Kolb's learning style inventory (1985): Review and further study of validity and reliability

Lesley Willcoxson
Centre for Teaching and Learning
University of Sydney
Sydney, New South Wales
Australia 2006

Michael Prosser
Academic Development Unit
La Trobe University
Bundoora, Victoria
Australia 3083

Reporting results of research undertaken at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia


Since it was first published in 1976, Kolb's Learning Style Inventory (LSI1) has been used extensively in both academic and professional settings to identify the learning style preferences of different groupings. Based on Kolb's (1976, 1984) theory of experiential learning which posits varying degrees of preference for learning involving concrete experience, reflection, abstraction and experimentation, the LSI1 provided a relatively simple means of investigating learning style preferences but was open to question on the basis of its validity and reliability.

Kolb (1985) responded to these concerns by publishing a revised version of the Learning Style Inventory (LSI2) for which he claimed improved reliability but to date, despite the fact that the LSI2 is widely used by teachers and trainers, there have been few studies investigating its reliability or validity. In this paper we report the results of research designed to address these issues as well as to provide data directly related to the Australian, which complements that from the US American or British, context.

Experiential learning theory, learning context and the learning style inventory

Kolb's (1984) experiential learning theory postulates the existence of four learning modes that combine to form two learning dimensions - concrete/abstract and active/reflective. It is theorised that almost every individual utilises each learning mode to some extent but has a preferred learning style resulting from the tendency to either learn through Concrete Experience (CE) or through the construction of theoretical frameworks (Abstract Conceptualisation - AC) combined with the tendency to either learn through Active Experimentation (AE) or through reflection (Reflective Observation - RO). These learning style preferences are described by Kolb (1976, 1984) as Divergent (CE/RO), Assimilative (RO/AC), Convergent (AC/AE) and Accommodative (AE/CE) and are predicted by him, like personality characteristics, to be relatively stable over time although also influenced by long or short term situational factors and by level of maturity.

It could be expected on the basis of Kolb's (1984) theory that learning style preferences would relate to career choice in that, for example, a computer scientist is required to establish a dynamic interplay between conceptual knowledge and experimentation in order to develop software. It should be noted also, however, that although a computer scientist with an innate preference for a convergent learning style would probably find it easier to meet daily work demands and thus individuals with such a preference are probably more likely to be attracted to and remain in the profession, not all computer scientists are likely to have this innate preference.

Kolb's (1981,1984) acknowledgement and Talbot's (1985) demonstration of the influence of long-term environmental or short-term situational factors upon learning mode implies not only that professional or academic demands may temporarily affect or permanently alter learning style preferences but also that any individual will respond to the demands of different learning contexts by utilising to differing degrees, as perceived to be appropriate, concrete, abstract, active or reflective learning strategies.

In the light of this, it is important to note that although the Learning Style Inventory (Kolb, 1976, 1985) assesses both learning style preference and the relative strength of preference for each learning mode - by requiring the ranking of either 36 single words describing learning strategies (comprising nine sets of four response alternatives - LSI1) or 48 short sentences about learning (comprising twelve sets of four response alternatives - LSI2) - the inventory does not specify reference on the part of the respondent to a particular learning context. Thus the responses of a given individual when focussing upon learning preferences related to acquiring driving skills might be quite different to the responses recorded when focussing upon the study of English Literature in an academic context. Similarly, a computer scientist with a general preference for a divergent learning style (CE/RO) might record a preference for a convergent learning style (AC/AE) if, at the time of taking the test, s/he is asked to focus upon learning in the context of a computer science course or happens to do so.

Studies of validity

Researchers have generally used one of three strategies to investigate the construct validity of the LSI1 and LSI2: 1) discipline-based research, exploring the extent to which specified professional or student groupings demonstrate the learning style preferences predicted on the basis of Kolb's (1984) experiential learning theory or his research; 2) factor analysis, examining the LSI response alternatives in relation to the experiential learning theory on which the instrument was based; and 3) instrument correlations, comparing results obtained on the LSI with those obtained using other instruments which test aspects predicted on the basis of the theory's underlying constructs to relate to learning style preferences.

Discipline-based research

Results obtained using Kolb's LSI1 (1976) in discipline-based research demonstrate some measure of agreement amongst researchers regarding the learning style preferences typically found in specified disciplines and more agreement if disciplines are subsumed under descriptions such as social sciences or humanities (Table 1). It also appears, as predicted by experiential learning theory (Kolb, 1984), that learning styles may be influenced by environmental demands and thus results obtained for professionals and students in a specified discipline may be dissimilar (Kruzich et al, 1986). The conclusions of two studies in Table 1, however, were based on sample sizes of under 50 (Plovnick, 1975; Newland, Powell and Creed, 1987) and in all studies the reporting of a numerical majority as the predominant learning style obscures the range of styles found (Baker, Wallace, Bryans and Klapthor, 1985; Reading Brown and Hayden 1989).

Table 1. Learning style preferences, by discipline or profession

ACCOMMODATIVE (AE/CE)

Family medicine
(Plovnick, 1975)
Family practice residents
(Sadler et al, 1978)
Social work
(Kruzich et al, 1986)
Practising architects
(Newland et al, 1987)
Business (Kolb, 1976)

DIVERGENT (CE/RO)

Social work graduates
(Kruzich et al, 1986)
Liberal/ Fine Arts/Science
(Reading Brown et al, 1989)
English/languages/education,
philosophy/history
(Kolb, 1976,1984)
Arts/Humanities (Kolb, 1984)
Psychology (Katz, 1988)

Occupational therapy (Katz, 1988)
Practising chemists
(Smedley, 1987)
Social work academics
(Kruzich et al, 1986)
Engineering/Business
(Reading Brown et al ,1989)
Physical sciences (Kolb, 1984)
Mathematics/Biology/Engineering
(Katz, 1988)

CONVERGENT (AC/AE)

Chemistry/Sociology/
Mathematics, Economics
(Kolb, 1976, 1984)
Social sciences (Kolb, 1984)





ASSIMILATIVE (RO/AC)

Of the above studies, only those of Kolb (1976), Kruzich, Friesen, and van Soest (1986) and Katz (1988) have examined the issue of gender difference in preferred learning styles. Although Kruzich et al (1986) found no significant difference in preferences between males and females, Kolb (1976) reported a tendency for females to emphasise concrete experience and males to emphasise abstraction. This finding is supported by Katz (1988) who, in her study of Israeli university students, found an interaction between gender and career choice in that the engineering students who scored high on the abstract dimension were mainly men while all her occupational therapy students who scored higher on the concrete dimension were women.

In summary, the findings related to disciplinary differences and gender suggest either that academic discipline influences preferred learning styles or that individuals tend to cluster in disciplines where the tasks and learning demands match their innate learning style preferences. However, all these findings relate to the LSI1, and confirmation of these findings using the LSI2 is needed.

Factor analysis

All studies located that focus on issues of construct validity have been conducted using the LSI1.

Of these studies, several find two bipolar factors but argue that this is attributable to instrument bias (Freedman and Strumpf, 1978, 1980; Certo and Lamb, 1980; Newstead, 1992). Certo and Lamb (1980) were unable to isolate bipolar factors when their subjects rated the LSI items individually using a Likert scale, while Wunderlich and Gjerde (1978), who found support only for existence of the Reflective Observation dimension, point to the difficulties inherent in comparing four words representing pairs from two different dimensions and argue that a factor analysis reveals.

Support for the validity of the LSI1 comes from studies by Merritt and Marshall (1984) using both the original form and an alternative modified LSI1. Ferrell (1983) also found four factors paralleling those conceptualised by Kolb (1984) as did Katz (1988). Further analysis conducted by Katz (1988) provided additional strong support for Kolb's experiential learning theory in that it yielded the arrangement of LSI1 items that would be predicted by the theory.

Instrument correlations

Of the studies comparing results obtained using the Learning Style Inventory with results obtained using other instruments, all that could be found relate to the first version of the LSI.

Moore and Sellers (1982) found no clear relationship between teaching styles and learning preferences and Fox (1984) found no relationship between learning style and instructional preferences, but in each case no validity or reliability data were presented for the instructional or teaching style instruments.

Using more established instrumentation, Highhouse and Doverspike (1987) found the predicted relationship between career and learning preference dimensions for most occupations, but found no relationship between the LSI and field independence. These researchers, like West (1982) conclude that the LSI measures learning preferences rather than cognitive style, which is not at variance with Kolb's (1984) notion of adaptation to the context of learning.

