Experiential Learning Theory: Previous Research and New Directions David A. Kolb

English: Experiential Learning Model developed...

Let’s hope the revisions keep coming as Learning about Learning is a constant learning process…

Experiential Learning Theory:
Previous Research and New Directions
David A. Kolb
Richard E. Boyatzis
Charalampos Mainemelis
Department of Organizational Behavior
Weatherhead School of Management
Case Western Reserve University
10900 Euclid Avenue,
Cleveland, OH 44106
PH: (216) 368 -2050
FAX: (216) 368-4785
August 31, 1999
The revised paper appears in:
R. J. Sternberg and L. F. Zhang (Eds.), Perspectives on cognitive, learning, and
thinking styles. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000. 2
Experiential Learning Theory: Previous Research and New Directions
Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) provides a holistic model of the
learning process and a multilinear model of adult development, both of which are
consistent with what we know about how people learn, grow, and develop. The
theory is called “Experiential Learning” to emphasize the central role that
experience plays in the learning process, an emphasis that distinguishes ELT from
other learning theories. The term “experiential” is used therefore to differentiate
ELT both from cognitive learning theories, which tend to emphasize cognition
over affect, and behavioral learning theories that deny any role for subjective
experience in the learning process.
Another reason the theory is called “experiential” is its intellectual origins
in the experiential works of Dewey, Lewin, and Piaget. Taken together, Dewey’s
philosophical pragmatism, Lewin’s social psychology, and Piaget’s cognitivedevelopmental genetic epistemology form a unique perspective on learning and development. (Kolb, 1984).

The Experiential Learning Model and Learning Styles
Experiential learning theory defines learning as “the process whereby
knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge
results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience”(Kolb
1984, p. 41). The ELT model portrays two dialectically related modes of grasping 3
experience — Concrete Experience (CE) and Abstract Conceptualization (AC) —
and two dialectically related modes of transforming experience — Reflective
Observation (RO) and Active Experimentation (AE). According to the four-stage
learning cycle depicted in Figure 1, immediate or concrete experiences are the
basis for observations and reflections. These reflections are assimilated and
distilled into abstract concepts from which new implications for action can be
drawn. These implications can be actively tested and serve as guides in creating
new experiences.
Insert Figure 1 about here
A closer examination of the ELT learning model suggests that learning
requires abilities that are polar opposites, and that the learner must continually
choose which set of learning abilities he or she will use in a specific learning
situation. In grasping experience some of us perceive new information through
experiencing the concrete, tangible, felt qualities of the world, relying on our
senses and immersing ourselves in concrete reality. Others tend to perceive, grasp,
or take hold of new information through symbolic representation or abstract
conceptualization – thinking about, analyzing, or systematically planning, rather
than using sensation as a guide. Similarly, in transforming or processing
experience some of us tend to carefully watch others who are involved in the 4
experience and reflect on what happens, while others choose to jump right in and
start doing things. The watchers favor reflective observation, while the doers
favor active experimentation.
Each dimension of the learning process presents us with a choice. Since it
is virtually impossible, for example, to simultaneously drive a car (Concrete
Experience) and analyze a driver’s manual about the car’s functioning (Abstract
Conceptualization), we resolve the conflict by choosing. Because of our
hereditary equipment, our particular past life experiences, and the demands of our
present environment, we develop a preferred way of choosing. We resolve the
conflict between concrete or abstract and between active or reflective in some
patterned, characteristic ways. We call these patterned ways “learning styles.”
The Learning Style Inventory and the Four Basic Learning Styles
In 1971 David Kolb developed the Learning Style Inventory (LSI) to
assess individual learning styles. While individuals tested on the LSI show many
different patterns of scores, research on the instrument has identified four
statistically prevalent learning styles — Diverging, Assimilating, Converging, and
Accommodating (Figure 1). The following summary of the four basic learning
styles is based on both research and clinical observation of these patterns of LSI
scores (Kolb, 1984, 1999a, 1999b). 5
Diverging. The Diverging style’s dominant learning abilities are Concrete
Experience (CE) and Reflective Observation (RO). People with this learning
style are best at viewing concrete situations from many different points of view.
