Frequently Asked Questions

Welcome to the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page. Below, we have provided answers to commonly asked questions about experiential learning theory and the LSI. If you find that your question is not addressed, please email contact us with your question.

What are learning styles?

The concept of learning style is used to describe individual differences in the way people learn. Each person has a unique way to absorb and process experiences and information. Consideration of learning styles has become increasingly important for individuals, parents, educators and organizations at large to understand what is the appropriate learning environment that fosters and honors individual’s differences. For example, research had indicated that particular learning environment seem better suited for particular learning content and learning preferences and that students perform better when the learning environment is consistent with their learning preferences.

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Why did Kolb develop the Learning Style Inventory?

Initially, Kolb developed the LSI as a result of his dissatisfaction with the traditional methods that he was using to teach potential management professionals. He noticed a difference between his interests in basic theory and students’ interests in practical application. Kolb became very interested in question, “Is there another way to educate that bridges the communication gap now existing in so many places?” He began experimenting with experiential methods of teaching, trying to create common experience as reference points for people, through games, exercises, simulations, or case studies. People could look at the same real, practical situation and use it as a common reference point from which to join in communication. In this way, he could share his theories; other could share questions about applications. As Kolb continued to use and develop experiential methods in the classroom, he discovered that people were taken aback. This was something new, nontraditional. When traditional methods were changed to experiential methods, Kolb immediately noticed that many formerly satisfied people were now dissatisfied. The notion of individual differences really popped out. In thinking about and explaining classroom activities as parts of the experiential learning cycle-that people move from exercises to observations to theories to applications-it was clear students had definite preferences for certain phases (activities). From this emerged the idea of an inventory that would identify these preferences by capturing individual learning differences. Basically, the LSI was created to help people understand the learning processes and their preferences-that different people have different ways of learning, and that those ways are neither good or bad.

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Is the existence of individual differences (or preferences) in the way we take in and process information scientifically proven?

While definitive proof is hard to come by in the social sciences, there is wide spread agreement among scholars and researchers that there are significant individual differences in taking in and processing information. This is true not only for learning style instruments, but also for cognitive style, personality type and even IQ measures.

In the case of the Kolb Learning Style Inventory (LSI) the 2005 Bibliography of Research on Experiential Learning Theory and the LSI lists 1522 published studies since 1971 in management, education, computer science, psychology, medicine, nursing, accounting, and law. Two comprehensive reviews of this literature by Hickcox in 1991 and Iliff in 1994 showed that the reviewed studies showed full or partial support for the theory in 78% and 88% of the publications respectively.

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Can we accurately and predictably measure preferred or dominant learning style?

Few, if any, individual difference tests can measure an individual’s scores with complete accuracy. For this reason the LSI is not recommended as a tool for individual selection purposes. However, the LSI has considerable construct validity, that is, significant and replicated patterns of relationships predicted by experiential learning theory. For example, individuals who score high on Concrete Experience tend to have greater interpersonal skills, have educational backgrounds in the liberal arts and are in people oriented careers such as sales or human resources. Individuals who score high on Abstract Conceptualization, on the other hand, have greater cognitive skills, are educated in the sciences, and are in technical and scientific careers. For this reason we do not refer to the LSI as a test but rather as “an experience in understanding how you learn”.

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Is there unequivocal, empirical evidence to validate the practice; relationship between learning style and learning effectiveness?

While I am not familiar with the research literature on other learning style measures, there are a number of studies that relate LSI scores to learning effectiveness. For example in chapter 7 of Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, I compared students whose learning style matched the demands of their discipline with students whose learning style was mismatched in four different fields—economics, humanities, mathematics, and mechanical engineering using a number of measures of learning effectiveness. Overall learners whose style matched the discipline demands were more effective learners. Another example, in computer science studies have consistently shown that abstract learners are more effective in learning computer skills.

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Can I expect my LSI scores (my learning style) to change over time? Will my profile next year be the same as it is now?

