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Discovering Learning Styles

I have mentioned before that to teach or train you have to understand that people learn differently.   People are individuals with their own thoughts and feelings but also with their own goals and objectives when it comes to learning.  To understand how people learn, there are many different methods and models that can be used; after all it is learning styles that have enabled us to understand how individuals learn best.

The very first model I came into contact with was David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory.  As far as I am aware it is one of the most commonly used and well regarded, it has also been adapted by many other well known theorists over time e.g. Honey and Mumford.  In all fairness it does seem rather confusing when you first get into it but once you start delving deeper, you realise how useful these models are in understanding how people process information and ultimately learn. 

David Kolb's Model 

David Kolb first published his learning styles model in 1984, it was something that he had developed over many years and he based it on the Experiential Learning Theory.  Basically he felt that the best learning process engaged four independent learning styles, which enable us to understand how learning styles differ and he modelled them on a four-stage learning cycle, which provides us with a clear cut definition of how experiential learning can be applied to any individual. 

The cycle of learning is a key factor in his model for Experiential Learning Theory, he shows how our 'observations and reflections' are stemmed from our 'immediate or concrete experiences'.  These can then be absorbed and condensed into 'abstract concepts' to provide new suggestions and propositions which can be 'actively tested' and will ultimately allow each individual to experiment with creativity and generate new experiences based on their type of learning preference.    

It is Kolb's understanding that this process defines the learning cycle and allows individuals to sample all areas of learning.   In an ideal learning environment an individual will engage and incorporate these approaches.  I have learnt that for learning to be effective it is imperative that they are incorporated.  As with anything in life, as an individual starts to learn their strengths will become apparent and Kolb has defined that individuals tend to develop strengths in one experience touching approach (meaning whether we watch or do something) and one experience changing approach (meaning how we think or feel).  What then happens is the resulting learning styles are made up of the individual's preference to learning.  I have created a table to show how they are represented:

Learning Style
Parts of the Four Stage Learning Cycle
Someone who can make practical use of ideas and logical reasoning to resolve issues and problems.
Abstract conceptualisation Active Experimentation
An imaginative person who has the ability to think outside the box or from a different point of view.
Concrete experience Reflective observation
Individuals who are capable of creating theoretical models by means of inductive reasoning.
Abstract conceptualisation Reflective observation
Someone who can easily actively engage and put things into practice.
Concrete experience Active experimentation

So when we learn we decide how we are going to touch or digest the experience, subconsciously we will either take:
  • Reflective observation – take in the experience by watching and reflecting on what happens.
  • Active experimentation – just go for it, get on and do it.
At the same moment we decide how to emotionally interpret the experience and will either:
  • Conceptualization – use the process of thinking, analyzing, or planning (abstract) to gain information.
  • Concrete experience – rely only the 'concrete, tangible, felt qualities they have experienced.
It is the combination of the two choices which will enable an individual to understand their preferred learning style and for an assessor to orientate learning in that direction.  

I remember seeing it in this way enabled me to understand that an individual who would rather watch than do and feel rather than think about the experience would have a 'Diverging' learning style.  I have simplified the matrix to show this: 

Here is an explanation of Kolb's four learning styles, given how you process information and how you have learnt in the past, are you able to identify with a particular learning style? 

Accommodating (doing and feeling)

The Accommodating style is one of the most widespread types of learning styles for individuals.  Generally the Accommodating learning style types are very tactile, they are the most 'hands-on' and will rely on ‘gut instinct’ and intuition rather than logic.  They like to ask ‘why’ and ‘what if’, because of their perchance for creative risks they find routine very difficult to maintain.  Accommodating people have a preference to a pragmatic yet experiential approach and will commonly use other people's diagnosis, consequently they rely on others for information to do this.  They are attracted to new challenges and experiences and are quite comfortable with carrying out plans providing they can explore with direct interaction.  The Accommodating individual works better by themselves and will learn more effectively with hands on and practical learning, usually known as try it and do it, rather than hear it and see it.  


Diverging (feeling and watching)

Diverging types are generally sensitive people, who are able to take experiences and look at things from different perspectives, often thinking outside of the box starting from the small details to identify the bigger picture.  They prefer to watch rather than do, and have a tendency to gather information and use imagination to solve problems. They are best at viewing concrete situations from several different arenas.  Diverging types of people perform better in situations that require the generation of ideas, for example mind mapping and brainstorming.  People with a Diverging learning style tend to have broad interests; they like to research and gather information.  Focussed on people, they tend to be imaginative and emotional and can be extremely artistic and creative. People with the Diverging style work better in teams and groups as they are able to listen with an open mind, this means that they can easily be influenced by other people and have a need to receive feedback.  A Diverging style learns better with pragmatic instructions and the use of hands on learning, often known as a see it and then try it approach.  


Converging (doing and thinking)

Anyone with a Converging learning style will find they are easily able to solve problems, using what they learn to find resolutions to practical issues.  Converging individuals thrive better with technical tasks and problems, meaning they are less concerned with people, including social and interpersonal characteristics and prefer to work by themselves.  Convergers think about things and then try out their ideas to see if they work in practice and are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories.  They can solve problems and make decisions by finding solutions to questions and problems quite easily in the way they approach tasks.  A converging learning style is more effective with interaction and computer based training or learning because they have a need to understand how things work in practice. They like facts and will seek to make things efficient by making small and careful changes, often Convergers work in specialist arenas and have superior technological skills and abilities.


Assimilating (watching and thinking)

The Assimilating learning style shows people with the most cognitive, concise and logical approach.  Ideas and concepts are usually more important than people themselves, generally this means they prefer to think than act.   Assimilators require concise, clear explanations such as spoken learning with demonstrations rather than practical opportunity such as role play. They also require documentation to back up what they have learnt, classroom or lecture style learning works exceptional well for anyone with the Assimilating style.  They excel at understanding wide-ranging information and organising it a clear logical format.  People with an Assimilating learning style are less focused on people and more interested in ideas and abstract concepts, they have a strong need for control and work better in clean, lean environments than brainstorming or open learning.  

So you may think, well I’m a little bit of this and a little bit of that but there is truth in the fact that we all show clear preferences for a particular learning style.  When an individual learning style is put into effect it has proven that individuals will learn more effectively and retain the knowledge. 

You can see from the types of style above that certain styles will not cope or will find difficulty with other styles for instance people with the Assimilating learning style will not be comfortable being left to get on with it without any direction, notes or instructions.  Such as people who use an Accommodating learning style are likely to fail if they are forced to read lots of instructions and rules before they can start, as their style requires them to get hands on experience as soon as possible to learn in the most effective way.

When creating training for large amounts of people it is not possible to pick and stick with one particular learning style if you want to produce training and learning that is effective for all types, it very much becomes like the saying “You can’t please all the people all of the time” so when designing training or learning it is better to cover all options and use varied styles of delivery to help everyone learn.  For the times that your Accommodating and Convergers lose interest with your Diverging and Assimilating type learning, that is why you, the Trainer are there.