Studies of reliability

Although Kolb (1985) claims improved internal consistency for the LSI2, concerns regarding the reliability of the Learning Styles Inventory are likely to remain because as Kolb states, "the accuracy [ie. reliability] of individual scores cannot be assured with a test that is theoretically based on dialectic interdependence of variables and on situational variability" (1976:13). Thus, although reasonable internal consistency might be expected in respect of an individual's scores on a given occasion, the context dependency of the LSI might be expected to manifest itself in variable test-retest reliability especially if, as appears to be the case with previous research involving the LSI, no learning context is specified. In the absence of specification, it must be assumed that subjects may have visualised one learning context during the first taking of the test and another during subsequent testing.

Of the four studies of the LSI2 located, two (Sims, Veres, Watson and Buckner, 1986; Veres, Sims and Shake,1987) report the high internal consistency found by Kolb (1985), although Sims et al (1986) suggest that this may be attributable to response sets, given that in the revised version of the instrument the item relating to each learning dimension appears in the same position in every set of response alternatives. Both these studies report low to moderate test-retest reliability, as is also demonstrated in the research using the LSI2 conducted by Atkinson (1988, 1989). These findings in relation to the LSI2's test-retest reliability parallel those for the LSI1 in that low to moderate test-retest reliability is reported by Freedman and Strumpf (1978), Geller (1979) and Wilson (1986), but while Freedman and Strumpf (1978), Geller (1979) and Wilson (1986) also report moderate to high internal consistency for the LSI1, Moore and Sellers (1982) and Newstead (1992) report only low internal consistency.

Investigating the validity and reliability of the LSI2

Given the absence of data in respect of the validity of the LSI2 and given the fact that, with the exception of LSI studies conducted by Katz (1988) and Newstead (1992), there has been little research using the Learning Style Inventory with sample populations outside the USA, it was decided to test the 1985 version of the instrument with a group of undergraduate students at an Australian university.

Despite the existence of value differences between Australians and US Americans in general (Renwick, Smart and Henderson, 1991), it was anticipated on the basis of the considerable similarities in educational practice and the desired outcomes of education that the Australian data would largely reflect that obtained in the US. That is, - consistent with Table 1 - it was predicted that undergraduate arts students (comprising, in this Australian university, those majoring in history, English, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, foreign languages and politics) would display a preference for learning through reflective observation combined with concrete experience or abstract conceptualisation (ie. be placed in the two right-hand quadrants of Table 1). It was further predicted that students of the sciences (comprising, in this case, those majoring in mathematics, psychology, computer science, engineering, chemistry, physics, biochemistry and physiology) would display a preference for abstract conceptualisation combined with either active experimentation or reflective observation (ie. be placed in the two bottom quadrants of Table 1). It was further predicted that, if males and females were equally represented in the samples from each of the faculties, there would be no significant difference found on the basis of gender alone.

Method

Sample

The sample comprised 191 students enrolled in the Faculties of Arts and Sciences at a large, well-established Australian university. Of the 187 useable responses to the LSI2 (ie. where all items had been completed in the manner specified), 94 responses were from the Sciences and 92 from the Arts (with one subject failing to indicate faculty of study). Females provided 96 of the responses and males 91 of the responses. Students who completed most of their primary and secondary education in Australia numbered 156, while students who had completed most of their pre-tertiary education outside Australia numbered 30 9and obe subject did not provide this information). Of the 30 educated outside Australia, 25 had completed most of their pre-tertiary education in Asia.

In line with the method used in previous studies, subjects were not given any instructions regarding the learning context they were to consider when completing the LSI.

Data Analysis

The first part of the analysis of the data involved a coefficient alpha reliability analysis of the internal consistencies of the four Learning Style Inventory scales.

An analysis of the scale intercorrelations using Pearson product moment correlations, followed by a principle components factor analysis of the four scales for Science and Arts subsamples and the full sample, was used to further investigate the relationships between the scales. The factor analysis used an eigenvalue cut-off of 1, followed by a varimax rotation.

Finally, the scale mean scores were broken down by gender, discipline and whether the majority of primary and secondary schooling was completed in Australia or in Asia, using an independent samples t-test.

