Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle

According to Kolb, learning is the acquisition of abstract concepts that can be applied in real life situations. Experience plays an important role in this learning process.

Source: “Experiential Learning Model”, David Kolb (1984)

What is experiential learning? 

Experiential learning is a learning process where the learner learns through active engagement in a practical task. This, however, does not mean we throw a child into deep water and hope he will come out safely. That’s not experiential learning; that's just a bad experience and it can result in negative outcome!

 Experiential Learning Cycle

This learning cycle was developed in 1984 by David Kolb, an American education theorist. So, it is also called Kolb’s learning cycle. The cycle has four steps:

  1. The concrete learning experience (feeling/ having an experience)
  2. Reflective observation (watching/ reflecting on the experience)
  3. Abstract conceptualization (thinking/ learning from the experience)
  4. Active experimentation (doing/ trying out what you have learned)

1. Concrete Experience

A concrete learning experience is the foundation of Kolb's experiential learning cycle. It says that students will actively engage themselves in a task of learning. This could be anything from baking a cake to riding a bike. In this stage, you're focused on the practicalities of the experience itself.

Here are some key aspects of concrete learning experiences:

Direct involvement: You're not just reading about something or watching someone else do it. You're actively engaged in the experience.

Sensory-rich: You're using your senses to take in information about the experience. This could include sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing.

Open-ended: There may not be a clear goal or outcome at this stage. It's about being present and engaged in the experience itself.

This stage is crucial because it provides the foundation for further learning and development. By reflecting on concrete experiences, you can gain new insights and develop new knowledge.

2. Reflective Observation

Reflective observation is the second stage in Kolb's experiential learning cycle. It follows the concrete experience where you take a step back and analyze what happened. Here, you become more analytical and introspective, focusing on understanding the experience from various perspectives.

Here are some key aspects of reflective observation:

Analyzing the experience: You're not just recalling the events; you're thinking critically about them. You're asking yourself questions like "What happened?", "Why did it happen?", and "What were the consequences?"

Considering different viewpoints: You go beyond your own perspective and try to see things from the angle of others involved.

Identifying patterns and connections: You're looking for patterns, themes, or connections within the experience. This might involve relating it to past experiences or existing knowledge.

Reflective observation is a crucial step because it helps you make sense of the concrete experience and paves the way for developing abstract concepts and future experimentation. By reflecting deeply, you can extract valuable lessons and gain a richer understanding of the situation.

Here is an example:

  1. Concrete Experience: I baked a cake.
  2. Reflective Observation: The cake didn't rise as much as expected. Did I not mix enough air into the batter? Maybe I should have preheated the oven for longer. Next time, I'll double-check the recipe and ensure the oven is fully heated before putting the cake in.

3. Abstract Conceptualization

Abstract conceptualization is the third stage in Kolb's experiential learning cycle. Here, you take the observations and reflections from your concrete experience and turn them into theories, or ideas. It's about moving beyond the specifics of what happened and identifying underlying concepts or patterns.

Here are some key aspects of abstract conceptualization:

Developing theories: You're using your experience to formulate general theories or formulas that explain what happened. The goal is to create a transferable understanding that can be applied beyond the specific situation.

Problem-solving: By identifying underlying principles, you can develop frameworks for solving similar problems in the future.

Forming hypotheses: You use your abstract concepts and theories to form hypotheses about how things might work in a new situation.

Abstract conceptualization is a critical stage because it allows you to learn from specific experiences and apply that knowledge to new situations. It helps you develop a broader and more theoretical understanding of the world around you.

Here's an example to illustrate this stage:

  1. Concrete Experience: You take a difficult math test and perform poorly.
  2. Reflective Observation: You reflect on your studying habits and realize you crammed the night before instead of spreading out your studying throughout the week.
  3. Abstract Conceptualization: Based on this experience, you develop a general principle about the importance of spaced repetition for effective learning and memory retention. This principle can be applied to any future learning situation, not just math tests.

Through abstract conceptualization, you transform your experiences into transferable knowledge, making you a more adaptable and effective learner.

4. Active Experimentation

In Kolb's experiential learning cycle, active experimentation is the fourth and final stage. It's where you take the learnings and theories developed through reflection and abstraction and put them into practice in new situations. Here, you experiment with different approaches based on your newfound knowledge.

Here are some key aspects of active experimentation:

Planning implementing: Active experimentation involves planning how you will test your ideas and then actively implementing those plans.

Trying new things: In this stage you test the predictions you made in the third stage of experiential learningIt's about being willing to take risks and learn from both successes and failures.

Adapting and refining: As you experiment, you might encounter unexpected results. This stage encourages you to adapt your theories and refine your understanding based on new experiences.

This stage is crucial because it allows you to solidify your learning and see how your theories hold up in the real world. Through experimentation, you gain practical experience and refine your understanding of the concepts you developed earlier in the cycle.

Here are some examples of Kolb’s learning cycle:

Learning a Language:

  1. Concrete Experience: You struggle to have a conversation with a native speaker.
  2. Reflective Observation: You realize your vocabulary is limited, and you have difficulty understanding spoken sentences.
  3. Abstract Conceptualization: You identify the importance of practicing listening comprehension and expanding your vocabulary for spoken communication.
  4. Active Experimentation: You subscribe to a language learning app that focuses on audio lessons and dialogues. You set a daily goal to practice listening exercises and focus on memorizing commonly used spoken phrases.

Science Experiment:

  1. Concrete Experience: You observe that a plant wilts when not watered regularly.
  2. Reflective Observation: You wonder how different watering frequencies affect plant growth.
  3. Abstract Conceptualization: You develop a hypothesis that plants need a certain amount of water to thrive.
  4. Active Experimentation: You design an experiment where you plant three seeds in identical pots. One pot receives daily watering, another gets watered every other day, and the last one receives minimal water. You monitor the growth of each plant over a set period, recording your observations.

Time Management:

  1. Concrete Experience: You struggle to manage your time effectively for multiple projects.
  2. Reflective Observation: You reflect and realize you get overwhelmed by multitasking and need to prioritize tasks.
  3. Abstract Conceptualization: You develop a principle about the importance of focusing on one task at a time and creating a schedule to manage deadlines.
  4. Active Experimentation: You create a daily schedule, prioritizing tasks and allocating specific times for each project. You monitor your progress and adjust the schedule as needed based on your experience.

Business Strategy:

  1. Concrete Experience: Sales for a product decline after a price increase.
  2. Reflective Observation: You analyze sales data and see that the price increase might have pushed customers towards competitor products.
  3. Abstract Conceptualization: You develop a theory that lowering the price slightly and offering bundle deals might increase sales volume.
  4. Active Experimentation: You implement a limited-time promotion where the product price is reduced and bundled with a complementary product. You track sales figures during the promotion period to see if the strategy proves effective.

By actively experimenting, you transform theoretical knowledge into practical skills and solidify your learning in a real-world context. This continuous cycle of experience, reflection, abstraction, and experimentation is what fuels ongoing learning and development.