The Relevance of David Kolb’s Learning Styles to Higher Education

All educators know that no two students are the same. An educational approach that benefits one student may discourage or distract another.

With all these differences, it can be hard to know how to serve each learner’s unique needs. That’s why educational theorist David Kolb devised a clear model of learning styles—a tool that educators can reference to achieve the best outcomes for their students.

This article will dive deeper into Kolb’s learning style model and discuss its strong relevance in higher education spheres.

Who is David Kolb?

David A. Kolb is an educational theorist known for his experiential learning theory and identification of four unique learning styles. Kolb and a collaborator, author Ron Fry, developed the Experiential Learning Model (ELM) in the early 1970s.

The ELM comprises four elements:

  • Concrete experience
  • Reflective observation
  • Abstract conceptualisation
  • Active experimentation

We can consider these elements as more of a ‘cycle’ than a list, which can begin from either of the four points. However, concrete experience—which involves the learner physically interacting with an activity in real-time—is normally the instigator.

Kolb’s Learning Style Inventory (LSI)

Following the ELM, Kolb developed another model known as the Learning Style Inventory or LSI. This model draws upon the concept that people have unique learning preferences that lie somewhere along two continuums derived from the ELM:

  • Abstract conceptualisation ↔ concrete experience
  • Active experimentation ↔ reflective observation

From these continuums, Kolb identified four distinct learner types:

  • Convergers (Active experimentation and abstract conceptualisation)
  • Accommodators (Active experimentation and concrete experience)
  • Assimilators (Reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation)
  • Divergers (Reflective observation and concrete experience)

Let’s make things a little clearer with a few examples.

Convergers love to solve problems. They benefit from practical activities and technical tasks that involve experimentation and investigating abstract concepts.

Accommodators enjoy practical tasks and love tackling new challenges. They benefit from hands-on activities, like practicums and fieldwork.

Divergers like to approach tasks from unique perspectives. They prefer watching over doing and are deeply imaginative. They benefit from class discussions, creative activities, and group work.

Assimilators appreciate information presented in a clear, logical format. They benefit from exploring analytical models, researching, and performing tests.

Why learning styles matter in higher education

As educators, we consistently aim to achieve the best outcomes for our students. And, as Kolb’s model describes, the best way to do this is to provide tailored, personalised educational experiences to each learner.

Understanding your student’s learning styles via Kolb’s LMI can help you develop and modify your curriculum to achieve maximum efficiency. This personalised approach will also encourage participation and boost engagement within your student cohort.

Approaching education in this way can help us identify gaps and discover where some learners may be falling short. Following Kolb’s LMI, we can adjust our approach to ensure these learners have the best chance at success.

Help your students thrive with Kolb’s theories

Because every student is unique, it’s critical for educators to recognise differences to help learners reach their top potential. Kolb’s experiential learning model and learning style inventory are both fantastic references for educators hoping to achieve the best outcomes for their students.

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