Kolb’s Learning Cycle and Styles: Connections to GIS Education

Those of us in GIS education continually strive to ensure that our teaching methods adhere to respected and innovative learning styles.  Adult learning theorist David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (1984) works on two levels:  A four stage cycle of learning and four separate learning styles.  I believe Kolb’s cycle and styles can help inform how we can more effectively teach with GIS and about GIS.

Kolb’s experiential learning style theory includes these “stops” along a cycle:  1.  Concrete Experience, where a new experience of situation is encountered, such as what happens while performing a task, followed by 2. Reflective Observation of the new experience, followed by 3. Abstract Conceptualization, where reflection gives rise to a new idea, or a modification of an existing abstract concept, and, finally 4. Active Experimentation, where the learner applies the experience to the world around them to see what results.  At first glance, pausing at each of these stops seems like something we already do in our GIS-based assignments. However, at times we hear from students who feel that they are “going through the motions” in technical tasks and aren’t assimilating and conceptualizing what they are doing.  Therefore, a critical examination from time to time of how we are enabling students to reflect upon their learning and apply it may be challenging, but helpful as we strive to improve the effectiveness of our instruction.

Kolb’s learning styles attempt to identify an individual’s predominant way of learning, and include (1) Diverging–those who watch from different perspectives; they are good brainstormers. (2) Assimilating–those who prefer a concise, logical explanation and approach.  They are good organizers.  (3) Converging–those who can solve problems and will use their learning to find solutions to practical issues. (4) Accommodating–those who prefer “hands-on” learning, often rely on intuition rather than logic, are able to meet challenges, and who like new experiences.

Kolb’s learning stages and cycle could be used by GIS educators to critically evaluate how they are teaching, and ensure that they design GIS activities to be carried out in ways that offer each learner the chance to engage in the manner that suits them best. Also, the activities should be taught in ways that usually take students through the whole cycle.

Kolb believes that the learner must be involved in the planning of the learning experience if experiential learning is to be fully effective.  How can we ensure that the learner has a say in our GIS courses, over and above the standard “GIS project” assignment?

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

How might you use Kolb's Learning Cycles when you teach GIS?

How might you use Kolb’s Learning Cycles when you teach GIS?

Joseph Kerski

About Joseph Kerski

Joseph Kerski is a geographer who believes that spatial analysis through digital mapping can transform education and society through better decision-making using the geographic perspective. He serves on the Esri education team and is active in GIS communication and outreach, creates GIS-based curriculum, conducts research in the effectiveness of GIS in education, teaches online and face-to-face courses on spatial thinking and analysis, and fosters partnerships to support GIS in formal and informal education at all levels, internationally. He is the co-author of Spatial Mathematics, The Essentials of the Environment, The GIS Guide to Public Domain Data, and other books. Follow him on Twitter @josephkerski
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