Universal Design for Learning and Kolb’s Learning Theory

Recently, a new faculty member asked me about how David Kolb’s Learning Styles, that developed out of his Experiential Learning Theory, and the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) intersect or relate to course design. Why and when would you use one or the other when designing instruction? It took me some time to think about this question. This is because I don’t totally agree with the concept of specific learning styles as Kolb describes them, however I do think that most people have learning preferences. David Kolb developed an Experiential Learning Cycle and then developed four learning styles based on preference of learners working within this learning cycle.

In contrast, UDL is a way to think about designing a learning environment for all learners and all learning preferences. UDL is based on research in Neuroscience and the principles of Universal Design in architecture. More information about UDL can be found at the CAST website. The UDL model proposes a series of principles based on three brain networks used for learning. These brain networks, called Recognition, Strategic, and Affective, are each correlated to a set of practices that teachers can use to design instruction and learning environments. These practices are described in the UDL guidelines.  Read more about each of the practices here.

One way to identify your learning style, as defined by Kolb, is by taking an inventory. A learning style inventory asks a series of questions about how you prefer to work or learn. Upon completion of the inventory, you total the points to have an idea of what your own learning style is according to the assessment instrument. I think taking a learning style inventory as a group can be helpful, when working on a team. Each member completes the inventory and then the group intentionally discusses how each person prefers to learn and to work. This activity gives the team a common vocabulary to use when discussing each person’s results and preferences. It is also a way of creating team expectations and norms, as everyone discusses and reflects on their own preferences and how that relates to the whole group.

(Kolb’s website, http://learningfromexperience.com/ has inventories available for purchase.)

When discussing learning styles/preferences, it’s important to keep in mind that a person’s preferences are not necessarily fixed; they can change over time or be expanded upon. The process of experiential learning that Kolb discusses is one of experience, reflection, and experimentation. This learning cycle takes into consideration many of the ideas in UDL. Learning by reflection and using critical thinking are key parts of the strategic brain network. As are the ideas and new experiments that come from reflection.

Here are the Stages of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle as cited from McLeod (2010):

  1. Concrete Experience – (a new experience or situation is encountered, or a reinterpretation of an existing experience).
  2. Reflective Observation (of the new experience. Any inconsistencies between experience and understanding are particularly important).
  3. Abstract Conceptualization (Reflection gives rise to a new idea, or a modification of an existing abstract concept).
  4. Active Experimentation (the learner applies new ideas and modifications to the world around them to see what results happen).

Jim Julius, an education blogger, writes about learning styles in this post, on his blog, Education Everywhere. He brings up the idea that students can also use learning styles as a crutch or an excuse.  I recommend reviewing the comment section on this post.  Quite a few commenters on the post bring up UDL as a method they like when designing instruction.

The good thing about Kolb’s model and UDL is that both are getting educators to think about the learners in the classroom and how to design a positive learning experience for them.


Julius, J. (2012). Time for a Learning Styles Post. Retrieved from:http://jjulius.org/2012/06/01/time-for-a-learning-styles-post/ . Retrieved: 2/26/15.

McLeod, S. A. (2010). Kolb – Learning Styles. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/learning-kolb.html .Retrieved: 2/28/15.

National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2014) What is UDL? Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/whatisudl. Retrieved: 2/28/15.

National Center on Universal Design for Learning. (2014) What is UDL? Retrieved from http://www.udlcenter.org/aboutudl/udlguidelines. Retrieved: 2/28/15.

Smith, M. K. (2001, 2010). ‘David A. Kolb on experiential learning’, the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved from:http://infed.org/mobi/david-a-kolb-on-experiential-learning/. Retrieved: 2/28/15.


This entry was posted in CTL Home Page, Pedagogy, Teaching. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *