Kolb's Learning Cycle

Paul Main

What is Kolb's Learning Cycle and how can this inform effective classroom practice?

What is Kolb's Learning Cycle?

How humans learn is a fascinating phenomenon which involves a large spectrum of cognitive processes. Over the last few decades, this somewhat mysterious and hidden activity has been explained through many, sometimes  competing theoretical models. One of the most influential models was proposed David Kolb proposed the Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) in 1984, and it is still seen as one of the most widely used learning styles model. ELT is based on the assumption that people learn by doing or from direct experience.

Pedagogical approaches come and go but in the advent of a new movement of evidence-informed practice, we are now in a stronger position to choose teaching practices that are more likely to have a stronger impact on student learning. Whichever phase of education you are working in, a strong pedagogical model about how we turn experience into knowledge is fundamental to improving pupil progress.

Traditionally, experiential learning has held a place in learning in the form of either job shadowing or internships to accompany a conventional program. But, due to advances in communication technology and the advent of MOOCs, higher education intends to apply more experiential learning techniques. A good example is the popularity of competency-based degrees in current times, for which students build competence from real-world experiences.

In this article, we will explore the implications of David Kolbs theory and what it might mean in your classroom.

What is the difference between experiential, conventional, didactic learning?

First published in 1984, Kolb's learning styles are widely used as one of the most renowned learning styles theories.

Kolb’s theory focuses on the learner's personal development and perspective. Unlike the conventional, didactic method, the learner is responsible to guide his learning process in experiential learning.

Experiential learning is a great way to learn because it allows students to apply knowledge in real life situations. Experiential learning encourages active participation, critical thinking, creativity, problem solving, collaboration, and communication skills.

Conventional, didactic methods include lectures, textbooks, and homework assignments. These methods teach facts and concepts, but not necessarily how to apply them in real world situations.

While these two types of teaching styles work well for different purposes, there is no denying that experiential learning is superior when it comes to helping students retain information.

When teaching students, we often use Kolb's Learning Cycle to help them understand the importance of experiential learning. The following model helps illustrate this process:

1. Orientation - Students become familiar with the subject matter through experience (real world) and reflection.

2. Cognitive Processing - Students actively engage in the material through hands-on activities.

3. Retrieval - Students recall the content through memory and repetition.

4. Consolidation - Students integrate the new information into long term memory.

5. Motivation & Evaluation - Students evaluate whether the activity was worthwhile.

6. Integration - Students synthesize the new information into existing knowledge.

7. Application - Students apply the new information to solve problems.

8. Exploration - Students continue to explore the topic further.

If you're looking for ways to improve your online presence, consider adding some experiential learning to your curriculum.

Explaining Kolb's 4-stage Learning Cycle

David Kolb proposes that people's learning styles, depend upon their life experiences, genetics, and the demands of the present times. According to Kolb, a learner goes up to the spiral of immediate experience which results in reflections and observations of the experience. These reflections are then linked and absorbed with past knowledge and translated into theories or abstract ideas, which leads to actions and new ways to adjust to the experience that can be explored and tested. The Kolb Learning Cycle is a pedagogical approach or model of human learning developed by David Kolb. He used this model to teach his students at Stanford University. His goal was to help them learn better through self-directed study.

Kolb defined 4 different learning styles and developed a learning style inventory as well as an experiential learning theory.

Most of Kolb’s theory relates to the internal cognitive processes of learners. His experiential learning theory has two levels: a 4-experiential learning cycle as well as 4 separate learning styles.

According to Kolb, learning is the abstract experience acquisition that can be flexibly applied in a variety of situations. In Kolb’s educational theory, the experiential approach provides the impetus for the development of ideas and new concepts.

Kolb's Learning Cycle
Kolb's Learning Cycle

What are the stages of Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle?

The four-stage learning cycle by David A. Kolb is a four-step learning process i.e. concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Effective learning is achieved when a learner progresses through each stage. The learner may also enter the cycle of learning at any step using a logical sequence.