In large part, your learning style is shaped by your experience, so to the extent that you have experiences that differ from your learning style or stimulate ways of learning and coping with the world that are different from your style, you can expect your learning style to shift to match those experiences. The test-retest reliability studies we have done generally show that if there is a relatively short time between testing and if the experiences between testing are identical to what you did beforehand, then there is not much change; but if there is a longer time that is quite discontinuous in terms of the learning modes, then the reliability tends to be fairly low. Remember that the learning style is not a fixed trait, but a current state of mind or of operating. As learners, all of us use all the learning modes that the LSI assesses as a differential preference for learning, which changes slightly from situation to situation. At the same time, there is some long-term stability in learning style. We have found in some cases significant, meaningful relationships between learning styles at 30, 40, 50 and 60, and the experiences the person had at age 20 – namely fixed trait or of remaining in a fixed environment, but rather a function of the process of choice one undergoes to match his or her particular strengths. Some of our results indicate a very long-term stability in LSI scores. As it was stated before, test-retest studies of the LSI suggest that learning style is relatively stable over time. However, cross-sectional studies suggest that learning style does change as a function of career path and life experience. For example, engineers who remain bench engineers throughout their career retain the convergent (abstract and active) learning style typical of the engineering profession; but engineers who become managers become more concrete because of the interpersonal job demands of that role. Similarly, a study of the accounting profession showed that accounting students had diverse learning styles while entry level accountants were convergent and intermediate level accountants were even more so. Senior level accountants had accommodative (concrete and active) learning styles.

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Is an individual’s learning style stable across task, problem and situation?

Most of us change our learning approach somewhat depending on what it is we are learning, e.g. in learning to ride a bicycle we use active trial and error while we learn statistics primarily through reflective analysis. Theory and research on experiential learning suggests that this adaptive flexibility (as measured by the Adaptive Style Inventory) is related to higher levels of adult development.

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Are learners adept at finding their own path through materials or is there a need to tailor presentation of materials to mirror learner’s individual style?

Some learners are adept in this way but many are not. For example, concrete and active learners who learn their learning style from the LSI have an eye-opening experience when they discover that they are not “dumb” when they have difficulty in the traditional reflective and abstract classroom. It is just that they learn in a different way needing concrete examples and a chance to actively try ideas out.

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Is teaching exclusively to an individual’s preferred style as flawed a strategy as teaching to no style in particular?

Tracking of students in education by whatever criteria is generally a bad idea as it tends to stigmatize and stereotype learners, preventing them from developing their full learning potential. It is more effective to design curriculum so that there is some way for learners of every learning style to engage with the topic. Curriculum design should follow the learning cycle of experiencing, reflecting, thinking and acting such that every type of learner has an initial way to connect with the material and then begin to stretch his learning capability in other learning modes.

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What are the barriers to exploiting individual learning differences?

There are mainly three barriers: the rigid institutionalization of the traditional lecture classroom, learners who do not understand the learning process and how they learn and do not take responsibility for their own learning, and teachers who teach based on the way they were taught and assume that everyone learns the way they do.

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My learning style is really highly skewed in one direction. What problems might I expect from that, and should I try to develop my other modes?

As to whether you should attempt to develop your other modes through learning experiences you choose for yourself, it depends largely on your fit with your current job or other life demands, and on your preference. You would increase your effectiveness as a learner if your profile were more balanced-if you had adaptive skills in other modes, you would be more flexible or adaptable. However, in the present, your job and life demands may require just the learning style you have developed, and the fit may be comfortable enough that you would not deliberately seek developmental learning situations. It is a matter of personal choice.

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What does it mean that my learning style is balanced across all four learning modes? Is that profile better than one that falls in one of the four quadrants?

A balanced learning profile means that you tend to emphasize all four modes equally. However, it is important to understand that even a totally balanced profile is not necessarily the “best” of all learning styles. The key to effective learning and adaptive coping is the ability to be flexibly competent in each mode when it is called for, not to use all modes in every situation. This is a subtle, important difference. According to a recent study conducted by Mainemelis, Boyatzis and Kolb on balanced learning style, people with balanced profiles tend to demonstrate more flexibility in adapting toward different learning styles. However, in occupations that call for a specialized expertise, a balanced learning style may not be always the best. This study can be accessed through research library on this website.

