In Ally’s (2008) article, “Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning,” the author talked about Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory and how it evaluates how individuals perceive and process learning. This inventory is different from a personality test or a test of social interaction, (being an introvert/extrovert), and different from the test to determine if you prefer visual, auditory, or kinesthetic delivery of new content. I’m not convinced that, at a higher education level or professional training level, these kinds of learning styles should have a big influence on how you design a course, but the idea behind Kolb’s model stuck with me as something that needed further investigation.
I thought the authors of “The Relationship of Kolb Learning Styles, Online Learning Behaviors and Learning Outcomes,” (Lu, Jia, Gong, & Clark, 2007) put together a combination of good questions, a nice collection of research review and a study that may have resulted in some interesting findings. It also gave a good background to explain more about the Learning Styles Inventory and why you might want to consider incorporating the methods into your own course design. The conclusion, as listed in the abstract, seemed curious. “First, instructors using online courses should seriously consider the diversity of learning styles when designing and developing online learning modules for different students. Second, they should provide a large number of electronic documents for students and give enough time to let them absorb knowledge by online reading. These could be effective methods to improve the quality of online courses“ and I was interested in finding out exactly how the study provided these suggestions (p. 187).
Kolb’s theory is based on a four-stage learning cycle that in an ideal world, and to obtain the most depth of understanding, students would cycle through all four stages throughout the learning process. The interesting thing about this theory is that students may enter into the cycle at different stages and at different times, but will (or should) eventually move around the cycle. Kolb also added a perception continuum (how you think and feel) and a processing continuum (if you watch or do) that goes on an axiom between the styles.
As with any kind of cyclical model, the process of moving from one stage to the next stage have names. Divergers (feel and watch), Assimilators (think and watch), Convergers (think and do) and Accommodators (feel and do), which these categories are actually a combination of your two preferred learning styles. (McLeod, 2010, updated 2013)
The study set up
The study looked at a subset of 104 students who all took the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory to identify preferences for learning style based on Kolb’s four categories of Converging, Diverging, Assimilating, and Accommodating. Each of the four groups of students was equal in the number of males and females, and according to the researchers had similar knowledge in computers, “the application of Internet, the use of communicating software, drawing software and word processing software. They also acquired basic knowledge of Flash when they were freshmen” (p. 190). The researchers then set up a task for the subjects to complete within a specific time period broken up into three different time segments. The first 20 minutes the subjects worked independently with a detailed digital design guide. After a 10 minute break, the subjects continued working on the task and were given additional resources. Along with some assistance from “experts” through chat software, the subjects could also observe their cohorts’ design process through a shared computer network. Subjects were observed and time spent on individual tasks was documented. Total times for discussion (chat), observation (activities of others), reading (digital documents) and design (actual programming) were documented and use for the study’s evaluation purposes.
The three study questions and conclusions that were the basis for this research were:
(1) What was the relationship between learning styles and the enduring time of online learning behaviors?
The different learning styles of the subjects didn’t seem to have any effect on the time the subjects spent on observation or designing. “In fact, all subjects spent more than 45 minutes on designing. Only five subjects spent one or two minutes on observing the onscreen activities of others and the rest spent no time on the observation“ (p. 190).
Based on the description of what students were able to observe, this limited time doesn’t really surprise me. I think if different media were used for observation, such as an expert performing a task, any student would be more apt to “watch” the expert do programming as opposed to another student doing the programming. Being limited to your cohort of students might not provide the “expert” incentive as would a video from say, Lynda.com.
The researchers did find a significant difference between the learning styles in the amount of time spent in discussion. Divergers (feel and do) and Accommodators (feel and watch) spent almost twice the amount of time in a discussion (chat with the expert) then did Convergers (think and do) and Assimilators (think and watch). This actually seems logical to me as those who may learn better through feeling might be more apt to participate in a discussion.
Those who spent the most time reading were the Convergers (think and do) and Assimilators (think and watch) which again makes sense as they are prone to planning, concluding and reflecting. The time differences were not quite as significant as that for discussion, but it showed a clear difference along the same lines as reading.
(2) What was the relationship between learning styles and learning outcomes?
It was assumed that all student entering the study were at the same level of knowledge and understanding. What the study showed was that none of the students were able to complete the task. Only seven of the subjects were able to complete one tenth of the task so the researchers determined that learning style had no effect on the final learning outcomes (p. 192).
What seems interesting to me is that the study actually included all four of the learning preferences which to me assumes that you’d expect students to follow the cycle through all four styles. What might have been more telling would have been to allow select categories of subjects access only specific types of learning strategies. Kolb’s premise was that the best learning comes when students go through the entire cycle.
(3) What was the relationship between learning outcomes and the enduring time of different online learning behaviors? (p. 189).
At this point in the study, the statistics got in the way and I had to rely on the narrative. “Such results suggested that spending too much time designing animations in an online learning environment would put a damper on the learning outcome. On the other hand, reading and discussing would be conducive to learning outcome” (p. 192). I think this means that on the basis of time, students might have been more successful had they spent more time reading and discussing rather than spending time in the design phase. It seems like the tendency for a programmer-type’s learning style would be to dig in and “do” rather than read and discuss. It seems logical that one who is interested in programming needs to apply her understanding, no matter how small, to actually doing. But perhaps this study shows that some allocated time needs to be spent in reading and talking through before punching the keys.
The conclusion of the researcher said, “Therefore, students who spent more time on online reading could get better learning outcomes than students who spent more time in online discussions. It explained the reason why the mean of learning outcomes of Convergers and Assimilators was higher than those of Divergers and Accommodators in this experiment“ (p. 194). I think the key might be in how students engaged in discussion. Chatting with an expert seems to be more like asking questions and getting a response. You do have to frame your question in a way that shows some understanding, but it also doesn’t require you to state your understanding in a more holistic way.
In the end, the authors state, “instructors or moderators of online courses should provide a variety of learning modules for students and help them learn how to switch between learning styles in order to take advantage of these choices” which is a pretty safe conclusion (p. 195).
Ally, M. (2008). Foundations of Educational Theory for Online Learning. The Theory and Practice of Online Learning. T. Anderson (ed.,) (2nd ed.) Edmonton, AB: AU Press.
Lu, H., Jia, L., Gong, S.H., & Clark, B. (2007). The Relationship of Kolb Learning Styles, Online Learning Behaviors and Learning Outcomes. Educational Technology & Society, 10 (4), 187-196.
McLeod, S. (2010, updated, 2013). Kolb-Learning Styles. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/learning-kolb.html