Results

Table 2 shows the Coefficient Alpha reliabilities and an intercorrelation matrix of the LSI2 scales. The Coefficient Alpha reliabilities for the LSI2 scales are all highly reliable. The reliabilities range from .81 to .87. In none of the reliability analyses would the deletion of any single item substantially improve the analysis. It can be concluded that, in this sample at least, the LSI2 scales are reliable.

Table 2. Coefficient alpha reliabilities and scale intercorrelations

Scale CE RO AC AE AC-CE AE-RO

CE (.82) -.24** -.42***-.34*** -.85*** -.08
RO (.81) -.17* -.47*** .04 -.84***
AC (.83) -.32*** .83*** -.10
AE (.87) .03 .88
AC-CE -.01

Coefficient Alpha shown in diagonals
p < .05; **p < .01, ***p<.001

Table 2 also shows the correlations between the scales. Consistent with the hypothesis that there are two bipolar dimensions, the Abstract Conceptualisation scale is substantially and statistically significantly negatively correlated with the Concrete Experience scale, as is the Active Experimentation scale with the Reflective Observation scale. Both these correlations are substantially larger than the other correlations between the scales. The matrix also shows that the two bipolar dimensions are essentially independent of each other, as expected from the theory.

However, the factor analyses of the scales shown in Table 3 are not entirely consistent with this interpretation. They show that for the two sub-samples and for the total sample, the bipolar dimension linking Reflective Observation and Active Experimentation are consistent with the theory (Factor 1 for Science, Factor 3 for Arts and Factor 3 for the Total). However, only in the Science sub-sample do Concrete Experience and Abstract Conceptualisation form a bipolar dimension. In the Arts sub-sample, Active Experimentation seems to form bipolar dimensions with each of the other three scales, suggesting that in the Arts sub-sample Concrete Experience and Abstract Conceptualisation may not be as well contrasted as in the Science sub-sample.

Table 3. Factor Analysis of the LSI2 Scales

Sample
Science
(N=94)
Factor

Arts
(N=92)
Factor

Total
(N=186)
Factor

Scale
1
2
1
2
3
1
2
3

Concrete Exp.
-.92
-.98
-.96
Abstract Concept
.79
-.96
-.98
Reflective Obs.
.81
-.98
-.98
Active Exp.
-.92
.68
.48
.55
.58
.51
.63

Tables 3, 4 and 5 show mean scores of each scale broken down, repectively, by gender, faculty of enrolment, and whether the majority of primarily and secondary schooling was completed in Australia or in Asia. As Tables 3 and 4 show, there is little or no difference between the sexes on any of the scales, but Arts students had a statistically significant higher average score on Concrete Experience than did the Science students while Science students had a statistically significant higher mean score on Active Experimentation than the Arts students. As well, the Science students had a statistically significant higher mean score on the AE-RO dimension, probably as a result of the higher mean score on Active Experimentation. Finally, Table 5 shows that students who had completed the majority of their primary and secondary education in Asia had a statistically significant higher mean score on Concrete Experience than Australian-educated students, while Australian-educated students had a higher mean score on the AC-CE dimension than the students who had been educated primarily in Asia.

Table 4. Mean Scores on LSI2 Scales broken down by Gender

Scale
Mean
St Dev
Mean
St Dev
t
Female
(n=96)
Male
(n=91)
Concrete Exp.2.010.66 1.980.580.34
Abstract Concept.2.89 0.602.940.56 -0.71
Reflective Obs.2.550.53 2.390.641.87ms
Active Exp.2.580.60 2.690.76-1.09
AC-CE0.871.12 0.970.89-0.62
AE-RO0.030.96 0.301.21-1.69ms

ms Marginally significant; p < .10
* p < .05;, **p < .01

Table 4. Mean Scores on LSI2 Scales broken down by Faculty

Scale
Mean
St Dev
Mean
St Dev
t
Science
(n=94)
Arts
(n=92)
Concrete Exp.1.850.59 2.130.62-3.42**
Abstract Concept.2.96 0.532.860.63 1.21
Reflective Obs.2.390.55 2.550.62-1.89
Active Exp.2.800.62 2.460.723.51**
AC-CE1.110.97 0.711.022.79ms
AE-RO0.411.01 -0.101.123.22**