It is labeled “Diverging” because a person with it performs better in situations that
call for generation of ideas, such as a “brainstorming” session. People with a
Diverging learning style have broad cultural interests and like to gather
information. Research shows that they are interested in people, tend to be
imaginative and emotional, have broad cultural interests, and tend to specialize in
the arts. In formal learning situations, people with the Diverging style prefer to
work in groups, listening with an open mind and receiving personalized feedback.
Assimilating. The Assimilating style’s dominant learning abilities are
Abstract Conceptualization (AC) and Reflective Observation (RO). People with
this learning style are best at understanding a wide range of information and
putting into concise, logical form. Individuals with an Assimilating style are less
focused on people and more interested in ideas and abstract concepts. Generally,
people with this style find it more important that a theory have logical soundness
than practical value. The Assimilating 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. 6
Converging. The Converging style’s dominant learning abilities are
Abstract Conceptualization (AC) and Active Experimentation (AE). People with
this learning style are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. They
have the ability to solve problems and make decisions based on finding solutions
to questions or problems. Individuals with a Converging learning style prefer to
deal with technical tasks and problems rather than with social issues and
interpersonal issues. These learning skills are important for effectiveness in
specialist and technology careers. In formal learning situations, people with this
style prefer to experiment with new ideas, simulations, laboratory assignments,
and practical applications.
Accommodating. The Accommodating style’s dominant learning abilities
are Concrete Experience (CE) and Active Experimentation (AE). People with this
learning style have the ability to learn from primarily “hand-on” experience.
They enjoy carrying out plans and involving themselves in new and challenging
experiences. Their tendency may be to act on “gut” feelings rather than on logical
analysis. In solving problems, individuals with an Accommodating learning style
rely more heavily on people for information than on their own technical analysis.
This learning style is important for effectiveness in action-oriented careers such as
marketing or sales. In formal learning situations, people with the
Accommodating learning style prefer to work with others to get assignments 7
done, to set goals, to do field work, and to test out different approaches to
completing a project.
Factors that Shape and Influence Learning Styles
The above patterns of behavior associated with the four basic learning
styles are shown consistently at various levels of behavior. During the last three
decades researchers have examined the characteristics of learning styles at five
particular levels of behavior: Personality types, early educational specialization,
professional career, current job role, and adaptive competencies. We summarize
briefly these research findings in Table 1 and discuss them below.
Insert Table 1 about here
Personality Types. ELT follows Carl Jung in recognizing that learning
styles result from individuals’ preferred ways for adapting in the world. Jung’s
Extraversion/Introversion dialectical dimension as measured by the Myers-Briggs
Type Indicator (MBTI) correlates with the Active/Reflective dialectic of ELT as
measured by the LSI; and the MBTI Feeling/Thinking dimension correlates with
the LSI Concrete Experience/ Abstract Conceptualization dimension. The MBTI
Sensing type is associated with the LSI Accommodating learning style and the
MBTI Intuitive type with the LSI Assimilating style. MBTI Feeling types 8
correspond to LSI Diverging learning styles and Thinking types to Converging
The above discussion implies that the Accommodating learning style is the
Extraverted Sensing type, and the Converging style the Extraverted Thinking
type. The Assimilating learning style corresponds to the Introverted Intuitive
personality type and the Diverging style to the Introverted Feeling type. Myers
(1962) descriptions of these MBTI types are very similar to the corresponding LSI
learning styles as described by ELT (see also Kolb, 1984, pp: 83-85).
Educational Specialization. Early educational experiences shape people’s
individual learning styles by instilling positive attitudes toward specific sets of
learning skills and by teaching students how to learn. Although elementary
education is generalized, there is an increasing process of specialization that
begins at high school and becomes sharper during the college years. This
specialization in the realms of social knowledge influences individuals’
orientations toward learning, resulting to particular relations between learning
styles and early training in an educational specialty or discipline.
