Theories that students learn and study differently are based on the idea that people have unique approaches to processing information. A learning style is a person’s preferred method of gathering, organizing, and thinking about information (Fleming & Baume, 2006). Because students can absorb information in a variety of ways, researchers categorize learning styles into three groups: information processing based, personality based, and multidimensional or instructional based (Mokhtar, Majid, & Foo, 2008).

Basics of Learning Style Criteria Example
Information Processing Evaluates students’ cognitive approaches to comprehending and incorporating information. Differentiates how students may sense, perceive, or solve problems, as well as organize and remember information.
Personality Analyzes the impact of students’ personalities on their approach to incorporating information. Measures students’ reactions in various learning situations.
Multidimensional or Instructional Evaluates the type of learning environment students want.

As learning style models have evolved over the past few decades, educators have planned curriculum with the idea that students learn in different ways. No single approach to teaching works for every student in the traditional or online classroom. However, online students tend to align more closely with Kolb’s Theory of Experiential Learning than with other learning styles (Barnes, Preziosi, & Gooden, 2004; Richmond & Cummings, 2005, p. 51; Glass, 2008, p. 33).

Kolb’s Theory of Experiential Learning

Social psychologist David A. Kolb, in conjunction with Ronald E. Fry, developed an experiential model that shows learning as a continuous process that involves, in sequential order, concrete experience (CE), reflective observation (RO), abstract conceptualization (AC), and active experimentation (AE) (Hawk & Shah, 2007). The learning modes combine to form four quadrants that reflect four learning styles: accommodator, diverger, assimilator, and converger. In different learning situations, individuals often use various combinations of learning modes, so no single mode clearly identifies an individual’s learning style (Barnes, Preziosi, & Gooden, 2004).

The following chart explains each of the four basic learning styles in more depth:

Learning Style Characteristics Summary
Accommodators (AE/CE)
  • Tend to be risk-takers
  • Perform well under pressure
  • Enjoy solving problems intuitively
They feel and do.
Divergers (CE/RO)
  • Tend to be imaginative
  • Are skilled in seeing scenarios from different viewpoints
  • Have broad interests
They feel and watch.
Assimilators (RO/AC)
  • Tend to excel at inductive reasoning
  • Enjoy creating theoretical models
  • Define problems while being good planners
They think and watch.
Convergers (AC/AE)
  • Have strong inductive reasoning and problem-solving skills
  • Tend to be practical in applying ideas
  • Have narrow or focused interests
They think and do.

Barnes, Preziosi, and Gooden (2004) examined the relationship between student learning styles and course delivery methods in an online Master of Business Administration degree program. In a survey of 124 students, nearly 64% exhibited the diverger learning style, and 32% exhibited the assimilator style. The two other learning styles, accommodator and converger, were nearly absent.

The research results indicate that the learning styles of students pursuing online education differ as much as the learning styles of students taking on-campus classes (Barnes et al., 2004). Moreover, online students can combine Kolb’s four learning modes, and how they use these learning modes subsequently determines their learning style. The chart shows, however, that nearly two thirds of the students surveyed exhibited one learning style: diverger. Kolb (1984) concluded that combining learning styles tends to provide more flexibility in learning.

Teaching Styles

Just as learning styles vary from student to student, teaching styles also vary among online instructors. Educators continue to debate about whether instructors should conform their teaching styles to students’ learning styles. Research suggests that faculty members in higher education initially adopt a teaching style that reflects either their own learning style or an effective teaching method they experienced during their own education (Ebeling, 2000; Hawk & Shah, 2007). This approach results in faculty members who are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with incorporating a variety of learning style models into their curricula.

This shortcoming illustrates Mumford’s (1995) findings, which propose that many activities fail to achieve their potential because they concentrate on only one stage of the learning cycle. For example, say you require online students to read a textbook chapter, but fail to include a related activity or project that instructs them to apply the chapter’s information. What is the likelihood that every student will retain that information in a week? Until the end of the term? Into their respective career fields? Online instructors usually do not interact with students face to face, so they may focus more on the methodology of course delivery rather than the needs of each student.

