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

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  • 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

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    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.

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    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

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    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

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    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 opportunities to apply concepts or problem solving skills to new

    situations that can lead to self-discovery. Thus, this application is different from quadrant three where students seek

    to build problem solving skills while working on well-defined tasks. In quadrant four, students apply problem-

    solving procedures to open-ended or real world problems.

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    The element of discovery can be amplified by providing opportunities for students to share what they have

    learned through group discussions, student presentations, and role playing. These students also respond well to

    open-ended lab activities, open-ended problem-solving, and more performance based means of evaluation.

    The role of the teacher in this quadrant is to maximize the opportunities for the students to discover material and

    express their new understanding. Teachers need to provide feedback as required, but they must not grab the primary

    role away from the student.

    A summary of activities that play to the strength of each learning style and the role of the teacher is presented in

    Table 1 ( 5, 6 ). This is not meant to be a comprehensive summary, but is a list of possible activities that correspond

    to the learning styles presented in each of the four quadrants.

    Table 1: Summary of possible instructional activities. The faculty role is in Italics.

    Quadrant 4: Accommodators Quadrant 1: Divergers

    Group discussion Motivational stories

    Group problem solving Class discussion

    Open-ended laboratories Group discussion

    Open-ended problem-solving Journal writing

    Web supported learning Role playing

    Role playing Simulations

    Group projects

    Stay out of the way! Motivator

    Quadrant 3: Convergers Quadrant 2: Assimilators

    Guided laboratories Formal lecture

    Field trips Faculty problem solving

    Student problem solving Faculty demonstrations

    Student discussion Textbook reading, example problems

    Laboratory practicals Self-paced activities

    Computer simulations Independent research

    Web supported learning Seminars

    Lecture with demonstrations Expert


    The Learning Cycle and the Chemistry Classroom

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    Each learning style can be characterized by a favorite question as shown in Figure 2: why is this important,

    what is the concept , how is it applied , and what are the possibilities . These questions form a learning cycle that

    begins in quadrant 1 with motivating students by connecting their previous experiences to the concepts under study

    ( 4, 6 ). It then moves to providing information to students and time for reflection. Giving students the opportunity

    to apply concepts in situations such as laboratory experiments, or small-group activities characterize the third

    quadrant. Finally, the problem is changed slightly to include new possibilities.

    The learning cycle can be used to provide a framework for instruction in chemistry that encompasses a broad

    range of activities appealing to a range of learning styles. Lessons and activities that traverse a learning cycle can

    take one lecture period, or three lecture periods and a labthe time for traversing a cycle is flexible. As examples,

    lesson plans for atomic structure and spectra, and rotational-vibrational spectroscopy which were used in a physical

    chemistry course are presented.

    A. Atomic structure and spectra

    Why study atomic structure and spectra? (Discussion/lecture)

    Elemental atomic analysis

    WHY is thisimportant?

    WHAT is the concept?

    HOW is it applied?

    What are the possiblities?




    Figure 2. Questions asked by learners in each quadrant described in Figure 1 form a learning cycle.

    WHY is thisimportant?

    WHAT is the concept?

    HOW is it applied?

    What are the possiblities?




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    Historical aspects

    Understanding of atomic spectra

    What are the concepts? (Lecture)

    Solve the Schroedinger Equation H = E for the H atom

    Wave function has the form of a radial function multiplied by a spherical harmonic

    Energy is quantized

    Hydrogen like atoms exhibit quantized energy level structure

    Many-electron atoms also exhibit a quantized energy level structure

    How are the concepts applied? (Lab/Activity/Problem Solving)

    Measure E between two energy levels via absorption or emission. Since each element has a unique

    atomic structure, we should be able to carry out a quantitative analysis of a specific element.

    Atomic spectroscopy, instrumentation (AA)

    Analysis of Sr in marine aquarium water ( 7 )

    What are the possibilities? (Discussion/Activity)

    Consider linking atoms together to form molecules. How are atoms bonded together? Can we build a

    theoretical model? Can we classify molecules by structure? What are the spectroscopic consequences? Can

    we measure or calculate molecular parameters such as bond length using spectroscopic techniques?

    To emphasize that the bullet points outlined above are not lecture topics, let's focus on the instructional

    strategies used to respond to the question "How are the concepts applied." The students could use a think-aloud

    problem-solving strategy known as think-pair-share, or think-pair-square, to begin exploring applications ( 8, 9, 10 ).

    First students individually consider responses to the following questions: (a) Consider an atom (example: Na), how

    can differences in quantized energy levels be detected?, and (b) Would different atoms (example: Na, K, Rb) exhibit

    the same differences between energy levels? Students then discuss their responses with a partner. Finally, students

    either share responses in a whole class discussion or a small-group discussion. At this point, faculty may wish to

    have the students work some algorithmic problems to ensure that students can perform the calculations associated

    with these concepts, and to stress that each element has a unique atomic structure. Solving such problems can also

    be structured as a think-pair-share or think-pair-square activity.

