The humanistic and constructivist approaches to education, which emphasize that learning occurs naturally, include David Kolb’s Theory of Experiential Learning. Kolb proposed that experience was critical in the development of knowledge construction, as learning occurs through discovery and active participation. Kolb defined leaning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984).
There are two parts to Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory. The first is that learning follows a four-stage cycle, as outlined below. Kolb believed that, ideally, learners progressed through the stages to complete a cycle, and, as a result, transformed their experiences into knowledge. The second part to Kolb’s Theory focused on learning styles, or the cognitive processes that occurred in order for acquire knowledge. Essentially, Kolb believed that individuals could demonstrate their knowledge, or the learning that occurred, when they were able to apply abstract concepts to new situations.
Completion of all stages of the cycle allows the transformation of experience to knowledge to occur. Kolb’s entire theory is based on this idea of converting experience into knowledge. With each new experience, the learner is able to integrate new observations with their current understanding. Ideally, learners should have the opportunity to pass through each stage.
Experiences are central to Kolb’s theory, as he viewed it as a process by which something must be changed or transformed. Memorization or recollection of ideas taught does not equal learning, as no value has been added to the learner. Kolb’s model acknowledges that something must be generated from the experience in order for it to be defined as learning.
See also: Robert Gagné’s Taxonomy of Learning
Kolb’s Four Stages of Learning:
1. Concrete Experience:
Kolb’s learning process cycle begins with a concrete experience. This can either be a completely new experience or a reimagined experience that already happened. In a concrete experience, each learner engages in an activity or task. Kolb believed that the key to learning is involvement. It is not enough for learners to just read about it or watch it in action. In order to acquire new knowledge, learners must actively engage in the task.
2. Reflective Observation:
After engaging in the concrete experience, the learner steps back to reflect on the task. This stage in the learning cycle allows the learner to ask questions and discuss the experience with others. Communication at this stage is vital, as it allows the learner to identify any discrepancies between their understanding and the experience itself. Good vocabulary also allows a solid review of the events that occurred.
3. Abstract Conceptualization:
The next step in the learning cycle is to make sense of these events. The learner attempts to draw conclusions of the experience by reflecting on their prior knowledge, using ideas with which they are familiar or discussing possible theories with peers. The learner moves from reflective observation to abstract conceptualization when they begin to classify concepts and form conclusions on the events that occurred. This involves interpreting the experience and making comparisons to their current understanding on the concept. Concepts need not be “new”; learners can analyze new information and modify their conclusions on already existing ideas.
4. Active Experimentation:
This stage in the cycle is the testing stage. Learners return to participating in a task, this time with the goal of applying their conclusions to new experiences. They are able to make predictions, analyze tasks, and make plans for the acquired knowledge in the future. By allowing learners to put their knowledge into practice and showing how it is relevant to their lives, you are ensuring that the information is retained in the future.
As Kolb’s learning theory is cyclical, one can enter the process at any stage in the cycle. However, the cycle should then be completed in entirety to ensure that effective learning has taken place. Each stage is dependent on the others and all must be completed to develop new knowledge.
Although the stages work together to create a learning process, some individuals may prefer some components over others. While one may depend heavily on concrete and reflective experiences, they may choose to spend less time on the abstract and active stages. Because of this, Roger Fry worked with Kolb to identify four unique learning styles:
See also: Flipped Classroom
Kolb’s Learning Styles
1. Diverging (concrete experience/reflective observation)
This learning style takes an original and creative approach. Rather than examining concrete experiences by the actions taken, individuals tend to assess them from various perspectives. They value feelings and take an interest in others. Individuals who prefer this learning style tend to enjoy tasks such as brainstorming ideas and working collaboratively in groups.
There are a few instructional techniques that Divergers prefer:
- Hands-on activities and the opportunity to explore
- Classic teacher-class lecture that highlights how to use a system as well as its strengths and weaknesses.
2. Assimilating (abstract conceptualization/reflective observation)
This learning style emphasizes reasoning. Individuals who demonstrate this learning style are able to review the facts and assess the experience as a whole. They tend to enjoy designing experiments and working on projects from start to completion.
There are a few instructional techniques that Assimilators prefer:
- Independent, prepared exercises that the learner can complete without the instructor
- Classic teacher-class lecture supported by an audio or video presentation
- Private exploration or demonstration that follows a tutorial, with answers provided.
3. Converging (abstract conceptualization/active experimentation)
This learning style highlights problem solving as an approach to learning. Individuals who prefer this learning style are able to make decisions and apply their ideas to new experiences. Unlike Divergers, they tend to avoid people and perceptions, choosing instead to find technical solutions.
There are a few instructional techniques that Convergers prefer:
- Workbooks or worksheets that provide problems sets
- Tasks that are computer-based
- Interactive activities.
4. Accommodating (concrete experience/active experimentation)
This learning style is adaptable and intuitive. These individuals use trial and error to guide their experiences, preferring to discover the answers for themselves. They are able to alter their path based on the circumstance and generally have good people skills.
There are a few instructional techniques that Accommodators prefer:
- Activities that allow them to be actively engaged
- Exploration and instructor support for deeper questioning, such as “what if?” or “why not?”
- Tasks that promote independent discovery.
See also: Andragogy Theory – Malcolm Knowles
Generally, teachers are able to identify learning styles by observing their students in the classroom. Students begin to show their preference for particular styles through presentations, discussions, and collaborative activities. When delivering courses online, it is important for the instructor to engage with the students throughout the entire learning cycle in order to reveal their preferences. As a rule, best teaching practices always include a wide range of learning activities in order to reach all learning styles. A variety of experiences supports all learners regardless of preferred style, as it helps them develop skills in specific areas and creates a more flexible, well-rounded learner.
Kolb’s theory of experiential learning includes learning as a whole process. All stages can be included throughout the experiences. For example, a classic teacher-student lecture may be both a concrete and an abstract experience, based on how the learner interacts with it. This also means that the learner could view strong and emotional reflection as a concrete experience, or completing a computer-based task as an abstract experience. Additionally, a learner may develop their own abstract model to better understand a concrete experience or task. It is important not to limit learning experiences to the stage that you perceive them to be.
- Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.