Taylor (1998) affirms that all instructors must be able to address a variety of learning styles. Dunn, Griggs, Olson, Beasley, and Gorman (1995) note research showing that closer matches between teaching and learning styles result in higher grade point averages. Hayes and Allinson (1996) analyzed 19 studies, examining matches between learning style and learning method; 12 of the studies supported improved learning performance. If online instructors want to match teaching style and learning style, they will have to develop ways of accommodating different learning styles in course design and delivery to ensure that students benefit from a comfortable and rewarding learning experience (Barnes, Preziosi, & Gooden, 2004).

To meet the needs of individual students, instructors should consider including a variety of resources and assessments that target different learning styles. For example, you could create short videos on course topics, provide a class blog to elaborate on course content, ask thought-provoking questions in the discussion forums, provide example problems, set up group sessions, and more. The following table presents sample activities that are suitable for each Kolb learning process (Kolb, 1984; Svinicki & Dixon, 1987):

Concrete Experience Reflective Observation Abstract Conceptualization Active Experimentation
Lecture examples Reflective questions Lectures Lecture examples
Problem sets Brainstorming Papers Laboratories
Supplemental readings Discussion forums Analogies Case studies
Videos Blogs Textbook readings Projects
Simulations E-portfolios Projects Fieldwork
Laboratories Model building Practicums
Observations Model critiques Internships
Fieldwork

 

References

Barnes, F. B., Preziosi, R. C., & Gooden, D. J. (2004). An examination of the learning styles of online MBA students and their preferred course delivery methods. New Horizons in Adult Education, 18(2).

Clinefelter, D. L., & Aslanian, C. B. (2014). Online college students 2014: Comprehensive data on demands and preferences. Retrieved from http://www.learninghouse.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/2014-Online-College-Students-Final.pdf

Dunn, R., Griggs, S. A., Olson, J., Beasley, M., & Gorman, B. S. (1995). A meta-analytic validation of the Dunn and Dunn learning styles model. Journal of Educational Research, 88(6), 353-361.

Ebeling, D. G. (2000). Adapting your teaching to any learning style. Phi Delta Kappan, 82(3), 247-248.

Fleming, N., & Baume, D. (2006). Learning styles again: VARKing up the right tree! Educational Developments, 7(4), 4–7. Retrieved from http://www.vark-learn.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Educational-Developments.pdf

Glass, M. J. (2008). Experiential learning styles and instructional delivery in doctorate programs. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest LLC.

Hawk, T. F., & Shah, A. J. (2007). Using learning style instruments to enhance student learning. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 5(1), 1-19.

Hayes, J., & Allinson, C. W. (1996). The implications of learning styles for training and development: A discussion of the matching hypothesis. British Journal of Management, 7(1), 63-73.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Mokhtar, I. A., Majid, S., & Foo, S. (2008). Information literacy education: Applications of mediated learning and multiple intelligences. Library and Information Science Research, 30(3), 195-206.

Mumford, A. (1995). Putting learning styles to work: An integrated approach. Industrial and Commercial Training, 27(8), 28-35.

Richmond, A. S., & Cummings, R. (2005). Implementing Kolb’s learning styles into online distance education. International Journal of Technology in Teaching and Learning, 1(1), 45-54. Retrieved from http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.385.3226&rep=rep1&type=pdf

Svinicki, M. D., & Dixon, N. M. (1987). The Kolb model modified for classroom activities. College Teaching, 35(4), 141-146.

Taylor, J. (1998). Learning styles: A practical tool for improved communications. Supervision, 59(7), 18.

Teven, J. J. and McCroskey, J. C. 1997. The relationship of perceived teacher caring with student learning and teacher evaluation. Communication Education, 46: 1–9.