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    Next, faculty move the students into the laboratory to do some problem-solving. Students are introduced to

    atomic spectroscopic methods and instrumentation. The students perform a simple experiment to familiarize

    themselves with the operation of an AA instrument. They next move into the analysis of strontium in marine

    aquarium water as described in an earlier article in this journal ( 7 ). This experiment can be crafted as a problem-based

    laboratory, or a guided-inquiry experience, depending on how it is presented to the students. The emphasis should be

    on letting the students design how to go about solving the problemanalyzing strontium in marine aquarium

    waterand on connecting the concepts covered in lecture to the measurements obtained during the laboratory.

    B. Rotational and vibrational spectroscopy.

    Why study spectroscopy? (Discussion)

    Have you obtained IR spectra? Why?

    Structure of molecules

    Energy level equation of diatomics lead to molecular parameters.

    What are the concepts? (Lecture)

    Rigid Rotor: Model of rotational motion

    Harmonic Oscillator: Model of vibrational Motion

    How are the concepts applied? (Lecture/Activity/Lab)

    Pure rotational spectra: Energy levels, types of rotors, selection rules & rotational Raman.

    Vibrations of diatomic molecules: Selection rules & anharmonicity.

    IR spectroscopy: HCl/DCl lab. Use energy equation that incorporates rotational and vibrational motion

    and find re in the ground and first excited vibrational state for each molecule.

    What are the possibilities? (Computer activity/Discussion/Lecture)

    How do we describe the vibrations of polyatomics? How many vibrations are there? Are these modes IR


    What if we consider different types of transitions, such as electronic transitions? What types of transitions

    occur and how are they described? How are these types of processes related to the rotational and vibrational

    processes and spectra we just studied?

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    Note that in each example, completion of the learning cycle sets the stage to study another topic. In lesson A,

    after asking questions about how atoms are bonded it becomes natural to focus on valence bond theory and molecular

    orbital theory, two theories that help us understand molecular structure. In lesson B, asking about electronic

    transitions leads to the study of these transitions, the Franck-Condon principle, and the phenomenon of fluorescence

    and phosphorescence. Thus, the learning cycle framework can be used repeatedly and it develops links to the next

    subject to be studied.


    Applying Kolb's ELT to the chemistry classroom provides a sound theoretical basis for expanding activities

    beyond traditional lecture. In addition, it provides a framework for developing instruction throughout the curriculum

    that reaches a broad range of learning styles. Especially at the introductory level, appealing to a wider range of

    learning styles may help attract and retain undergraduate SMET majors. As SMET faculty and departments use

    diverse methods of delivering instruction to students the following questions need to be considered: "Is there an

    increase in the attraction and retention of undergraduate SMET majors?", "How do faculty member's perception of

    teaching change when they implement new strategies?", and "What are the keys to sustained implementation of new

    strategies?" These questions drive toward the heart of the attraction and retention issue, recognize that student

    learning styles and faculty teaching styles interact with one another, and acknowledge that sustained implementation

    is the key.

    Literature Cited

    1. Tobias, S They're Not Dumb, They're Different: Stalking the Second Tier . Tucson, AZ: Research

    Corporation, 1990.

    2. Seymour, E. & Hewitt, N. Talking About Leaving: Factors Contributing to High Attrition Rates Among

    SM&E Undergraduate Majors . Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997.

    3. Seymour, E. Sci. Educ. 1995, 79 , 437-473.

    4. Kolb, D. A. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs,

    NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1984.

    5. Harb, J. N., Durrant, S. O., & Terry, R. E. J. Eng. Educ. 1993, 82 , 70-77.

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    6. McCarthy, B. The 4MAT System: Teaching to Learning Styles with Right/Left Mode Techniques . EXCEL,

    Inc., 1987.

    7. Gilles de Pelichy, L. D; Adams, C.; Smith, E. T.; J. Chem. Educ. 1997, 74, 1192-1194.

    8. Millis, B. J. and Cottell, P. G. Cooperative Learning for Higher Education Faculty . Phoenix, AZ: American

    Council on Education and Oryx Press, 1998.

    9. Nurrenbern, S. C. Experiences in Cooperative Learning: A Collection for Chemistry Teachers . Madison, WI:

    Institute for Chemical Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1995.

    10. Johnson, D. W., Johnson, R. T. and Smith, K. A.. Active Learning: Cooperation in the College Classroom .

    Edina, MN: Interaction Book Company, 1991.


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