ms Marginally significant; p < .10
* p < .05;, **p < .01

Table 5. Mean Scores on LSI2 Scales broken down by Educational Background

Scale
Mean
St Dev
Mean
St Dev
t
Australian
(n=156)
Overseas
(n=25)
Concrete Exp.1.970.60 2.240.71-2.04*
Abstract Concept.2.93 0.592.730.53 1.61
Reflective Obs.2.460.59 2.510.65-0.34
Active Exp.2.660.69 2.520.680.93
AC-CE0.960.99 0.491.122.18*
AE-RO0.191.08 0.131.200.77

ms Marginally significant; p < .10

Discussion and Conclusions

Reliability

Results obtained in this study of the reliability and validity of Kolb's 1985 Learning Style Inventory indicate a high degree of reliability, with Coefficient Alpha reliabilities ranging from .81 to .87.

Validity

The finding that results obtained for subjects in the Science sub-sample are consistent with Kolb's (1984) and Katz's (1988) findings of four factors forming two bipolar dimensions provides evidence for the validity of the LSI2.

However, in this study discipline variation has been found in that for the Arts sub-sample and for the sample as a whole, Reflective Observation and Active Experimentation were found to form a bipolar dimension but Active Experimentation was also found to form bipolar dimensions with both Concrete Experience and Abstract Conceptualisation.

The results obtained for the Arts sub-sample (which are reflected in the sample as a whole) may be attributable to the fact that in disciplines that focus largely on human experience and interaction, concepts are developed at least in part from the base of one's own personal experience or feelings. It is arguable that there is in such disciplines possibly more of an interdependence between Concrete Experience and Abstract Conceptualisation than there is in the Sciences, where concepts are more likely to be developed in response to reflection upon active experimentation.

In the Arts as defined in this sample - history, English, sociology, anthropology, linguistics, foreign languages and politics - the contrast is more likely to be of Abstract Conceptualisation, Concrete Experience or Reflective Observation with Active Experimentation because in the disciplines specified the opportunity for actual hands-on, practical experimentation is extremely limited. Where experimentation does occur, as in the learning of a foreign language, it consists of the oral or written testing of hypotheses. That is, reflection upon personal experience (upon responses to one's use of language) leads to concept development (the formation of new hypotheses about construction of the language) and the testing of the concepts developed, again through personal experience.

Mean scores indicate no significant differences on LSI2 scales between male and female students, which is not unexpected in the light of previous mixed research findings in this area. Similarly, the mean score results for Arts and Science students are in line with expectations in that Arts students have a significantly higher mean score on Concrete Experience and Science students have a significantly higher mean on Active Experimentation.

For students who had completed the majority of their primary and secondary education in Asia, the higher mean score on Concrete Experience and lower mean score on the AC-CE dimension may reflect a culturally-based tendency to emphasise feelings associated with the learning environment and personal affective involvement in learning. While no studies using the LSI to compare learning styles across cultures have been found, support for such an inference comes from the noted inclination of Asian-born students to work and study together in friendship groupings, unlike Australian-born students who tend to study individually in relative isolation from others.

In conclusion, the results of this study suggest that the LSI2 is an instrument of high reliabity in terms of its internal consistency. There is also some evidence of validity but variation has been found on the basis of discipline. It is hypothesised that this variation reflects differing bases of concept formation in the Arts and the Sciences, but this hypothesis needs to be tested. Further research might also explore the possibility that preferred learning styles are influenced by cultural background.

Acknowledgements

Gratitude is expressed to Debbie Alexopoulos, Stav Baxevanis, Karen Cusack, Stuart Daniel, Rob Gotch, Cameron Jeffers, Carolyn McRae, Lyndal Miller, Caroline Stuckey, Libby Tsakirakis, Sue Vasiliadis and Angela Yu for their great assistance in collecting data.

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Please cite this paper as: Willcoxson, L. and Prosser, M. (1996). Kolb's learning style inventory (1985): Review and further study of validity and reliability. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 66, 251-261. Reprint at:
http://cleo.murdoch.edu.au/asu/staffdevt/pubs/lesleyw/bjedpsych96.html
By permission, British Psychological Society Journals Office.


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