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
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.
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.
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
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
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