People with undergraduate majors in the Arts, History, Political science,
English, and Psychology tend to have Diverging learning styles, while those
majoring in more abstract and applied areas like Physical Sciences and
Engineering have Converging learning styles. Individuals with Accommodating 9
styles have educational backgrounds in Business and Management, and those with
Assimilating styles in Economics, Mathematics, Sociology, and Chemistry.
Professional Career Choice. A third set of factors that shape learning
styles stems from professional careers. One’s professional career choice not only
exposes one to a specialized learning environment, but it also involves a
commitment to a generic professional problem, such as social service, that
requires a specialized adaptive orientation. In addition, one becomes a member of
a reference group of peers who share a professional mentality, and a common set
of values and beliefs about how one should behave professionally. This
professional orientation shapes learning style through habits acquired in
professional training and through the more immediate normative pressures
involved in being a competent professional.
Research over the years has shown that social service (i.e., psychology,
nursing, social work, public policy) and arts and communications professions
(i.e., theater, literature, design, journalism, media) comprise people who are
heavily or primarily Diverging in their learning style. Professions in the sciences
(i.e., biology, mathematics, physical sciences) and information or research (i.e.,
educational research, sociology, law, theology) have people with an Assimilating
learning style. The Converging learning styles tends to be dominant among
professionals in the fields of technology (i.e., engineering, computer sciences,
medical technology), economics, and environment science (i.e., farming, 10
forestry). Finally, the Accommodating learning style characterizes people with
careers in organizations (i.e., management, public finance, educational
administration) and business (i.e., marketing, government, human resources).
Current Job Role. The fourth level of factors influencing learning style is
the person’s current job role. The task demands and pressures of a job shape a
person’s adaptive orientation. Executive jobs, such as general management, that
require a strong orientation to task accomplishment and decision making in
uncertain emergent circumstances require an Accommodating learning style.
Personal jobs, such as counseling and personnel administration, that require the
establishment of personal relationships and effective communication with other
people demand a Diverging learning style. Information jobs, such as planning
and research, that require data gathering and analysis, as well as conceptual
modeling, have an Assimilating learning style requirement. Technical jobs, such
as bench engineering and production that require technical and problem-solving
skills require a convergent learning orientation.
Adaptive competencies. The fifth and most immediate level of forces that
shapes learning style is the specific task or problem the person is currently
working on. Each task we face requires a corresponding set of skills for effective
performance. The effective matching of task demands and personal skills results
in an adaptive competence. The Accommodative learning style encompasses a set
of competencies that can best be termed Acting skills: Leadership, Initiative, and 11
Action. The Diverging learning style is associated with Valuing skills:
Relationship, Helping others, and Sense-making. The Assimilating learning style
is related to Thinking skills: Information-gathering, Information-analysis, and
Theory building. Finally, the Converging learning style is associated with
Decision skills like Quantitative Analysis, Use of Technology, and Goal-setting
Kolb, 1984).
An Overview of Research on ELT and the LSI: 1971-1999
What has been the impact of ELT and the LSI on scholarly research?
Since ELT is a holistic theory of learning that identifies learning style differences
among different academic specialties, it is not surprising to see that ELT/LSI
research is highly interdisciplinary, addressing learning and educational issues in
several fields. Since the first publications in 1971 (Kolb, 1971; Kolb, Rubin &
McIntyre, 1971) there have been many studies of the ELT and LSI. The most
recent update of the Bibliography of Research on Experiential Learning Theory
and The Learning Style Inventory (Kolb & Kolb, 1999) includes 990 entries.
Table 2 shows the distribution of these studies by field and publication
period. The field classification categories are: Education (including k-12, higher
education, and adult learning), Management, Computer/Information Science,
Psychology, Medicine, Nursing, Accounting, and Law. Studies were also
classified as early (1971-1984) or recent (1985-1999). In addition to being the 12
mid-point of the 28 1/2 year history of the work, the division makes sense in that
the most comprehensive statement of ELT, Experiential Learning, was published
in 1984, and the original LSI was first revised in 1985.
