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A Descriptive Study of Learning Style Diversity in Design and Innovation Teams


Design and innovation are increasingly important for attaining competitive advantage. This is achieved largely through the creation of meaningful customer experiences, and companies employing cross-functional teams are consistently reaching the best results. Designing these customer experiences requires teamwork that capitalizes on the diversity of the design team – whether gender, functional, disciplinary or cognitive. This research investigates the role of diversity in design teams, and in particular the role of cognitive diversity. It leverages David Kolb’s experiential learning theory and associated learning styles because they correlate well with the phases of the design process. It also considers factors such as gender, ethnicity, discipline, and job level.

The first study explores the composition of innovation- or design-oriented populations in academic and corporate settings. Data was gathered from undergraduate-level and graduate-level students as well as from industry professionals in design, engineering, and consulting firms worldwide. The analysis draws comparisons among the international populations, across fields of expertise, and with other demographics to build a characterization of the design population. The findings show a surprising lack of diversity where it might be most expected. In particular, converging learners consistently dominate across all populations, highlighting an alarming absence of diverging learners in the design world.

The second study explores the confidence levels in ABET skills and learning style preferences of students in project-based design courses. Results highlight national and gender differences in students’ perception of their development in ABET-related engineering and design skills. American students rated themselves higher in creativity, teamwork, ethics, facility with tools of engineering practice, and in recognizing global impact. Korean students assessed their skills higher in design, problem solving, and communication skills. However, the students follow similar gender patterns overall, where men reported more confidence in technical and analytical skills and women were more confident in communication and teamwork skills. The results also show behavioral trends that match the various learning styles. Accommodators self-rated highest in leadership and management skills, convergers self-ranked their analytical skills as strongest among all other skills, and assimilators perceive themselves as best in data processing.

The third study explores the role of diversity in design team performance and presents results about how diversity factors affect the dynamics and success of a design team. Discipline and gender are also considered. The data were gathered over two semesters of a multidisciplinary, project-based graduate level design course and captured through a series of surveys administered throughout the semester. Results offer insights into how students with different learning styles contribute differently to design team performance. The more diverse teams, as measured by the number of converging learners on the team, generally performed better than homogeneous teams, both in self-perceptions of team performance and by external reviews.

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