Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Optimizing the Kolb Learning Model

by:
Gary J. Salton, Ph.D.

FORWARD

The Kolb learning model (Kolb & Fry, 1975) is the dominant paradigm in adult learning. It holds this position because it is a practical, easily understood taxonomy that works to an acceptable degree in field settings.

Kolb has its limits. Most importantly, it is based on psychology—the science of the individual. Most instruction occurs in a classroom setting. This is the realm of sociology—the science of groups. Kolb provides no set way of getting from the individual to the group. This is a serious shortfall for those interested in large scale training efforts.

This research blog estimates the size of the shortfall. Data was collected from 185 actual adult classes involving 3,116 individuals in 5 different organizations. Classes were held in cities in the United States, Asia and Europe. While not random, the sample is broad enough to suggest a level of credibility.


"I Opt" technology was applied to the data to bridge the psychology-sociology gap. "I Opt" is a theoretically founded, fully validated and tested knowledge base (see www.oeinstitute.org
for "I Opt" theoretical underpinnings or www.iopt.com for operational tools). "I Opt" is an information-processing tool. Since information processing is common to both individuals and groups is a natural bridge between the individual and group.

ALIGNING THE KOLB MODEL

Both Kolb and "I Opt" use a four-axis model. Each axis of the "I Opt" model is a combination of input and output elections. Some of the behaviors produced by these interactions can be seen as the "orientations" that Kolb uses in his taxonomy (i.e. classification system). In other words, the Kolb conceptual model can be seen as a subset of the broader "I Opt" paradigm.

GRAPHIC 1 KOLB LEARNING MODEL AND "I OPT" GRID


Graphic 1 contrasts Kolb and "I Opt". Kolb is a conceptual scheme whereas "I Opt" is a measurement grid. The axes on the "I Opt" model are called "styles" whereas Kolb calls his conceptual variables "stages." The difference is more than just names. Kolb's model rests on MBTI psychology. There is no way to measure his stages except by asking people for their subjective assessment. There is no way to know if what one person means by "sometimes" is the same as what another person means. You can add Kolb's scores but you could be adding apples and oranges. You would never know.

The "I Opt" input and output elections are measured on an absolute rather than subjective scale. The absolute scale is what allows the elections of individuals to be combined into groups. This ability to "add up" people is what gives "I Opt" the power to bridge the individual-group gap.

"I Opt" can combine its style "building blocks" to produce different things (see here for list) . For example, the "I Opt" Hypothetical Analyzer style uses structured input and thought (conceptual) output. Structured input (a method that uses some form of reasoning to select input) combines with conceptual output (logical combination of particulars). This produces systems, theories and explanations. These products are all various levels of abstraction and are roughly consistent with Kolb's abstraction category. Kolb's other conceptual variables can be similarly derived from the "I Opt" model.

The match between "I Opt" and the Kolb is not perfect. However, it is sufficiently aligned to allow the data collected within an "I Opt" framework to be applied to the Kolb model.

MEASURING THE STRENGTH OF KOLB’S STAGES

Kolb sees a circular or spiral sequence of stages. Without measurement Kolb's model cannot tell you how much emphasis to give each stage. Rather, he suggests "touching all the bases." Without measurement there is no way of defining how hard the bases are to be "touched." Applying "I Opt" measurements from 3,116 people allows us to define what Kolb cannot.

GRAPHIC 2
KOLB’S “CONCRETE EXPERIENCE” AND “NEW SITUATIONS” VARIABLES
Percent of Students at Various Commitment Levels: "I Opt" RI and RS Styles


Graphic 2 reveals that 81% of people do not heavily rely on the Concrete (1) or New Situations (4) stages ("I Opt" RS and RI styles). Fully 48% of people prefer very low levels. Instruction that exceeds these levels will appear irrelevant and difficult to assimilate.

GRAPHIC 3
KOLB'S "OBSERVE & REFLECT" AND "CONCEPTS" VARIABLES
Percent of Students at Various Commitment Levels: "I Opt" LP and HA Styles
Graphic 3 shows that Kolb's Observe & Reflect (2) and Concept (3) stages operate in almost the reverse fashion. Fully 42% of people would prefer medium-high to very high levels of this instruction. Falling short of this standard will leave people feeling inadequately prepared.

Graphic 4 shows a cumulative distribution of the four Kolb stages. Extending a line form a desired coverage level shows the level emphasis needed. The line on the graph shows that targeting of 75% coverage would require different emphasis on the various Kolb stages.

GRAPHIC 4 CUMULATIVE DISTRIBUTION OF KOLB VARIABLES
"I Opt" is not confined to Kolb's ordinal (e.g., low, medium, high) measures. The actual strength of each style (Kolb stage) in Graphic 4 can be measured. Graphic 5 shows a pie chart distribution of these strengths. Because the I Opt scores are not simple categories but rather are the result of information processing elections, the pie chart can also tell you how to design instruction in terms of input-output structure.

GRAPHIC 5
MINIMUM LEVELS OF KOLB STAGES TO CAPTURE 75% OF STUDENTS
Graphic 5 shows that the designer should give about equal attention to thought and action—the "how" and "why" of the subject. However, in terms of input a 60-40 rule seems optimal. About 60% of instruction should be structured—a “this causes that” or “do this, then do that” sequencing. This is knowledge in a firm framework.

