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Helping Students Embrace Deep Learning

By Laura L. B. Border, University of Colorado at Boulder

Teachers are more comfortable in the classroom when they can use multiple methods; students learn in depth when they are stretched beyond their comfort zones.

Just as a video recorder catches a teacher’s classroom behaviors on film, a learning styles inventory captures the intangible and invisible aspects of what a teacher believes (and enacts) about learning. Understanding the impact your own learning style has on your teaching helps you respond to the students of today—and tomorrow. Kolb’s Learning Styles Inventory (LSI) is a valuable guide for teachers seeking to teach effectively, assess learning in meaningful ways, use technology efficiently, and pursue theory-based classroom research.

Interestingly, there seems to be some confusion in the literature about what “learning styles” really are. Some models address the senses as in visual, kinesthetic, aural, and oral. Others address the environment. As we have worked with college teachers we have come to define learning styles as information processing, which makes the Kolb LSI applicable because each term used in Kolb applies directly to the processing of information, skills or operations in the typical classroom.

Kolb describes an “experiential learning” cycle, starting with concrete experience (CE), working through reflective observation (RO), abstract conceptualization (AC), and ending with active experimentation (AE). Individual students’ learning cycles may start on any of the four poles and proceed in any direction, not necessarily circular, indicating a preference for a particular order of cognitive processing. A learner may prefer to proceed by AE, RO, AC, AE, for example, or if he has equal scores on two poles may seem to process information via, for example, CE and AC simultaneously.

Some writers who focus on Kolb’s work describe the “learning styles” as functions of the quadrants, that is as divergent (CE/RO), assimilating (RO/AC), convergent (AC/AE) and accommodating (AE/CE). The quadrant into which one falls seems to create a valuing of one’s own style above that of others.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, apparently a diverger, says, “A mind that is stretched by a new experience can never go back to its old dimensions.” Stendahl, the French novelist, falls squarely in the assimilator quadrant when he claims, “I see but one rule: to be clear. If I am not clear, all my world crumbles to nothing.” Football coach Lou Holtz is definitely a converger, “I never learn anything talking. I only learn things when I ask questions.” Eric Hoffer on the other hand, seems to be a clear accommodator when he notes, “There can be no real freedom without the freedom to fail.”

One’s learning style can only be apprehended in the truly novel learning experience—when the learner encounters content or operations that he has never before encountered. In the novel stage, a learner likely will proceed through the experiential learning cycle in his preferred order, but once he has mastered the materials, with guidance and encouragement, he can teach and learn related material in any order.

When we examined the learning order of students’ favorite teachers, we found that the teacher’s order tends to map directly onto the student’s preferred order. This discovery led us to hypothesize that if we introduced new material in varying orders, we might reach more students.

My work over the years with 50 Lead Graduate Teachers per year from all disciplines has shown that learners with high scores on any of the four quadrants define what they are “doing” when they are learning in different ways. Learners with a high score on concrete experience define “doing” as figuring things out on their own, responding, creating, conversing, or taking action. Reflective observers define “doing” as pondering, observing, reflecting, considering, imagining, or foretelling. Abstract conceptualizers define their “doing” as following or giving directions, accumulating knowledge, organizing, or analyzing. Active experimenters define “doing” as questioning, manipulating, testing, doubting, rejecting, or playing devil’s advocate. It is important to note that all of these descriptions refer to cognitive processing, which leads me to suggest that Kolb’s model could be renamed as the “Information or Content Processing Model.”

The Kolb Learning Styles Index gives teachers a useable guideline to ascertain if they have covered all aspects of a particular topic. And it allows teachers to engage learners thoughtfully by respecting their students’ individual orders but encouraging them to develop their weakest area or pole. The LSI also provides teachers with an objective view on their own weaknesses in teaching, leading to opportunities for individual teaching development.

Redefining Deep Learning

I submit that the poles and the questions that are laid out in Kolb’s learning styles theory can serve as a functional guide for faculty who are attempting their first excursions into learner-centered teaching and deep learning. In our work preparing inexperienced teachers, we’ve asked teachers to use the Kolb LSI as a guide to develop learning activities and assignments for deep learning.

To begin, we ask teachers to pose and answer four questions that are important to the four quadrants. Divergers want to know the import of the activity or content; convergers what the parameters or limits of the assignment are and what the assignment is useful for; assimilators which facts they need to know to complete the assignment; and accommodators what the end product, performance or procedure will be.

We ask teachers to figure out how they can move the student around the poles of the Kolb LSI, again in any order. For example, if students must figure out what kind of rocks they are dealing with in a geology lab, they may be asked to refer to a chart (abstract conceptualization); reflect on what they already know about rocks and from where these particular rocks may have come (reflective observation); test the rocks in the laboratory to determine their makeup (active experimentation); and, lastly, figure out on their own, using the rocks they have in front of them and the data they have gathered (concrete experience) how the rocks should be categorized. The goal is to get students to try out aspects of each pole rather than only the one they’re comfortable with.

Differences in Learning Styles

Differences in preferred content processing styles sometimes lead to conflicts. Questioning students may irritate reflective teachers. Teachers who play devil’s advocate may be frustrated when their reflective-observer students don’t respond. Teachers who value concrete experience may focus on service learning activities, neglecting the careful analysis that might make the experience more valuable. Teachers who value abstract conceptualization may try to be super-organized, forgetting that some students need to figure things out own their own. Working with teachers to help them become more comfortable with the four questions and four poles has created teachers who can reflect on their students’ learning and on their own performance.

As one of our lead graduate teachers noted, “Applying the Kolb LSI in courses allowed me to create better teams, motivate more students, increase their ability to question material and make it their own, and perform well in classroom discussions. As a teacher, I’m more accepting of students’ questions; I practice more when I have to make a demonstration; and I make a stronger effort to tie theoretical concepts to aesthetic or real-life material.”


References & Resources


Biggs, John B. (1999) Teaching for Quality Learning at University, SHRE and Open University Press. Buckingham, England.

de Jesus, Helena T. Pedrosa, Almeida, Patricia Albergaria, Teixeira-Dias, Jose Joaquim, and Watts, Mike. “Students’ Questions: Building a Bridge between Kolb’s Learning Styles and Approaches to Learning,” Education & Training. Vol. 48 (2-3), pp. 97-111. (2006)

Entwistle, Noel J. (1988). Styles of Learning and Teaching. David Fulton.

Johnson, John A. “Beyond the Learning Paradigm: Customizing Learning in American Higher Education: 10 Bellwether Principles for Transforming American Higher Education,” Community College Journal of Research & Practice. Vol. 30 (2), pp. 97-116. Feb 2006.

Kolb, David, Experiential Learning, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. 1984.

Kolb Learning Styles Inventory, http://www.haygroup.com/ww/About/Index.asp?id=495

Long, Holly E. and Coldren, Jeffrey T. “Interpersonal Influences in Large Lecture-Based Classes: A Socioinstructional Perspective,” College Teaching. Vol. 54 (2), pp. 237-243. (2006).

Shulman, Lee S. (2004). The Wisdom of Practice. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

Svinicki, Marilla D. (2004). Learning and Motivation in the Postsecondary Classroom. Bolton, MA: Anker

Villaverde, J. E. and Godoy, D.; Amandi, A. “Learning Styles’ Recognition in E-Learning Environments with Feed-Forward Neural Networks,” Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. Vol. 22 (3). pp. 197-206. June 2006.

Weimer, Maryellen. (2002) Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.


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