Insert Table 2 about here
Table 2 also shows the distribution of the 990 studies according to the
publication type. More than 50% of the studies were published in journals and
another approximately 20% were doctoral dissertations. 10% of the studies were
either books or book chapters, and the remaining 150 studies were conference
presentations, technical manuals, working papers, and master theses. Numbers
should be considered approximate since a few recent citations have yet to be
verified by abstract or full text. Also, classification by field is not easy because
many studies are interdisciplinary. However, the Bibliography does probably
give a fair representation of the scope, topics and trends in ELT/LSI research.
The following is a brief overview of research activity in the various fields.
The education category includes the largest number of ELT/LSI studies.
The bulk of studies in education are in higher education (excluding professional
education in the specific fields identified below). K-12 education accounts for a 13
relatively small number, as does adult learning alone. However, in many cases
adult learning is integrated with higher education. A number of studies in the
education category have been done in other cultures–UK, Canada, Australia,
Finland, Israel, Thailand, China, Melanesia, Spain, Malta, and American Indian.
Many of the studies in higher education use ELT and the LSI as a
framework for educational innovation. These include research on the matching of
learning style with instructional method and teaching style and curriculum and
program design using ELT (e.g., Claxton & Murrell, 1987). A number of
publications assess the learning style of various student, faculty and other groups.
Other work includes theoretical contributions to ELT, ELT construct
validation, LSI psychometrics and comparison of different learning style
assessment tools. In adult learning there are a number of publications on ELT and
adult development, moral development, and career development. The work of
Sheckley and colleagues on adult learning at the University of Connecticut is
noteworthy here (e.g., Allen, Sheckley, & Keeton 1992; Travers, 1998). K-12
education research has been primarily focused on the use of ELT as a framework
for curriculum design, particularly in language and science. (e.g., McCarthy,
1996; Hainer, 1992) 14
ELT/LSI research was first published in management and there has
continued to be substantial interest in the topic in the management literature.
Studies can be roughly grouped into four categories–management and
organizational processes, innovation in management education, theoretical
contributions to ELT including critique, and psychometric studies of the LSI.
Cross-cultural ELT/LSI research has been done in Poland, New Zealand,
Australia, Canada, UK, and Singapore. In the management/organization area,
organizational learning is a hot topic. Dixon’s (1999) new book The
Organizational Learning Cycle is an excellent example.
Another group of studies has examined the relationship between learning
style and management style, decision-making, and problem solving. Other work
has measured work related learning environments and investigated the effect of a
match between learning style and learning environment on job satisfaction and
performance. ELT has been used as a framework for innovation in management
education including research on matching learning styles and learning
environments, program design and experiential learning in computerized business
games (e.g., Boyatzis, Cowen, & Kolb, 1995; Lengnick-Hall & Sanders, 1997).
Other education work has been on training design, management
development and career development. Another area of research has been on the
development and critique of ELT. Most psychometric studies of the LSI in the 15
early period were published in management, while recent psychometric studies
have been published in psychology journals. Hunsaker reviewed the early studies
in management and concluded, “The LSI does not demonstrate sufficient
reliability to grant it the predictive reliability that such a measurement instrument
requires. The underlying model, however, appears to receive enough support to
merit further use and development.” (1981, p. 151)
Computer and Information Science
The LSI has been used widely in computer and information science
particularly to study end-user software use and end-user training (e.g., Bostrom,
Olfman, & Sein, 1990; Davis & Bostrom, 1993). Of particular interest for this
book on individual differences in cognitive and learning styles is the debate about
whether these differences are sufficiently robust to be taken in account in the
design of end-user software and end user computer training. Other studies have
examined the relationship between learning style and problem solving and
decision making, on line search behavior, and performance in computer training
and computer assisted instruction.
Studies in psychology have shown a large increase over time, with 77% of
the studies in the recent period. Many of these recent studies were on LSI 16
psychometrics. The first version of the LSI was released in 1976 and received
wide support for its strong face validity and independence of the two ELT
dimensions of the learning process (Marshall & Meritt, 1985; Katz, 1986).