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My LSI scores are highest on Abstract Conceptualization and Concrete Experience. How can this be, since the two are opposites?

Since the AC and CE scales and the AE and RO scales are not exact opposites, scores like yours sometimes occur. You are so called “mixed” type, who relies on second and third order levels of learning. Through your learning experiences, you have developed both these polarities and have evolved a style allowing you to emphasize opposites orientations. About 20 percent of the people we have tested are of this mixed type; 15 percent tend to be high in Abstract Conceptualization and Concrete Experience, and 5 percent are high in Active Experimentation and Reflective Observation. This often occurs when people live in two different worlds requiring two different modes. For example, we found this pattern occurring among math majors ant the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who were high in Abstract Conceptualization when doing mathematics and high in Concrete Experience when in involved in fraternity house. Consequently, they showed profiles with two highly developed modes, AC and CE. The pattern sometimes occurs among career women who are also wives and mothers. They may be convergent at tasks on the job and divergent at home with the kids. Again, two sets of skills are required by, and developed in, two different contexts.

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Do self-descriptive inventories like the LSI have any validity?

Concern exists in the field of psychological measures that much psychological theory is based not on what people do, but on what people say they do in self-descriptive inventories. We believe when the instrument is used for its intended purpose – an individual’s self-development – rather than as a tool for someone else to make decisions about him or her, we automatically eliminate the motivations that tend to distort self-report instruments.

Research evidence shows that people are fairly accurate self-perceivers. Assuming the person wants an accurate picture of himself or herself (as we can in self-development applications), we feel self-description is one the most powerful perspectives on behavior.

Self-descriptions can be more valid for some activities than other descriptions. For example, what people think about themselves may be a better predictor of the choices they will make than how they actually behave; we generally decide what career to pursue based on our self-perceptions, our self-description.

It is important not to mystify LSI. It is as simple as it looks: you are describing your relative preferences for ways of learning. To that extent, when interpreting your results, pay attention to your frame of mind when you took the LSI. Did you try to do it quickly, or were you trying to be accurate; were you being ad honest as you could be, or were you concerned about the impact or impression your results would have on someone else?

We recommend that in using the LSI data, you consider your profile as a hypothesis about how you learn – one you will validate through other sources of data, such as how others see you, how you make decisions on the job, and the kinds of situations in which you are most effective. The results of any psychological test, including the LSI, need to be cross-validated, that is, validated from other perspectives. The LSI should not be used as an arbitrary measurement of personality but as a tool for self-inquiry.

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Because I have taken the LSI and now know the theory, will my scores change the next time I take it?

We are not aware currently of any research data that definitely answer that question. An experimental-design study would be required utilizing an experimental and a control group. We would need to give the LSI to one group of people, explain the theory to them, and retest; we would then administer the LSI to a second group – being careful to eliminate any reference to the theory – retest them, and compare results of the two groups. We are not aware of any such studies to date.

Apart from the experimental-design question, we believe that knowing the theory influences the way you take the test. On the positive side, one could argue that the more you know the theory, the more capable you are making better judgments about yourself – you know all the ramifications. However, you need to avoid stereotyping yourself; if you have the idea “I’m a Converger” in mind when you take the test, rather than really thinking about the answers to the questions, you may be allowing yourself to fulfill your own prophecy.

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Is it possible for someone to lie on the LSI?

As suggested above, you can produce whatever profile you desire on the LSI. It is possible to lie; and if, for example, the LSI were being used for selections purposes, some respondents might be expected to try to distort their scores. For this reason, the LSI is not that useful for selection.

We recommend the LSI be used solely for purposes of self-exploration, self-understanding, and self-development. Under these conditions, while it is still possible for a person to lie on the LSI, it is not clear why he or she would want to.

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What has the LSI been used for?

There are two ways to answer that question: one is where it has been used; another is how it has been used.

The LSI has been used widely in many occupational and professional settings, ranging in use from physicians to dietitians, from managers to computer programmers, from medical technicians to production managers and planners. It has been used most widely in educational, management training, and medical settings.