The remaining 40% should be unpatterned input. This is more spontaneous and less predictable knowledge flow. It typically involves decisions by students. For example, students might be asked to provide examples of applications or be asked to apply the principles to a subject. Their choice of examples or methods of applying principles will vary. This is knowledge in a "fuzzy" framework.

HOW TO MEASURE KOLB LEARNING STYLES IN GROUPS

Kolb recognized that people learn by combining his stages. He calls these combinations of stages “learning styles.” These are shown as diagonals in Kolb’s basic model. I Opt also has diagonal interconnections. I Opt uses the term “patterns” to describe these interactions. Graphic 6 compares the two approaches. The parallels are obvious.

GRAPHIC 6
KOLB LEARNING MODEL STYLES AND "I OPT" GRID PATTERNS

Visual similarity does not mean identity. “I Opt” technology has exact measurement. The Kolb learning styles can never be measured. This is because the scales used for each stage do not have a common denominator. "I Opt" is different. Each axis has an input or output election in common with an adjacent axes. This commonality along with identical axis scoring methods means that diagonals can be quantified. This means learning styles can be measured exactly.

Graphic 7 shows how measurement is done. The profiles of two real individuals from the 3,116-person research base are shown in Graphic 7A. Deciding how to teach these two people together would be a challenge if you were limited to the Kolb taxonomy.

GRAPHIC 7
MEASURING LEARNING STYLES OF GROUPS

“I Opt” offers a solution. "I Opt" profiles are not mere illustrations. They are exact measurements of information processing preferences. They can be superimposed. This creates a “common area” that describes an information flow acceptable to both people. The common area for Dave and Teresa is shown in white in Graphic 7B. The percentage of common (i.e., white) area in each quadrant describes the amount of that kind of instruction that will jointly serve the people involved. Clearly, touching all bases equally is a poor solution for this pair.

What can be done for 2 people can be done for an entire class. Graphic 8 shows the profile of the class in which Dave and Teresa participated. The gray area is the common area of a majority of the 16 people in the class (i.e., at least 9 people fall in every point in this area). This majority area is where most people share a common learning preference. If your purpose is to teach as many people as much as possible, this is majority area defines your optimal strategy.

GRAPHIC 8
LEARNING PROFILE OF AN ACTUAL CLASS

The yellow dots are in Graphic 8 are the centroids of each person in the class. A centroid is the single point that best represents a person’s whole profile (i.e., Cartesian Average). Centroids help give a quick picture of how individual people fit into the group as a whole. For example, this one shows that both Dave and Teresa are likely to be a bit dissatisfied with the group strategy. This is another advantage of “I Opt.” You can see who will need to be compromised and by how much in order to serve most people in the class. Taxonomies can never give this kind of information.

THE “TYPICAL” CLASS

Individual classes vary widely in their learning preference. Graphic 9 shows a random selection drawn from the 185 classes in which the 3,116 people used in this research participated.

GRAPHIC 9
KOLB LEARNING STYLE SAMPLE OF ACTUAL CLASSES

Actual classes conducted within the 185 class sample


All classes have at least some representation in each learning style (i.e., I Opt pattern). This means that almost any teaching strategy will work to some degree. However, the differences between classes illustrate that no instructional strategy that will optimize all of them. What ever you do will be a compromise. The issue is whether your compromise is optimal.

INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGN OPTIMIZATION
Instructional Designers are concerned with optimizing the learning of groups, not individuals. This means focusing on the learning styles (rather than stages) of the actual classes that will be taught. Graphic 10 shows the distribution for each of the four learning styles among of 185 classes measured in this research.

GRAPHIC 10
KOLB LEARNING STYLE DISTRIBUTIONS
Applied to the profiles of 185 classes
Graphic 10 also shows the midpoint of the each of the Kolb learning styles (i.e., "I Opt" Patterns). The midpoint (median) is where half of the classes fall on either side. A strategy of targeting the midpoint would minimize the degree that a learning style will exceed or fall short in a typical class. Instruction designed to hit this point would minimize the deviation an instructor would have to adjust for in particular classes. It is a viable option.

Graphic 11 compares the "touch all styles equally" and the midpoint design strategy. There is a 70% overlap in the two learning profiles. However, it also shows that designers should plan to give about twice more instruction in the Assimilating (B) than the Accommodating (D) learning styles. The difference between a 70% and 100% overlap can mean a lot.

GRAPHIC 11
“TOUCH ALL BASES EQUALLY” VERSUS MIDPOINT STRATEGY
Based on 185 Classes
This blog uses a large and diverse research population. However, the other blogs in this series show that there can be systematic differences by firm, function or organizational level. The safest course in designing instructional policy is to sample the actual population being taught and use it as a standard. In final analysis there is no substitute for exact measurement.

SUMMARY

The research has also shown that improvement in the Kolb model is possible. "I Opt" technology allows its concepts to be extended to groups. It can be used to measure the systematic biases in their learning preferences. It can show you exactly which individuals will be "short changed" when using an instructional design that is best for the group. Finally, it illustrates that reconciling psychology and sociology can magnify the reach and power of the learning professional.



BIBLIOGRAPHY
Kolb. D. A. and Fry, R. (1975) 'Toward an applied theory of experiential learning', in C. Cooper (ed.) Theories of Group Process, London: John Wiley.

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