So how do people learn?

Here’s the next in the CALE series.  When designing a learning environment that supports the acquisition of knowledge by all of our students, we need to think about the different ways that people learn.  In the 1970s, Kolb developed his learning style inventory which is illustrated in the diagram above.  Approaches to learning are plotted on two axes: on the horizontal axis is learning by watching at one end and learning by doing at the other; while on the vertical axis is learning by feeling at one end and learning by thinking at the opposite end.  Kolb proposed that people tend to learn by a pair of these attributes, i.e. by watching and feeling, or watching and thinking, or doing and thinking, or doing and feeling, so that an individual can be categorised into one of the four quadrants.  Titles are given to each type of learning as shown in the quadrants, i.e. Divergers, Assimilators, Convergers and Accommodators.

In practice, it seems unlikely that many of us remain in one of these quadrants though we might have a preference for one of them.  Honey and Mumford [1992] proposed that learning is most effective when we rotate around the learning modes represented in the quadrants, as shown in the diagram below.  Starting in the doing & feeling quadrant by have an experience and being an Activist, moving to the feeling & watching quadrant by reviewing the experience as a Reflector, then in watching and thinking mode, drawing conclusions from the experience as a Theorist, culminating with planning the next steps as a Pragmatist in the thinking and doing quadrant before repeating the rotation.

There are other ideas about how we learn but these are two of the classic theories, which I have found useful in creating a learning environment that is dynamic and involves cycling students around Honey and Mumford’s learning modes.


Kolb DA, Learning style inventory technical manual. McBer & Co., Boston, MA, 1976.

Honey P & Mumford A. The Manual of Learning Styles 3rd Ed. Peter Honey Publications Limited, Maidenhead, 1992.


CALE #3 [Creating A Learning Environment: a series of posts based on a workshop given periodically by Pat Campbell and Eann Patterson in the USA supported by NSF and the UK supported by HEA]

3 thoughts on “So how do people learn?

  1. Dawn Bonfield

    I’m interested in how men and women learn differently, as I know from experience with groups of girls in mixed company that they are reluctant to ‘do’ and happier to observe at first. Any research here?

    1. Eann Patterson Post author


      This is a difficult topic that is fraught with pitfalls and inappropriate stereotyping. I would rather not venture into it in this blog. There are a wide range of learning styles; and perhaps, some of the lack of diversity in the engineering profession in the UK and US arises from the almost exclusive use of teaching methods in universities based on the preferred learning styles of the dominant group in the profession. Hence, my emphasis on creating learning environments that work for everyone. More inclusive approaches to learning and teaching should encourage recruitment and retention of a more diverse student population.

      Many researchers have explored these issues. I have listed without comment a small sample of references. It is straightforward to use a scholarly search engine to find out whether or not other researchers support their conclusions or have completely ignored them.

      Marra, R.M., Rodgers, K.A., Shen, D., and Bogue, B., Women engineering students and self-efficacy: a multi-year, multi-institution study of women engineering student self-efficacy, J. Engineering Education, 99(1):27-38, 2009.

      Rosser, S.V., Gender issues in teaching science, in S. Rose. and B. Brown (eds.), Report on the 2003 Workshop on Gender Issues in the Sciences, pp. 28-37, 2004.

      Besterfield-Sacre MB, Moreno M, Shuman L.J, Atman CJ. Gender and ethnicity differences in freshman engineering student attitudes: a cross-institutional study, J. Engineering Education, 90(4):477-90, 2001.

      Zeldin A., Pajares F, Against the odds: self efficacy beliefs of women in mathematical, scientific and technical careers, Am. Educational Res. J, 1:215-46, 2000.

      Philbin, M., Meier, E., Huffman, S., Boverie, P., A survey of gender & learning styles, Sex Roles, 32(7/8):485- 494, 1995.

      Steele CM, Aronson J. Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans, J. Personality and Social Psychology, 69:797-811, 1995.

      Hackett G, Betz NE, Casas JM, Rocha-Singa IA, Gender ethnicity and social cognitive factors predicting the academic achievement of students in engineering, J. Counselling Psychology, 39(4):527-538, 1992.

      Linn, M. Hyde J., Gender, mathematics, and science, Educational Researcher, 18(8), 17-19, 22-27, 1989.

      Belenky, M., Clinchy, B., Goldberger, N., & Tarule, J., Women’s ways of knowing. NewYork: Basic Books, 1986.

  2. Pingback: Experiences in the lecture theatre | Realize Engineering

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