Although early critique of the instrument focused on the internal consistency of
scales and test-retest reliability, a study by Ferrell (1983) showed that the LSI
version 1 was the most psychometrically sound among four learning instruments
of that time. In 1985 version 2 of the LSI was released and improved the internal
consistency of the scales (Veres, Sims, & Shake, 1987; Sims, Veres, Watson, &
Buckner, 1986). Critiques of this version focused their attention on the test-retest
reliability of the instrument, but a study by Veres, Sims, and Locklear (1991)
showed that randomizing the order of the LSI version 2 items results in dramatic
improvement of test-retest reliability. This finding led to an experimental research
and finally to the latest LSI revision, LSI Version 3 (Kolb 1999a). The LSI
version 3 has significantly improved psychometric properties, especially testretest reliability (see Kolb, 1999b).
Other research includes factor analytic studies of the LSI, construct
validation studies of ELT using the LSI, and comparison of the LSI with other
learning style and cognitive style measures. Another line of work uses ELT as a
model for personal growth and development, including examination of
counselor/client learning style match and its impact on counseling outcomes. 17
Notable here is the work of Hunt and his colleagues at the Ontario Institute for
Studies in Education (Hunt, 1992,1987).
The majority of studies in medicine focus on learning style analysis in
many medical education specialties–residency training, anesthesia education,
family medicine, surgical training, and continuing medical education. Of
significance here is the program of research by Baker and associates (e.g., Baker,
Cooke, Conroy, Bromley, Hollon, & Alpert, 1988; Baker, Reines, & Wallace,
1985). Also Curry (1999) has done a number of studies comparing different
measures of learning styles. Other research has examined clinical supervision and
patient/physician relationships, learning style and student performance on
examinations, and the relationship between learning style and medical specialty
career choice.
ELT/LSI research has also increased dramatically with 81% of the nursing
studies in the recent period. In 1990 Laschinger reviewed the experiential
learning research in nursing and concluded, “Kolb’s theory of experiential
learning has been tested extensively in the nursing population. Researchers have
investigated relationships between learning style and learning preferences, 18
decision-making skills, educational preparation, nursing roles, nursing specialty,
factors influencing career choices and diagnostic abilities. As would be expected
in a human service profession, nursing learning environments have been found to
have a predominantly concrete learning press, matching the predominating
concrete styles of nurses…Kolb’s cycle of learning which requires the use of a
variety of learning modalities appears to be a valid and useful model for
instructional design in nursing education” (p. 991).
There has been considerable interest in ELT/LSI research in accounting
education, where there have been two streams of research activity. One is the
comparative assessment of learning style preferences of accounting majors and
practitioners, including changes in learning style over the stages of career in
accounting and the changing learning style demands of the accounting profession
primarily due to the introduction of computers. Other research has been focused
on using ELT to design instruction in accounting and studying relationships
between learning style and performance in accounting courses.
In 1991 Stout and Ruble reviewed ELT/LSI research in accounting
education. Reviewing the literature on predicting the learning styles of
accounting students they found mixed results and concluded that low predictive
and classification validity for the LSI was a result of weak psychometric qualities 19
of the original LSI and response set problems in the LSI 1985. They tentatively
recommended the use of the randomized version proposed by Veres, Sims, and
Locklear (1991). They write, “researchers who wish to use the LSI for predictive
and classification purposes should consider using a scrambled version of the
instrument”, and note, “…it is important to keep in mind that assessing the
validity of the underlying theoretical model (ELT) is separate from assessing the
validity of the measuring instrument (LSI). Thus, for example, the theory may be
valid even though the instrument has psychometric limitations. In such a case,
sensitivity to differences in learning styles in instructional design may be
warranted, even though assessment of an individual’s learning style is
problematic” (p. 50).
We are now seeing the beginning of significant research programs in legal
education, for example the program developed by Reese (1998) using learning
style interventions to improve student learning at the University of Denver Law
Evaluation of ELT and the LSI
There have been two recent comprehensive reviews of the ELT/LSI
literature, one qualitative and one quantitative. In 1991 Hickox extensively 20
reviewed the theoretical origins of ELT and qualitatively analyzed 81 studies in
accounting and business education, helping professions, medical professions,
post-secondary education and teacher education. She concluded that overall
61.7% of the studies supported ELT, 16.1% showed mixed support, and 22.2%
did not support ELT.
