the learning cycle. Kolb emphasises two very important aspects: 1st the use of concrete experience to test ideas, and 2nd the use of feedback to change practices and theories.

As these two aspects are crucial, it is essential to involve both processes in the planning of classes. The timing of the different stages is particularly important, because feedback should be given at various phases of task execution. These assessments ensure identification of weaknesses and strengths and provide opportunity to modify the work processes. This model could be used for planning exams at the crucial points during a class, which might ensure the opportunity to realize how students studied during the term and to modify their performances.

Knowing importance of experience, the effective teacher builds his or her lectures on exploration of what students already know and believe. Beginning with these or related concrete experiences allows the learner to re-examine and modify their previous sense-making in the light of new ideas.

Meaning of learning style model on team performance

As a team develops from a group of individuals into an effective learning system, members share the functional roles necessary for team effectiveness (Sabre Corporate Development 2002). To learn from its experience, a team must have members who can be involved and committed to the team and its purpose (concrete experience), who can engage in reflection and conversation about the teams experiences (reflective observation), who can engage in critical thinking about the teams work (abstract conceptualisation), and who can make decisions and take action (active experimentation). Teams develop through a creative tension among the four (individual) learning styles. In an idealized learning cycle or spiral, the team and its members “touch all the bases” - experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting - in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation. Team development is thus a process in which a team creates itself by learning from its experience (Adams, A. B., Kayes, C. D. et al. 2007).

According to the preferred way of acquiring knowledge Kolb divided learners into four learning styles:

  1. Diverging: The diverging style’s dominant learning abilities are concrete experience and reflective observation. These people are best in viewing problems from many different points of view. Diverging style may be especially helpful during phases of creating new ideas and broadening the view of groups. For diverging type group learning as brainstorming and discussions is preferable.
  2. Assimilating: The assimilating style’s dominant learning abilities are abstract conceptualization and reflective observation. People with this learning style are best in summarizing a wide range of information into concise, logical form. Assimilating type is best in model building, reading papers, and thinking alone.
  3. Converging: The converging style’s dominant learning abilities are abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. People with this learning style are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. Converging type prefers real life projects, labs and problem solving.
  4. Accommodating: Accommodating style’s dominant learning abilities are concrete experience and active experimentation. People with this learning style preference learn best from “hand-on” experience. Fieldwork, simulations and games, could be used effectively.

In the first experimental study on the effect of learning styles on team performance, In 1977 Wolfe examined how homogeneous three-person teams of accommodators, divergers, assimilators, or convergers performed on a complex computer business simulation compared with heterogeneous teams (Adams, A. B., Kayes, C. D. et al. 2007). The four groups of homogeneous teams had similar performance results. However, the teams that had members with diverse learning styles performed significantly better, earning nearly twice the amount of money of the homogeneous learning style teams. Similarly, Kayes (2001) found that teams made up of members whose learning styles were balanced among the four learning modes performed at a higher level on a critical thinking task than teams whose members had specialized learning styles (Kayes, C. D. 2002).

Sandmire and Boyce (2004) investigated the performance of two-person collaborative problem-solving teams in an allied health education anatomy, physiology, and pathology course. Students were assigned randomly to two-person groups, beeing either similary or oppositely paired based on their Kolb LSI-2 Y-axis scores (see Figure 3) (Sandmire, D. A. and Boyce, P. F. 2004). They compared a group of high abstract/high concrete (AC-CE) student pairs with a group of abstract pairs (AC-AC) and a group of concrete pairs (CE-CE). The abstract/concrete (AC-CE) pairs performed significantly better on a simulated clinical case than the abstract pairs and slightly better than the concrete pairs (CE-CE), indicating the value of integrating the abstract and concrete dialectics of the learning cycle. However, a similar study by Sandmire, Vroman, and Sanders (2000) investigating pairs formed on the action/reflection dialectic showed no significant performance differences (Adams, A. B., Kayes, C. D. et al. 2007).

Practical use and examples

Although ELT has its critiques it can be use for preparing teaching units. It’s structure may vary depending on the number of students and different situations.