  1. Concrete Experience - At this stage, the learner shows personal involvement with others in everyday situations. In concrete situations, learner tends to depend more on feelings, open-mindedness, and adaptivity to change, rather than on a systematic approach to situations and problems.
  2. Reflective Observation - At this stage, learners understand situations and ideas from different points of view. They depend on objectivity, patience, and careful judgment but do not essentially take any action. The learners create an opinion on basis of their feelings and thoughts.
  3. Abstract Conceptualization - At this stage, learners use ideas, logical approaches, and theories, rather than interpersonal issues or feelings, to understand situations or problems. In most cases, they depend on systematic planning and building ideas and theories to solve practical issues and problems.
  4. Active Experimentation - At an active stage, the learners show an active learning experience by experimenting with different situations. At the active experimentation stage, the learners take a practical approach, rather than simply observing a situation.

Effective learning occurs when an individual learner progresses through each stage of the four-stage cycle of passing through a concrete experience followed by the observation of and reflection on this experience resulting in the formation of the abstract concept (logical analysis) and generalizations (conclusions) which are then utilized for hypothesis testing in future situations, leading to new experiences.

What are KOLB’s 4 learning dimensions?

Knowing someone's (or one's own) learning preferences enable the learning experience to be focused on the preferred method.

That said, everyone responds to and needs the stimulus of all types of learning styles to one extent or another - it's a matter of using emphasis that fits best with the given situation and a person's learning preferences.

KOLB’s 4 learning dimensions help to create a learning experience that improves people's capabilities and whole skill sets. Kolb uses these 4 components and adds to them to build 4 comprehensive learning dimensions, as given below:

  1. Diverging- These individuals see things from different perspectives and can use their imagination to show creativity in their learning styles. People with a diverging style, prefer to watch rather than do and their learning characteristic is reflective observation and concrete experience.
  2. Assimilating - They can analyze and explore learning styles model well. More than the people, they show interest in technical tasks with a logical format and conceptual framework. Their main characteristics mostly include reflective observation and abstract conceptualization.
  3. Converging - They are efficient problem-solvers and are considered as being practical in their analytic approach to tasks and ideas. They are likely to converge on their desired answers and are characterized by active experimentation and abstract conceptualization.
  4. Accommodating - They are more likely to be more practical in their learning experience and they mostly view problems from an intuitive perspective. These people may depend a lot on their gut feeling. They are fond of new-found challenges and are mostly characterized by active experimentation and concrete learning.

Kolb's Pedagogical Approach
Kolb's Pedagogical Approach

What are the educational Implications of Kolb's learning cycle?

David Kolb's 4 learning cycles and learning dimensions can be used to apply new ideas to instructional techniques according to students' choice of style.

1) It allows educators to target more specific learning outcomes for learners.

2) It enables to design coaching exercises, instructional techniques and training sessions that allow a lifelong learner to effectively understand the information in formal learning situations.

3) It helps teachers to personalize any instructional techniques intervention for learners in line with Kolb's 4 stages of the experiential learning cycle.

By offering some distinct learning styles initiatives and approaches to education, teachers can improve the chances of the school and adult college students assimilating the learning effectively and allowing them to create ideas that they might have ignored if the learning was carried out differently.

Teachers can assess students' preferred learning styles in a traditional classroom setting by using a distinct source of learning, observing learners during different activities or class discussions, or engaging with school and adult college students during class discussions. In the case of virtual world teaching, it is essential to keep students engaged all through the learning cycle and to add activities to a computer-based task to reveal each student's preferred style. Therefore, it is suggested to provide students with a wide range of learning experiences. By doing so, teachers can help students become more versatile, and adaptable.

Kolb argues that each learning stage is a fragment of the experiential learning process. For example, classroom learning can be learners' abstract experience, but it may also become a concrete experience, if, for instance, a student imitates and admires the teacher. Similarly, a student may work hard to develop an abstract model for making sense of an experiential exercise or internship experience. From the students’ viewpoint, the act of computer programming can be a greatly abstract experience and solitary reflection can be a highly sentimental concrete experience.