In 1994 Iliff conducted a meta-analysis of 101 quantitative studies culled
from 275 dissertations and 624 articles that were qualitative, theoretical, and
quantitative studies of ELT and the LSI. Using Hickox’s evaluation format he
found that 49 studies showed strong support for the LSI, 40 showed mixed
support and 12 studies showed no support. About half of the 101 studies reported
sufficient data on the LSI scales to compute effect sizes via meta-analysis. Most
studies reported correlations he classified as low (<.5) and effect sizes fell in the
weak (.2) to medium (.5) range for the LSI scales. In conclusion Iliff suggests
that the magnitude of these statistics is not sufficient to meet standards of
predictive validity.
Most of the debate and critique in the ELT/LSI literature has centered on
the psychometric properties of the LSI. Results from this research have been of
great value in revising the LSI in 1985 and again in 1999. Other critique,
particularly in professional education, has questioned the predictive validity of the
LSI. Iliff correctly notes that the LSI was not intended to be a predictive
psychological test like IQ, GRE or GMAT. The LSI was originally developed as 21
a self-assessment exercise and later used as a means of construct validation for
ELT. Tests designed for predictive validity typically begin with a criterion like
academic achievement and work backward in an a-theoretical way to identify
items or tests with high criterion correlations. Even so, even the most
sophisticated of these tests rarely rises above a .5 correlation with the criterion.
For example, while Graduate Record Examination Subject Test scores are better
predictors of first-year graduate school grades than either the General Test score
or undergraduate GPA, the combination of these three measures only produces
multiple correlations with grades ranging from .4 to .6 in various fields (Anastasi
& Urbina, 1997). While researchers in the professions are understandably
searching for measures with high predictive validity to aid in decision-making, a
more realistic approach than relying on any single measure is to rely on prediction
from new multi-trait multi-method techniques such as structural equation
modeling (e.g. White & Manolis, 1997; Coover 1993; Travers, 1998).
Construct validation is not focused on an outcome criterion, but on the
theory or construct the test measures. Here the emphasis is on the pattern of
convergent and discriminant theoretical predictions made by the theory. Failure
to confirm predictions calls into question the test and the theory. “However, even
if each of the correlations proved to be quite low, their cumulative effect would be
to support the validity of the test and the underlying theory” (Selltiz, Jahoda,
Deutsch, & Cook, 1960, p. 160). Judged by the standards of construct validity 22
ELT has been widely accepted as a useful framework for learning centered
educational innovation, including instructional design, curriculum development,
and life-long learning. Field and job classification studies viewed as a whole also
show a pattern of results consistent with the ELT structure of knowledge theory
described in Table 1.
Recent critique has been more focused on the theory than the instrument
examining the intellectual origins and underlying assumptions of ELT from what
might be called a post-modern perspective where the theory is seen as
individualistic, cognitivist, and technological (e.g. Vince, 1998; Holman, 1997;
Hopkins, 1993).

New Directions in ELT: From Specialized to Balanced Learning Styles
To date the vast of majority of ELT-related research has examined
conditions of extreme learning specialization; a new direction for ELT is the
empirical testing of its theoretical propositions with regard to integrated learning.
Integrated learning is conceptualized as an idealized learning cycle or spiral
where the learner “touches all the bases”–experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and
acting–in a recursive process that is responsive to the learning situation and what
is being learned. The theory argues that this development in learning
sophistication results from the integration of the dual dialectics of the learning
process as shown in Figure 2. 23
Insert Figure 2 about here
In developmental terms there are three orders of learning styles as shown
in Table 3. The first includes the specialized or basic learning styles described
earlier — Diverging, Assimilating, Converging, and Accommodating. People with
a basic learning style resolve the dialectics of the learning process by specializing
in some modes at the expense of others. These learning styles correspond to the
base of the ELT developmental cone portrayed in Figure 2.
