Kolb for Chemists: David A. Kolb and Experiential Learning Theory

  • Published on

  • View

  • Download

Embed Size (px)


  • Kolb for Chemists: David A. Kolb and ExperientialLearning TheoryMarcy Hamby TownsDepartment of Chemistry, Ball State University, Muncie, IN 47306

    Online Symposium: Piaget, Constructivism, and Beyond

    Print Software Online Books

    Journal of Chemical Education

    Journal of Chemical Education, Vol. 78, p 1107, August 2001. Copyright 2001 by the Division of Chemical Educationof the American Chemical Society.

    Owned and Published by the Division of Chemical Education, Inc., of the American Chemical Society

  • Page 1

    Kolb for Chemists: David A. Kolb and Experiential Learning Theory

    Marcy Hamby TownsDepartment of ChemistryCooper Science Building

    Ball State University, Muncie, IN 47306

    The broadening of instructional strategies to appeal to diverse learning styles has direct implications for the

    attraction and retention of undergraduate science, mathematics, engineering, and technology (SMET) majors.

    Frequently used teaching methods such as formal lecture, instructor lead problem solving and demonstrations, guided

    labs, and computer simulations match well with students who ask " what is the concept" and " how is it applied .".

    Cast in this light, it is understandable that students who ask " why is this important ", and " what are the

    possibilities ", become frustrated and switch out of SMET majors. Sheila Tobias' They're Not Dumb, They're

    Different: Stalking the Second Tier ( 1 ), is filled with evidence of the mismatch between some students' preferential

    learning styles and often used teaching styles and instructional strategies in SMET. Elaine Seymour and Nancy

    Hewitt also uncovered some of the same sources of frustration in their study of why undergraduates leave SME

    majors ( 2, 3 ). In ranking reasons students gave for switching from SME majors to non-SME majors, the four most

    highly ranked factors contributing to switching decisions dealt with some aspect of teaching. If the chemistry

    community is to address issues of attraction and retention, then evidence in this body of research emphasizes the need

    for diverse methods of delivering instruction and understanding the ways students learn.

    This paper describes and applies Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) to the chemistry classroom ( 4 ).

    Kolb identified four learning styles and teaching to these styles requires that a broad range of instructional strategies

    be used in the chemistry classroom. Two lessons from a physical chemistry course are presented to illustrate how

    ELT can be used as a framework to deliver instruction.

    Kolb's Theory of Experiential Learning is derived from the work of John Dewey, an educational theorist, Kurt

    Lewin, a social psychologist, and Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist ( 4 ). Like these theorists, Kolb

    emphasizes on the role of experience in the learning process. Experiential learning theory (ELT) uses personal

    experience as the focal point for learning because it gives meaning to abstract concepts. Thus, ELT characterizes

    learning as a continuous process grounded in experience; concepts are derived from and continuously modified by

    experience throughout our lives.

  • Page 2

    Kolbs Learning Styles

    Human individuality ensures that the learning process is not identical for all human beings. Kolb describes these

    individual differences along two dimensions, each of which is composed of two opposing adaptive orientations for

    perceiving and transforming experience as shown in Figure 1. The concrete to abstract continuum, (the y-axis),

    represents two different processes of perceiving experience. One can grasp information or experiences through

    concrete experiences, through tangible or felt qualities such as hearing, seeing, or touching, or one can rely on

    abstractions such as symbolic representations and conceptual interpretations to perceive an experience. The active to

    reflective continuum, (the x-axis), represents two opposing ways of transforming experience. One can process or

    transform experiences via reflection, or through active experimentation and manipulation.

    Figure 1. The four learning styles identified by Kolb: Divergers, Assimilators, Convergers, and Accommodators.

    Concrete Experience(Sensing/Feeling)









    (Thinking)Abstract Conceptualization










    Divergers(Imaginative Learners)

    Assimilators(Analytic Learners)

    Convergers(Common Sense


    Accommodator(Dynamic Learners)

    The key connection is that Kolb describes learning as a process where knowledge is created through the

    transformation of experience. Thus, learning requires both perceiving and transforming an experience. Perception

  • Page 3

    alone is not enough, because something must be done to that experience to bring about learning. Transformation

    alone is not sufficient, because there must be an experience to be processed. In order to learn, one must perceive and

    process information or experience.

    Based on these two continuums, Kolb described four modes of learning or learning stylesdivergers,

    assimilators, convergers, and accommodators. These are depicted in Figure 1. Over time, people develop preferences

    for perceiving and transforming information, thus finding a place on the concrete/abstract and the active/reflective

    continuum where they are most comfortable. Consequently, people develop learning styles that emphasize some

    modes of learning over others.

    Each learning style can be characterized by a favorite question that is associated with how students preferentially

    perceive and process information. The preferences for perceiving and processing information, how these learners

    preferentially grasp and transform experiences, are significant because they hold implications for the delivery of

    instruction and the role of the teacher ( 4, 5, 6 ).

    A. Quadrant 1: Divergers

    A diverger asks "Why is this important?". Since these students have an awareness of meaning and values, and

    have strong imaginative abilities, it is important for these students to establish a "feel" for the subject in order to

    provide a rationale for study ( 4, 5, 6 ). Thus, relating the material to their experiences, their interests, and their

    future careers is important because it connects new information to previous information that the students value.

    Also, providing an understanding of the big picture can be very helpful to these students, and it can emphasize the

    relevance of the material.

    Divergers will benefit from instructional strategies that play to their strengths and their need to answer the

    question "why is this important?". For example, motivational stories, discussion, role playing, and journal writing

    are all activities that can address the issue of relevance.

    Finally, what is the role of the teacher or faculty member in this quadrant? Here, the teacher functions as a

    motivator who personalizes the material, shows respect and interest in the student's experiences, and creates


    B. Quadrant 2: Assimilators

  • Page 4

    An assimilator asks "What is the concept?". These students want to know the facts, and want them presented in

    an organized logical fashion. Assimilators are good at handling theoretical models, and tend to reason inductively.

    These learners will respond well to formal lecture, demonstrations, and problem-solving by the teacher, and textbook

    reading. These students also need time for reflection to process information, so self-paced materials such as software

    packages or web based materials should mesh well with their preferred mode of processing information.

    In this quadrant the teacher functions as an expert , providing information in a well-organized fashion and serving

    as an expert resource. This has been the traditional role of chemistry faculty, and a strong component of many

    chemistry professors' teaching styles.

    C. Quadrant 3: Convergers

    A converger asks "How is the concept applied?". These are students who understand problems by using logic and

    ideas. They enjoy problem-solving and practical applications, and in essence are doers. Since convergers process

    information by applying it, these learners need opportunities to work actively on well-defined tasks. However, it

    must be OK to fail, to try strategies and discard the ones which do not lead to success. These activities can help

    students develop problem-solving techniques that will connect to other experiences. Activities such as guided

    inquiry labs, lab practicals, and example problems worked by students are all means of allowing students to apply

    their knowledge and to develop problem-solving techniques.

    In this quadrant the teacher's function is that of a coach , providing guided practice to learn, to develop, and to

    extend the students' skills. As a coach, one lets the students engage in "doing", and provides feedback as needed.

    D. Quadrant 4: Accommodator

    An accommodator asks "What are the possibilities?" These students tend to understand problems or situations

    through feelings or senses rather than using logical analysis. They want to know how concepts would apply if the

    problem were slightly different. They enjoy opport