The Experiential Learning Cycle

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Of the following two examples, I’d like to invite you to answer which is more likely to provide someone with a deeper level of learning…

Example 1

For the past week, Jake’s school teacher has taught the class a subject from the curriculum. Jake listened carefully to the teacher, both asking and answering subject-related questions. At the end of the week, the teacher informed the class that there would be a test on this subject in five days time. From then till the day of the test, Jake diligently revised every night, and subsequently passed the test with flying colours.

Example 2

Yesterday, Jake went to watch his first ever live professional football match. It was under floodlights with a capacity crowd and, despite his favourite team losing, it was an exhilarating contest. On the journey home, father and son talked about the game, and the next morning at school, Jake analysed the match with his friends, who had watched it on the TV. At lunchtime, Jake and his friends re-enacted the match in the play ground, although this time Jake’s favourite team won.

According to The Experiential Learning Cycle (Kolb, 1984), the second example is far more likely to generate a more profound learning effect.

Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.– David Kolb

Applying the first example to my own experiences, I can certainly recall instances where I’ve been taught something, revised for it, passed a test on it…and then pretty much forgotten most of it by the following week. Similarly, yet perhaps more embarrassingly, there are many times when perusing a book that I’ve had to re-read a page or two due to the realisation that none of the content has actually registered. Has this happened to you too? I hope I’m not alone!

So what’s going on here? How can we pass a test on a subject but then forget much of the subject knowledge just a few days later, yet on the other hand remember some things in vivid detail for a lifetime? Why do we sometimes learn superficially, and other times deeply?

According to Kolb, for us to truly learn anything, whether in education, sport, music, the arts, business and everything else, we need to transition through a four stage process…

Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle | Nathan Wood Consulting
Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle | Nathan Wood Consulting

Stage 1: Concrete Experience

Kolb’s cycle begins with an individual, team or organisation doing something memorable. In other words, they have a profound experience. The more profound the experience, the more dramatic the ensuing emotional reaction. Visceral, multi-sensory experiences help us to connect our hearts, hands, and heads to learning.

Examples include: Watching an exciting live sports match; Observing a master performer in full flow; Being outplayed and defeated by a more skilled and experienced opponent.

Stage 2: Reflective Observation

The second stage involves stepping back from the experience and reviewing what has occurred. This requires lots of questions being asked and communication channels staying open.

Examples include: Recounting the match with someone else; Asking the master performer some questions; Documenting the emphatic defeat in a performance journal.

Stage 3: Abstract Conceptualisation

This is the process of making sense of what has happened, and involves interpreting the events and comprehending the relationships between them. To help us gain a better understanding, it’s important to compare the latest experience with previous encounters and beliefs.

Examples include: Analysing the match; Comparing our level of performance with that of the master performer; Forming some conclusions about the defeat.

Stage 4: Active Experimentation

The final stage of the learning cycle is to consider how we’re going to put what we’ve learnt into practice. Planning enables us to use our recently acquired knowledge to devise and test new beliefs and behaviours, or refine and revise existing ones.

Examples include: Re-enacting the professional match with friends; Testing out a technique which is similar to that used by the master performer; Creating a practice session that mimics the competence and intensity of the skilled opponent.

Simply put, the model suggests that deep and lasting learning occurs when we…

  1. Engage in an impactful experience
  2. Reflect on this experience
  3. Interpret and try to make sense of this experience
  4. Try out and test our new skills and abilities
Do, Review, Conclude, Test | Nathan Wood Consulting
Do, Review, Conclude, Test | Nathan Wood Consulting

In essence, Kolb believes that we only learn effectively by passing though each of these four stages. As such, no one stage of the cycle can be successful as a learning procedure on its own.

Perhaps I can now apportion some blame to the theory-based learning methods, adopted by the majority of schools, colleges, and universities within the education system, for my less than stellar academic record!

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34 Thoughts

  1. Really funny my son recounted he has been asked to put some physics theory into a rap with three mates. They are having such fun with it and I know he will remember that theory for a long time as the Teacher was so inspired to make the learning fun and as you say get them to review and reflect in a way that is relevant for them.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I read a book a few months ago called “Moonwalking with Einstein” by Joshua Foer. It was pretty informative on how to learn quickly and how to retain it. It also talks about a few people who have super short term memory and how they got that. It was pretty informative and an interesting read.

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  3. Thanks for the inspiring post! I like how stage 4 involves experimenting with conclusions to test them. This is a much better type of ‘test’ for today’s learners rather than a ‘tick and flick’ learning/grading method. I remember getting $10k worth of shares in a hypothetical online game as a kid and I learnt so much because I could experiment, research and decide in a ‘testing’ environment. I didn’t do so well $$, but it sparked a lot of curiosity!

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  4. We use these stages when working with Adaptive sports. I spent a week going through these stages as I learned to snowboard with a camera. Having the opportunity to shadow a photographer who does it everyday then going through what i learned and how to grow from my failures for better results. the ABLE is what made my growth possible, heart, mind and soul, the emotional attachment. I am inspires by your posts and how they relate to my life and learning.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. You most welcome, i am just indulged by reading the other posts right now. It sounds interesting, i fall at your blog accidentally, while i was searching something about stoicism. I hit a follow for your blog, because i came in the right place👍

        Liked by 1 person

  5. While I fully agree with Kolb about learning being a four staged process I cannot but wonder…
    What if the real point of curricular learning is the process itself?
    The whole thing being more about us teaching ourselves how to learn things and less about the information we use as ‘teaching/learning props’ – and readily forget afterwards.
    And, basically, this is the very essence of Kolb’s teaching… learning from experience… we watch how our teachers teach us, then we continue to gather information by ourselves, pass the tests and enjoy the results – high grades or a piece of paper which allows us to enter a profession, figure out what the whole process is about and continue to learn, by ourselves, for the rest of our natural lives.
    Only there’s a catch here. The initial experience has to be ‘pleasant’.
    If the first teachers fail to make the process appealing enough, if the general atmosphere in school is rather repealing, if the society as a whole no longer values learning and sends all kind of mixed signals…
    Some of us will, in the end, find alternative paths towards the same goal – becoming fully functional social beings. But not all of us are capable of such gallant feats.
    And this is why teachers, along with the rest of the society, need to pay close attention to Kolb.
    Make it so that their students experience school as being rewarding instead of constraining.
    Thanks for this very important piece of information, wasn’t aware of Kolb’s work before reading your post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I concur 100% to there being stages in learning and retaining that which was gained. I can learn anything by reading but in order to retain information I’m a touch/taste/smell “hands-on experience” kinda person. So much so I MUST drive myself to new destinations in order to be able to recall later on. Otherwise, I’m just along for the ride and scenery. 🙂

    Domesticated Rebellion

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