Insert Table 3 about here
The second-order learning styles represent learning orientations that
integrate one of the two dialectics of the learning process, combining therefore the
abilities of two basic learning styles. Abbey, Hunt, and Weiser (1985) and Hunt
(1987) call these learning styles Northerner, Easterner, Southerner, and Westerner
(see also Kolb, 1984, chapter 6). The names correspond to the spatial location of
these learning styles in the two-dimensional LSI cycle.
The Northerner learning style integrates the Reflective Observation /
Active Experimentation dialectic, and specializes in Concrete Experience. It
combines therefore the characteristics and abilities of the Diverging and 24
Accommodating basic styles. People with the Easterner learning style are flexible
in the Concrete Experience / Abstract Conceptualization dimension, but specialize
in Reflective Observation. They combine thus learning skills associated with the
Diverging and Assimilating basic styles. Southerners combine elements from the
Assimilating and Converging styles, being flexible in the Reflective Observation /
Active Experimentation dimension and specializing in Abstract
Conceptualization. Westerners integrate the learning modes of Concrete
Experience and Abstract Conceptualization, but specialize in Active
Experimentation (Hunt, 1987). The four second-order learning styles correspond
to the middle part of the developmental cone shown in Figure 2.
In the third-order of learning styles we have three Balanced learning
profiles which correspond to the apex of the ELT developmental cone shown in
Figure 2. All three Balanced profiles are manifestations of integrated learning in
the sense that people with these styles learn in a holistic way, utilizing effectively
the abilities associated with all four learning modes. The slight difference
between the three Balanced profiles is that the first among them emphasizes the
Concrete Experience/ Abstract Conceptualization dimension more than the
Reflective Observation/ Active Experimentation dimension, while the inverse is
the case with the second profile. The third balanced profile emphasizes equally
both dimensions. 25
What do we know about these second and third-order styles? Not much,
because the few related studies, although inspiring, have been unsystematic. One
of the reasons that has prevented the systematic empirical investigation of
balanced learning profiles is that past research has relied exclusively on the LSI.
It is only recently that a system of commensurate instruments was developed to
assess the full range of ELT constructs. The commensurate ELT instruments
include, apart from the LSI, the Adaptive Style Inventory (ASI) and the Learning
Skills Profile (LSP). These instruments have been designed to be theoretically
commensurate while methodologically diverse in order to reduce spurious
common method variance among them.
The second new direction therefore is the comprehensive assessment of
the ELT constructs through the LSI, ASI, and LSP. This broadens the research
focus to include not only learning preferences, but also flexibility and skills. The
Adaptive Style Inventory (Boyatzis & Kolb, 1993) uses a paired comparison
method to rank learning preferences for the four learning modes in eight
personalized learning contexts. It measures adaptive flexibility in learning, the
degree to which one changes learning style to respond to different learning
situations in their life. Earlier studies found that adaptive flexibility is positively
related to higher levels of ego development on Loevinger’s instrument (Kolb &
Wolfe, 1981). Individuals with high adaptive flexibility are more self-directed,
have richer life structures, and experience less conflict in their lives (Kolb, 1984). 26
The Learning Skills Profile (Boyatzis & Kolb, 1991, 1995) uses a
modified Q-sort method to assess level of skill development in four skill areas
that are related to the four learning modes–Interpersonal Skills (Concrete
Experience), Information Skills (Reflective Observation), Analytical Skills
(Abstract Conceptualization) and Behavioral Skills (Active Experimentation).
Several recent studies have used the LSP in program evaluation (Ballou, Bowers,
Boyatzis, & Kolb, 1999; Boyatzis, Cowen, & Kolb, 1995) and learning needs
assessment (Boyatzis & Kolb, 1995, 1997; Rainey, Hekelman, Glazka, & Kolb,
1993; Smith 1990).