The LSI has been used for many different purposes, among them to understand the unique learning needs of specific, specialized, professional groups, and to design and organize educational activities to meet those needs.

It has been used to help learners understand the learning process and their preferences for kinds of educational experiences, and to help teachers explore their preferences in designing them. The LSI has been especially useful when trainers and participants use it to develop a shared understanding of the goal of the training and each party’s contributions to it.

The LSI has been used in career counseling, to help people understand their strengths and weaknesses and to match their profiles with jobs or careers paths they might choose.

In work settings, the LSI has been used to help people gain insight into the functions of their team in a non-evaluative, nonjudgmental way. It has been used successfully to uncover and creatively manage differences among people – differences that initially masquerade as “personality conflicts” but may represent differences in learning and coping styles, or differences in problem-solving styles.

Finally, the LSI has been used to understand interpersonal relationships outside the work settings, for example, in understanding marriage as a learning system with its unique strengths and weaknesses, and with its problems and potential growth.

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How can we best make use of learning styles in the corporate environment?

In addition to the obvious applications of experiential learning theory and the LSI to the design and conduct of corporate training programs, these ideas can also be used to promote learning throughout the organization. A manager’s understanding of his or her learning style can help them understand and improve the way they make decisions. For example, a study of investment analysts showed that concrete analysts used their network of relationships to generate investment choices while abstract analysts relied on analysis of financial data to make investment decisions. Understanding the learning style of oneself and others can improve interpersonal and team relationships. Understanding the learning styles that are characteristic of different organizational functions can improve cross-functional communication. One organizational study showed that marketing managers tended to be concrete and active in their learning style while R&D personnel tended to be abstract and reflective. Marketing people with abstract and reflective learning styles communicated better with R&D while R&D people with concrete and active learning styles communicated better with marketing. Finally learning style can be used to characterize organizational culture. A study of the demise of a once highly profitable high tech firm when its patent expired and competition entered the market showed a culture dominated by convergent engineers who would not accept high level marketing personnel who were hired to create a more market oriented culture.

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Are there any consistent differences between men and women on the LSI?

While the men and women we have studied appear to be similar on the active-reflective dimension (that is, 50 percent of each group was oriented toward the active, 50 percent toward the reflective), there appear to be significant differences on the abstract-concrete dimension. 59 percent of the men studied were oriented toward the abstract, with 41 concrete; women, however, showed the opposite profile, with 59 percent concrete and 41 percent abstract. Of those in our sample*, the males were more oriented toward the abstract than the females. Why is this so?

Barring sampling error, it is probably socially determined. While women are often taught and socially rewarded for relating to feelings, men are often taught and socially rewarded for developing a more impersonal, logical, less feeling-oriented way of doing things. Given the tendency to choose experiences at which we have developed skills and been successful and rewarded in the past, women may become more accentuated toward the concrete and men toward the abstract. Career choice may further increase this accentuation dynamic if, for example, women select largely female-dominated professions such as nursing, social work, or teaching. To the extent that many women continue the current trend of choosing non-female-dominated professions, the dynamic of accentuation will strengthen other sets of skills, and they may begin to evidence more abstract, less concrete skills.

More important than sex, age, or race is experience and the function of the accentuation dynamic. Most critical in the development of any learning style are skills that were reinforced early and have accentuated by experience – it is this “success-choice-success” cycle that will continue to reward them for, and keep then developing in a given direction.

*The sample consisted of 638 men and 801 women, was ethnically diverse, and represented a wide range of career fields. The average education of members of the sample was two years of college.

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What areas of learning style would most benefit from further research?

Our latest research on experiential learning and the LSI is focused on developing more fine grained descriptions of individuality in learning such as the Learning Skills Profile in order to respect individual uniqueness and avoid the stereotyping that can result from having only 4 learning styles. Also we are studying ways to promote adaptive flexibility in learning using the Adaptive Style Inventory. Another aspect of our research program is promoting learning in higher education through institutional development by longitudinal outcome assessment, faculty development, student development, curriculum development, and resource development.

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