How do Kolb’s Learning styles fit into E-learning?

How do Kolb’s Learning styles (Kolb 1984) fit into E-learning?  I don’t know the answer yet but as part of my research I came across a journal article entitled “Implementing Kolb’s Learning Styles into

Online Distance Education”, the purpose of this article is described below:

“The purpose of this article is to investigate the application of Kolb’s (1984) theory of Experiential

Learning to online distance education.  Specifically, there are three main objectives: (1) present Kolb’s Learning Style research and Experiential Learning theory and justify its use in online education, (2) provide a critical evaluation of learning style research in online learning environments, and (3) demonstrate how to consider student learning styles in online distance education via a fictitious online distance education course in educational psychology(Richmond, A. S., & Cummings, R. 2005)

The article examines Kolb’s Learning styles (Kolb 1984) but then goes on to look at the four learning environments that support the different learning styles as described by Kolb (1984).

The learning environments they describe are the:

  • affective
  • symbolic
  • perceptual
  • behavioural

The descriptions of each learning environment are featured below:

Affective learning environment

“The affective learning environment emphasizes concrete experiences so that students actually experience what it might be like to be a professional in a given field of study.

Affective learning tasks include activities such as practical exercises, simulations, or field experiences. Information is usually peer oriented and delivered informally. The instructor is considered as a role model and an exemplar for the particular field of study. Activities are non competitive, and feedback should not be comparative but personalized to the individual student’s goals and needs (Kolb, 1984).” (Richmond, A. S., & Cummings, R. 2005)

Symbolic learning environment

“The symbolic learning environment is one in which learners are involved in trying to solve problems for which there is usually a right answer or a best solution. Information is abstract and usually presented in readings, data, pictures, and lecture formats. Characteristic activities may include lecture, homework, and theory readings. The instructor is acknowledged as the expert, enforcer of rules, regulator of time, and taskmaster. This instructional format is typically didactic with a top-down, hierarchical class structure (Kolb, 1984).” (Richmond, A. S., & Cummings, R. 2005)

Perceptual learning environment

“According to Kolb and Fry (1975), the perceptual learning environment is one in which the main goal is to identify and understand relationships among concepts. Unlike activities in the symbolic environment, the perceptual environment emphasizes the process of problem solving rather than coming up with the best solution. Learners are required to collect relevant information for researching questions and are expected to attack a problem situation through different perspectives (own opinion, expert opinion and literature) by listening, observing, writing, discussing and personal pondering. In this environment, the teacher’s role is to act as a facilitator of the learning process, to be non-evaluative, and to act as mirror by reflecting back student observations and comments. Learning processes may include reflective exercises such as keeping journals, writing reflective essays, or engaging in dialogue with other students. Such practices are incorporated into each class session, which emphasizes the importance of reflection on learning.” (Richmond, A. S., & Cummings, R. 2005)

Behavioural learning

“Finally, the behavioural learning environment emphasizes actively applying knowledge or skills to a practical problem. Although correct answers for activities are not necessary for success in this environment, activities should be structured so that learners gain intrinsic rewards and values. The teacher acts as a coach or guide but only when the student initiates or solicits help. Small group work, interactive projects that apply theory to real-world settings, and peer feedback are prime examples of student activities in this environment. Measurement is in the form of “how well something worked, feasibility, sellability, client acceptance, cost, testing results, [and] aesthetic quality” (Kolb, 1984. p. 199).” (Richmond, A. S., & Cummings, R. 2005)

In their summary Richmond and Cummings state:

“to accommodate all types of learning styles, the online course designer should consider how to incorporate each learning environment suggested by Kolb and Fry (1975).” (Richmond, A. S., & Cummings, R. 2005)

This is an important conclusion that can be applied to my work but it is also rather obvious to me that people will find it easier to learn if the delivery of learning is tailored towards their individual cognitive needs.

Richmond and Cummings continue their article by looking at the impact of learning styles on course content, they  point out the lack of research into the relevance of learning styles on internet based courses in comparison to the amount of research on traditional media based teaching.

They do however highlight a study by Simpson and Du (2004) in which the pair investigated the association between learning styles and self-reported enjoyment in students enrolled in online classes.

This research found a link between the students learning styles and their perceptions of class enjoyment; students with the converging learning style enjoyed the classes the most, followed by those with diverging, accommodating, and assimilating learning styles.  Richmond and Cummings use this investigations finding to summarise that there is a case that supports the consideration of learning styles in online course design, this is also an important finding for my research as it confirms to me that there is a need for the consideration of learning styles within the design process when producing e-learning.

The article then focuses on applying their conclusions to an e-learning environment, the approach they use involves the assessment of student learning styles using  the Learning Style Inventory (LSI), developed by Kolb (1976).  They then indicate that an instructor may want to offer content based upon the learning style of the largest group, from my personal point of view I feel I should point out that I can see the logic in providing to the majority but It is not an approach that I would pursue as I think everyone should be considered if possible.

Richmond and Cummings go on to describe specific course activities and methods of delivering course content that is appropriate for each of the four learning environments, see table below:

In their conclusion Richmond and Cummings acknowledge the difficulty faced by online instructors in considering individual needs, as online instructors usually lack the physical interaction with their students, this is a problem that myself and other designers face as well.  In design we try to consider the needs of the user, in this case the student but it can be hard if you don’t understand the user’s needs and frustrations, which is why designers spend a lot of time in preparation, researching, testing, evaluating and refining their designs, it is in essence the reason that I am reviewing this article.  The reason I am researching learning theory and the reason I am undertaking my MA is that I want to understand more about the needs of the people who will ultimately use my designs, in order to provide them with better quality, more effective designs.

Richmond and Cummings have provided me with some useful information and some good ideas to take my research forward and for that I must thank them, to finish this blog post I would like to leave you with the final part of Richmond and Cummings conclusion

“We believe that such thoughtful course design and implementation will not only improve the quality of online course delivery but also will enhance student learning.” (Richmond, A. S., & Cummings, R. 2005)


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

Kolb, D. A. (1976). Learning-Style Inventory, Boston, MA: McBer and Company.

Kolb, D. A. (1981). Experiential learning theory and the learning style inventory: A reply to Freedman and Stumpf. Academy of Management Review, 6(2), 289-296.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development, Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Kolb, D. A., & Fry, R. E. (1975). Toward an applied theory of experiential learning, In C. Cooper, (Ed), Theories of group processes. London: Wiley Press.

Simpson, C., & Du, Y. (2004). Effects of learning styles and class participation on students’ enjoyment level in distributed learning environments. Journal of Education for Library and Information Science, 45(2), 123-136.


One thought on “How do Kolb’s Learning styles fit into E-learning?

  1. Pingback: Training: It Takes all Types | Human Resources Software

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