If a teacher has only one student he/she can prefer the student’s preferred learning style during the teaching unit. Still, the learning cycle should be run through but the preferred learning style can serve as a starting point (Fig. 2).
Here follows a concrete example for a one to one teacher-student situation: The learning objective is to teach the student how to deliver breaking bad news to the patient. In this example the student’s preferred learning style is converging. The student might therefore prefer to elaborate on the theoretical part of the task. As converger she might prefer to structure the task by developing a list of objectives or tasks. For example, the student will create a list of what to say to relatives, and how she plans to do so. Still staying a the more “theoretical hemisphere” (the lower half) of the learning cycle (Figure 1) she then proceeds to assimilating by gathering all relevant information about communication models and skills (see Figure 2). The student then proceeds into the “practical hemisphere” of the learning cycle and continues at the quarter of “accommodating” by talking to a standardized patient (SP) and obtains his feedback. In the fourth step, the student moves forward to the quarter of diverging. This part consists of reflection on her experience while performing to deliver breaking bad new to a standardised patient and on the feedback (e.g. from the SP). The list of objectives, which was prepared in step one (converging) and elaborated in step two(assimilating) can be used to find out what has been achieved, what needs to be modified or improved. By doing so the cycle is closed. The student than comes back the lower half of the cycle to elaborate more on the cognitive part of the task.

While the one-to-one situation is probably an exception, learning groups with 10 to 20 students may be more common. It could be assumed that in such groups each of the four learning styles is more or less represented, which should be used as a “vehicle” to reach the individual learner best and intensify the learning of the group. The teacher should be prepared to use different teaching methods according to the different learning styles (see above). These methods could be combined to include all types of learners. Small group discussions and team projects could be also used.

The following is an example for applying the learning style model to group teaching. It consists of 20 students. The learning objective is how to perform the examination of 5 muscle tendon reflexes (MTR). It is assumed that every learning style is represented in the group. In this example the teacher has planned to start the cycle in the upper left quarter, by looking for a student who prefers the accommodating learning style. The teacher does so by asking the students who would like to demonstrate how to perform the examination of the 5 MTR (see Figure 3). Thus the teacher is trying to start by a practical approach of the topic by initially involving students, who prefer to learn things by “doing”. In the terminology of the Kolb Model this is called “active experimentation” (AE). In the next step the teacher tries to apply to the observational skills of students who prefer a more observational style. The teacher asks the students to give a feedback on the performance and to reflect on further aspects of the task (RO). The 3rd step proceeds to the “theoretical hemisphere” of the learning cycle. This step is initiated by asking students for the pathophysiological background and clinical meaning of MTR, targeting for students who prefer an assimilating style. The final task may be to ask students to summarize all the collected information in a performance list for the examination of MTR. Repeating the examination and applying the performance list then close the cycle.

Certainly, many different teaching methods (i.e. Sandwich principles, Microteaching or Technical skills) can be used to get students involved at the several steps. Thus parts of a seminar could be done by working in small work groups, other by preparing summaries of literature, etc.

The Kolb Model can even be applied in large groups, for example in a group of 100 students. By using learning cells and applying the “sandwich principle” the teacher should try to get students involved.

CLearning Style Model
Fig. 2: Application of learning style model following the Kolb Model in 1-to-1 teacher - student situation. In this example the student's preferred learning style is converging

Learning Style Model
Fig. 3: The application of the learning style model following the Kolb Model in 1-to-20 teacher - student situation

Strengths and weaknesses of the Kolb Model

Each learning style has its strong and weak points. To balance different needs of their students, teachers should provide learning objectives in many different ways and in that way ensure that all learning styles are covered. This can be achieved through group learning and conversational learning.

Group learning is particularly successful if groups consist of different learning styles. Researches found that heterogeneous groups accommodating different learning styles learn significantly more than homogenous group consisting of whatever learning style (see Sandmire above). Researches also showed that teams formed randomly with the aim to include different types of learners preformed better than self-selected studies. Having that in mind teachers can form the learning groups by random allocation of students into the groups. In that way teachers can presume that groups consist of all four types and prepare their teaching units including different teaching strategies.

Although Kolb’s theory is widely accepted and has its use for improving performances especially in higher education, there are a number of problems with the model (Greenway, R. 2004).
David Kolb is putting forward a particular learning style model. The problem here is that the experiential learning model does not apply to all situations. Another problem is that Kolb’s theory provides only limited number of factors that influence learning. It doesn’t explain psychodynamic, social, and institutional aspects of learning.
It is important to have in mind that people differ in their learning type over time and over situations. Different approaches may be needed even to same person in different situations.

The major critique to the Learning Style Inventory as a measurement of learning styles is lack of its objectivity, reliability and validity. Other complains are connected to its generalisablility as it has been used within a fairly limited range of cultures. For its broader use further studies are needed.


Learning style theories provide theoretical models of knowledge acquisition. There is no doubt that learning style models can only be an approximation of “real life”, because learning is a highly individualized process. Despite this fact, studies have shown that learning style models like the one proposed by Kolb et al. are of practical use, because they can be transferred into concrete teaching actions. They help teachers to realize that students have different approaches of knowledge acquisition. Therefore an application multiple teaching methods is necessary to enhance effectiveness of teaching and learning.


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