Measuring the effects of learning styles: is a little knowledge dangerous for excellence in management education?

Author:Azevedo, Ross E.
 
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Abstract

This is an experimental group/control group inquiry into the use of the Kolb Learning Style Inventory as a learning tool as well as a diagnostic tool. The idea is to assess whether it is possible to alter the perception of learners on the divergence of learning styles through an appropriate conditioning process so as to improve learning. One group was conditioned through tying the nature and objective of classroom learning exercises to the four-stage learning cycle of Kolb as a way of using the Kolb Learning Style Inventory experience as a strategy to improve learning; the other was not. Postexercise testing revealed results contrary to expectations. Furthermore, implications for teaching and learning are discussed.

Keywords:

Learning Styles; Management Teaching & Learning; Human Resource Management

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The process of learning can be argued as being one of the central elements in the broad field of education. Lately, educators have been talking about how individuals learn differently--everyone has a learning style. These discussions often sprung from the assumptions about learning. Since the first appearance of the formulated framework of Learning Styles Inventory (LSI), there has become a popular assumption in the public as to how each individual has a learning style that falls into one of the four LSI categories. As a result, a number of instruments have been developed to help learners identify their learning styles. One of the mostly recognized and widely used of these instruments is the Kolb Learning Styles Inventory (KLSI). In fact, a number of fields applied this instrument to identify individual learning styles, including education (Cassidy, 2004; Jones, Reichard, & Mokhtari, 2003; Loo, 2004; Pedrosa de Jesus, Almeida, & Watts, 2004), psychology (Desmedt & Valcke, 2004; Genovese, 2004), business (Sims, 1983; Swailes & Senior, 2001), and medicine (Grace, 2001; Reese, 1998). As educational activities have become more developed worldwide, those who instruct have sought ways to improve their delivery and meet the challenges of more diverse classrooms. Just as the No Child Left Behind Act has become a rallying point from all sides in the United States, so too has the effort to meet the learning needs of students in a world of diverse learners become an increasingly difficult challenge. Although it is well recognized that general cognitive ability of individuals may play a significant role in overall learning outcomes (Holton, 1996; Kanfer & Ackerman, 1989; Ree & Earles, 1991), it is understood as being only part of the answer. One of many additional pieces of the picture might lie in a finding that an understanding of a learner's individual learning style may be a fundamental tool in increasing the general cognitive ability of learners, a question we now explore.

Problem Statement

The KLSI has a long history of use as a tool to assess the learning styles of students around the world (Kolb, 1984; Kolb & Wolfe, 1981). Many have taken the instrument as a way to examine how they learn in an academic environment (Bacon, 2004; Desmedt & Valcke, 2004). Use of the KLSI may be claimed to be a valuable experience in many ways, allowing students to understand how they learn and providing the best method by which to study while forcing instructors to design into their teaching those methodologies that will appeal to all types of learners. Lacking knowledge of the concepts from the KLSI, students would not know that others learn differently, and instructors might limit their teaching style to be consistent with their personal learning styles, thereby ignoring the learning needs of a large portion of their classes. Thus, it can be argued, awareness of KLSI concepts can be valuable across the teaching podium, as students come to understand why their instructors use different teaching methods and activities to reach all. However, we would argue that all these aforementioned positive statements about KLSI are not based on any empirical evidence but mere assumptions on part of its proponents. Many of the studies on KSLI generally focus on identifying students' individual learning styles (Baldwin & Sabry, 2003; Cassidy, 2004; Genovese, 2004; Loo, 2004; Lovelace, 2005; Sims, 1983; Sonnenwald & Li, 2003). The problem is that we do not know whether having an awareness of one's learning style and tailoring class structure, activities, and assignments toward various learning styles enhance and improve student learning. Does it help students learn better if they are aware of different learning styles? Furthermore, does it help students learn better if instructors accommodate all types of learning styles during the instruction? Additionally, we also do not know if people always fall in the same learning style category throughout their life span or whether they end up switching from one style to another in different stages of their lives. This study, consistent with the above argument, is different from any identified in that it is an inquiry into the possibility of using the KLSI as a tool to enhance learning rather than strictly as a diagnostic tool in order to improve educational outcomes via classroom attention to individual learning styles.

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Theoretical Framework

Kolb's experiential learning model, which led to the LSI, focuses on developmental learning theory. Kolb's two-dimensional model, which includes four learning styles, postulates that learning begins with concrete experiences acquired through observation and self-reflection. Observations are then processed into concepts and generalizations on these experiences and provide guidance to new experiences and interactions with the world (Kolb, 1976). Figure 1 illustrates Kolb's two-dimensional learning model.

Kolb's two-dimensional learning model led to the development of the 12-item self-reporting LSI (Kolb, 1976), which was improved about a decade later through psychometric assessments (Kolb, 1985). Figure 2 illustrates these two dimensions with four quadrants of learning styles, including accommodator, diverger, assimilator, and converger. Kolb (1985) describes accommodators as people who learn primarily through hands-on experience and gut feelings, divergers learn best from viewing concrete situations from multiple perspectives, assimilators learn mainly through understanding a wide range of information that is presented in a concise and logical format, and finally, convergers learn best by applying the ideas and theories into practical uses.

The following are some of the examples of how students were presented with various exercises and in-class activities as related to different learning styles.

Concrete Experience (CE)

As an initial part of the course, students had to design a pizza establishment from the ground up, including type of products/menu, price points, hours of operation, potential sale of alcoholic beverages, and whether eat-in and/or delivery. From this, they had to specify what jobs would be needed, develop job descriptions and job specifications for them, and design a recruiting/selection (including termination) procedure. They worked on designing compensation, performance appraisal, and other human resource management processes for the pizza parlor through the term.

Abstract Conceptualization (AC)

During the course of the term, students were introduced Agency, Equity, and Expectancy theories as abstract frameworks for analyzing human resource management questions. Students conceptualize functional areas and problems in the field by using these theoretical models to develop operational strategies and solutions, linking practice with the abstract.

Reflective Observation (RO)

This dimension was captured by a training exercise in which the students watched first the professor/instructor, then individual students as "instructors," as they learned a somewhat difficult exercise. The exercise could be completed in a number of ways, and students were directed to search for an "instructor" from whom they could best learn by observation. By the completion of the exercise, all students could perform the exercise on their own although they did so in different ways...

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