Number. 27 © CDTL 2003
Going Cycling with Learning Styles
Ms Lisa Lim
Research Assistant, CDTL

What is learning style?

Please refer to the article, ‘Discover Your Learning Style’ (c.f. Successful Learning, Issue No. 8), for a nice introduction to this topic.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory

This theory, which borrows tenets from Jungian typology, classifies your learning preferences along two dimensions, approach and response, when faced with learning new information. Kolb sees learning as being a four-stage process:

  • Approach Dimension
    • Feeling: Being directly involved in a learning experience, vs.
    • Thinking: Stepping back to think or formulate theories about logically what has been learned
  • Response Dimension
    • Watching: Stepping back to observe and listen, vs.
    • Doing: Applying what has been learned in a new situation

Each person has a preferred learning style, which is measured from the interaction between your preferred approach and response to learning tasks. Based on this, four learning styles are expressed.

Activists (AC/CE)

  • Prefer a hands-on, trial-and-error approach
  • Ask: “What would happen if I do this?”
  • Are good at learning from specific examples where they are directly involved, and at seeing relationships among concepts
  • Enjoy being involved in new and challenging experiences

Reflectors (RO/CE)

  • Prefer to observe rather than to do
  • Ask: “Why?”
  • Good at looking at things from different perspectives
  • Like to gather information and to reason from concrete specific information
  • Like to explore what a system has to offer


  • Prefer technical tasks to interpersonal ones
  • Ask: “How?”
  • Are good at using learning for problem-solving

Theorists (AC/RO)

  • Prefer knowing the right answers to random exploration
  • Ask: “What is there to know?”
  • Good at understanding and consolidating vast amounts of information
  • Like accurate, organised delivery of information
  • Trust knowledge of the expert


Know thyself

What is your predominant learning style? You can find out by taking the test online, or by doing a printable version . Neither of these tests is the exact version, but they are very close to the original, and may be taken free of charge. Another point to note is that these tests should not be regarded as diagnostic, but more as a guide to understanding yourself, particularly as a learner.

The alternative terms for each learning style are listed below:

Alternative Learning Style References
Concrete = Accommodator = Activist (Doer)
Active = Diverger = Reflector (Watcher)
Reflective = Assimilator = Theorist (Thinker)
Abstract = Converger = Pragmatist (Feeler)

Knowing your own preferred learning style might help to explain why you face difficulties in learning certain subjects (but remember motivation and discipline play important roles too). For example, some subjects are by nature more theoretical, which may contradict your own preferred activist learning style. What should you do then?

Cycling, anyone?

To address this, Kolb postulates that you cycle through the stages—that is, move through the four stages of feeling, watching, thinking, and doing. For some subjects, such as Mathematics, the learning experience is structured so that more than one stage is used—you are shown a formula which is explained (Thinking), you pay attention to how your instructor uses the formula in a specific situation (Watching), and finally you are given practice as homework (Doing). Thus, in order to complete the learning cycle, and thereby to maximise your learning, you would have to create the Feeling experience for yourself.

It is recommended that you start with your preferred style, and then work your way around the cycle. Below are some questions you can ask when you are cycling through the stages, as well as suggestions for developing each style, which you can apply when you study.

Stage Questions to ask Suggestions for developing this style
What procedures/techniques/ formulas did you use?
What resources/materials did you use?
What decisions did you make, and why?
Adopt an attitude of curiosity: Deduce principles/theories on your own without waiting for the lecturer to explain them.
Using your own experience, identify your own understanding/
conceptions of a topic.
What did you notice? Patterns? Differences? Similarities?
What was important?
What can you do differently as a result of your observations?
Carefully consider all sides of an argument.
Listen more to others’ opinions.
Set aside time to review your learning.
Set aside time to produce a well-thought out and planned piece of work.
What is the idea(s) or theory(ies) involved?
Are there links with other ideas/ theories?
Note down the main theories in your subject area; compare and contrast them; note underlying assumptions.
Read conflicting articles, trying to understand how different authors reach different viewpoints.
Set goals for your work and plans of action to achieve them.
How can you apply what you have learnt in other situations?
Try to apply theory to practical situations.
Learn about and practise different practical techniques.
Get involved in practical activities whenever possible.
Set goals for yourself and plans of action to achieve them.

An example: Learning statistical principles through SPSS

Feeling: Work with data by yourself using SPSS to calculate means and frequency distributions. Consult the manual yourself or use the ‘help’ function.
Watching: Listen to explanations of concepts given by your lecturer, paying special attention to when and why specific formulas are used.
Thinking: Formulate your own hypotheses, and think about the extent that the data and statistics support the hypotheses—what do the data really mean?
Doing: Practise with assignments, applying what you know to real-world examples.

Well worth the ride

By going through and completing this cycle of learning, you are effectively helping yourself to become an active learner, rather than simply trying to remember concepts by heart or applying formulas to solve problems. Cycling through the learning process will take you to a higher level of understanding of your subject through more active engagement with your material.


AST401 Online Classroom, University of Illinois at Springfield. (1999). ‘Introduction to Experiential Learning’ [Online]. (last accessed: 14 April 2003).

Atherton, J.S. (2002). ‘Learning and Teaching: Learning Index’ [Online]. (last accessed: 14 April 2003).

Dolinsky, B. (2000). ‘An Active Learning Approach to Teaching Statistics’ [Online]. Endicott College. (last accessed: 14 April 2003).

Gibble, J.L. ‘Style & Curriculum’ [Online].
(last accessed: 14 April 2003).

Hector-Taylor, M. & Bonsall, M. (1994). Successful Study: A Practical Way to Get a Good Degree. England: University of Sheffield.

Lamberski, R.J. (2002). ‘Kolb Learning Style Inventory’ [Online]. Indiana University of Pennsylvania. (last accessed: 14 April 2003).


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