Taken together the LSI, ASI, and LSP provide us with greater flexibility
in testing the constructs of ELT and learning more about balanced learning
profiles. In our most recent study (Mainemelis, Boyatzis, & Kolb, 1999) we
employed the three instruments to test a fundamental ELT hypothesis: That the
more balanced people are in their learning orientation on the LSI, the greater will
be their adaptive flexibility on the ASI. We used two different indicators of a
balanced learning profile, the LSI scores on the Abstract/Concrete and
Active/Reflective dimensions. The results supported our hypotheses showing that
people with balanced learning profiles in both dimensions are more sophisticated
(adaptively flexible) learners. The magnitude of the correlations was stronger for
the balanced profile on the Abstract/Concrete dimension, a fact that deserves
further investigation. Other results supported our corollary predictions that 27
individuals with specialized LSI learning styles will show greater level of skill
development in the commensurate skill quadrant of the LSP.
The study also produced some unexpected or contrary to our predictions
results. For example, while we predicted that specialized learning styles will
show less adaptive flexibility on the ASI, the results showed that this is true only
for the abstract learning styles but not for the concrete styles; the latter are
positive related to adaptive flexibility. Finally, while we expected that the more
balanced one’s learning style is on the LSI, the greater level of skill development
he or she will show on the LSP, the results suggested that skill development is
more related to specialization in learning style rather than balance.
Although our recent research has largely supported the ELT constructs
with regard to integrated learning, we conclude in that paper that, in order to
assess effectively the characteristics of balanced learning styles, much more work
is needed — from further mathematical analysis of the LSI scores and ASI
formulae, to clinical observation of integrated learning orientations (Mainemelis,
Boyatzis, & Kolb, 1999). These new research directions, coupled with the
growing dissemination of ELT in various Academic disciplines, bring
Experiential Learning Theory back to its basics: the creative exploration of the
links between experience, learning, and development across the social spectrum.
In the emerging, networked world of information-based economies,
learning is becoming more important than productivity in determining a person’s 28
or an organization’s adaptation, survival, and growth (Kelly, 1999). Increasingly
complex and service-oriented jobs demand flexibility as a requirement for sanity
and success. We believe that Experiential Learning Theory helps us to understand
learning and flexibility at a deeper and yet more comprehensive level than
previously. It also provides guidance for applications to helping people improve
their learning and designing better processes in education and development. For
those with an interest in learning organizations, it provides a theory and
assessment methods for the inclusion of the study of individual differences while
addressing learning at many levels in organizations and society. 29
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Table 1
Relations Between the Basic Learning Styles and Five Levels of Behavior.
Behavior level Diverging Assimilating Converging Accommodating


Arts, English

Social service

Current jobs Personal

skills 37
Table 2
Early and Recent ELT/LSI Research by Academic Field and Publication.
ELT/LSI Research Early Period
Recent Period
By Academic Field
Education 165 251 416
Management 74 123 197
Computer Science 44 70 114
Psychology 23 78 101
Medicine 28 44 72
Nursing 12 51 63
Accounting 7 15 22
Law 1 4 5
Total 354 636 990
By Publication Type
Journal Articles 157 378 535
Doctoral Dissertations 76 130 206
Books & Chapters 43 56 99
Other 78 72 150
Total 354 636 990
Data Source: Kolb & Kolb, 1999. 38
Table 3
Learning Modes and First, Second, and Third-Order Learning Styles.
Learning Styles Developed Modes Underdeveloped Modes
First-Order Learning Styles
Diverging CE, RO AC, AE
Assimilating AC, RO CE, AE
Converging AC, AE CE, RO
Accommodating CE, AE AC, RO
Second-Order Learning Styles
Northerner CE, RO, AE AC
Easterner CE, AC, RO AE
Westerner CE, AC, AE RO
Southerner AC, RO, AE CE
Third-Order Learning Styles
Balanced Profiles CE, AC, RO, AE None
Notes: CE = Concrete Experience, AC = Abstract Conceptualization, RO =
Reflective Observation, AE = Active Experimentation. For the spatial location of
the four modes in the ELT learning cycle see Figure 1. Figure 1
The Experiential Leaning Cycle and Basic Learning Styles (Kolb, 1984).
Converging Assimilating
(AC) Figure 2
The Experiential Learning Theory of development (Kolb, 1984, p.141).


One thought on “Experiential Learning Theory: Previous Research and New Directions David A. Kolb

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