3    Learning styles

Just as courses may be seen to be either mainly practical or mainly theoretical, so individuals may have particular preferences in their learning. While one person might prefer to formulate plans and define potential problems, another might prefer to get on and carry out the plans. There are distinct learning styles associated with each of the stages of the experiential learning cycle.

These differences in style were illustrated graphically in a computing course. At the start of this computing course the students were set an open-ended computing problem to work on alone over the next four weeks. They then met to compare solutions to the problem, but also to compare the different ways in which they went about working on the problem. Three of the students displayed dramatically different styles:

Student A went straight to a computer keyboard and started keying in segments of a program. She didn't analyse the nature of the problem. As soon as it became apparent that the programming routines being written didn't work, new routines were written out and immediately tested in a trial and error way: mostly error. This student had created dozens of programming routines, none of which got close to solving the problem. She seemed not to learn from her mistakes.

Student B appeared to start off like student A, going straight to the keyboard. He selected a procedure which he knew and implemented it. He wrote an extensive, detailed and complete programme which ran successfully, but which solved a problem quite different from the one which was set. He was unaware that he had tackled the wrong problem because he was so busy getting on with the task.

Student C became intrigued by the problem itself and its underlying features. She started reading about this kind of problem and the reading led her into related areas which also contained intriguing problems. She could talk animatedly about the topic in general in an abstract way but hadn't even started writing any programming code to produce a solution.

In terms of the experiential learning cycle, these students were stuck at one part of the cycle to the virtual exclusion of the other three.


Exercise 2

See if you can place the three students on the cycle in the diagram below by identifying which aspects of the experiential learning cycle each exhibits and misses out.

Locate students A, B and C on this diagram, and explain your reasons for each:

Student A


Student B


Student C



We have looked at these three students in the diagram below. We have done so by thinking about why each of these students failed to solve the problem.

Student A failed because she experimented without learning from her mistakes. She didn't start from an analysis of the problem (conceptualisation) and didn't seem to reflect on the outcomes of her experiments (reflection). All she did was try things out ( active experimentation) and change tack when she experienced things not working out (experience). She might be quite good at practical work and experimentation, but she won't learn from this,

Student B failed because he didn't even notice that his solution was solving the wrong problem: he was not aware of his own experience. This style characteristically involves "premature closure" or rushing to a single solution without generating or considering alternatives. He might be very good at working through procedures which apply theory to a specific situation , but this won't necessarily help him.

Student C might be quite creative and admirably thoughtful about what she is doing, but until she gets down and tries her ideas out in practice she isn't going to get anywhere. At some point she has to narrow down the scope of the possibilities in front of her and get her hands on the keyboard and see what happens when she tries things out.


In order to learn effectively from experience it is necessary to utilise the abilities associated with each of the four learning styles in turn. These abilities are illustrated in the diagram below:

Rather than have extreme styles, therefore, it is preferable to be adaptable and to operate in the style appropriate to each successive stage of the experiential learning cycle at different stages in a learning task. It can be valuable for students to recognise their own habitual learning style and to recognise the characteristics of learning tasks as this may help them to become more flexible in meeting the varied demands of learning situations .

The students of computing were encouraged to discuss their learning styles and were then put in project groups which mixed styles so that students experienced the ways in which others worked. Each week the teaching session was started with a discussion of how the project groups had gone about tackling their tasks in order to raise students' awareness of the alternative approaches possible.

Several questionnaires and checklists are available to enable the quick diagnosis of learning styles. There are numerous other frameworks for making sense of differences in learning style but the framework outlined here is the most useful one in relation to learning by doing.

Further reading

For a short experiential learning styles inventory and explanation of learning styles:

Kolb, D.A.,Rubin, I.M. and McIntyre, J.M. Organisational Psychology: An Experiential Approach Prentice Hall. 1974

For a more extensive questionnaire and analysis of learning styles:

Honey, P. and Mumford, A. The Manual of Learning Styles Peter Honey,Maidenhead. 1986.

For a learners' guide to learning styles and how to change your learning style:

Honey, P. and Mumford, A. Using Your Learning Styles Peter Honey, Maidenhead. 1986.

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Created by Claire Andrew
Page created 10 January 2001