Imagine learning as a cycle, a constant loop where we experience, reflect, think, and act. This is the essence of Kolb’s learning cycle, which psychologist David Kolb developed.
Kolb’s learning cycle suggests that we learn best when we actively engage in each step. It involves experience, reflection, conceptualisation, and active experimentation.
Kolb’s learning cycle is indispensable for HR development professionals looking to implement strategic workforce planning, trainers, educators, and coaches. Understanding this cycle benefits you personally and professionally.
So, let’s understand more about Kolb’s experiential learning theory and its four stage cycle.
What is Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle?
At its heart, Kolb’s learning cycle is a four stage learning cycle that describes learning as an iterative process. This theory was compiled in Kolb’s book ‘Experiential Learning: Experience as a Source of Learning and Development (1984)’.
The cycle starts with a hands-on experience, followed by reflection on that experience. These reflections are then assimilated and distilled into abstract concepts that can be actively tested, leading to new experiences.
This learning model is founded on the principles of experiential learning theory. It states that experience is the source of learning and development. It embraces the idea that knowledge is continuously gained through personal and environmental experiences.
The theoretical basis of Kolb’s learning cycle draws from the works of renowned psychologists like Jean Piaget, Carl Jung, and John Dewey. It integrates their perspectives into a comprehensive theory of learning and development.
Understanding the nuances of this cycle and harnessing its potential can lead to transformative learning and growth.
Now, let’s dive deeper into the stages of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. We’ll share how to best apply the model to enhance your personal and professional learning journey.
The Four Stages of Kolb’s Learning Cycle
Stage 1: Concrete Experience (Doing)
The first stage in Kolb’s theory is being directly involved in a new experience or situation. It is the ‘doing’ phase where learners immerse themselves in an activity without prejudgment or preconceived ideas. The aim is to create an experience that the learners can connect with on a personal level.
For example, let’s take a team-building exercise in a corporate setting. The concrete learning could be a group activity where the team members have to construct a bridge with limited resources. Here, each team member directly participates in the task. They experience firsthand the dynamics, challenges, and rewards of teamwork.
Stage 2: Reflective Observation (Observing)
In the second stage, learners take a step back from the experience and begin to reflect upon it. This phase is about ‘observing’ one’s actions and the results, allowing space for introspection and evaluation. Here, the learners analyse the experience from different perspectives, note their reactions and those of others.
Using the earlier example, the team members would enter the reflective observation phase after the bridge-building task. They would consider how they performed, how the group worked together, and the challenges they encountered. They might also think about their moments of success and where they could improve.
Stage 3: Abstract Conceptualisation (Thinking)
After learners reflect, the third stage involves ‘thinking’ about or processing the reflection into a new idea or concept. Learners extract lessons from their experiences and reflections to form new ideas, theories or concepts that can explain the experience. The learner progresses by understanding the underlying principles and applying critical thinking and problem-solving skills.
In our bridge-building scenario, the team members might conclude that better communication could have improved their performance. They might also conceptualise that dividing tasks according to individual strengths leads to more efficient teamwork. These abstract concepts are formed based on their direct experience and subsequent reflection.
Stage 4: Active Experimentation (Planning)
The final stage of the cycle involves ‘planning’ and applying the concepts learned in the previous stage to new situations. It’s about testing the hypotheses and theories formed through active engagement. Here, learners try to forecast future scenarios and plan actions based on the newly acquired knowledge.
Continuing with the team-building example, the group could decide to implement their new approach in their next team challenge. They might plan to communicate more effectively and distribute tasks based on individual strengths. The team is now actively experimenting with the concepts they formed in the previous stage. This new experience then becomes the starting point of the next cycle of Kolb’s learning cycle.
According to research on Kolb’s learning styles, ‘active experimentation’, or learning through doing, was found to be the most preferred learning style, highlighting its significance in the learning process. Conversely, the ‘concrete experience’ stage garnered the lowest preference, which shows that it is comparatively less popular.
Personalising Learning with Kolb’s Continuums & Learning Styles
Having explored the four stages of Kolb’s Learning Cycle, let’s delve a bit deeper. While everyone goes through these stages when learning, we don’t all do it in the same way or with the same preferences. This is where Kolb introduces the concept of learning styles. According to Kolb, our learning style is defined by our preferences for two stages of the learning cycle – preferences that can be mapped onto two continuums: Perception and Processing.
Let’s first take a look at these continuums, and then we’ll see how they intersect to define the four learning styles.
The Perception Continuum: ‘Feeling’ vs. ‘Thinking’
The first one is about how you prefer to take in new experiences. Picture it like a sliding scale. On one end, you have Concrete Experience, which is about really ‘feeling’ an experience. You’d rather get stuck in and get your hands dirty, learning from the ‘realness’ of the situation.
On the other end of this scale, you have Abstract Conceptualization. This is the ‘thinking’ end of the scale. Here, you prefer to take a step back from the action, instead preferring to mull over your experiences, analyze them, and then learn from these thoughts.
The Processing Continuum: ‘Watching’ vs. ‘Doing’
The second scale is about how you like to process these experiences. On one end, you have Reflective Observation, or the ‘watching’ end. This is where you like to learn by thinking and reflecting on the things you’ve experienced.
The other end of this scale is Active Experimentation, the ‘doing’ end. If you’re on this side of the scale, you learn best by jumping right back into the fray, testing out your theories, and engaging in new experiences.
Understanding Kolb’s Four Learning Styles
While we’ve explored the four stages of Kolb’s Learning Cycle, it’s also essential to understand how these stages intertwine to form different learning styles. According to Kolb, the way we learn is influenced by our preferences for two stages of the cycle, which together define our learning style.
By understanding these learning styles, you can better comprehend how you engage with the world around you. You can also tailor your learning approaches to align more closely with your preferred style, which could lead to more efficient and enjoyable learning experiences.
Let’s take a closer look at these styles:
Diverging (Feeling and Watching)
The diverging style involves a preference for the concrete experience and reflective observation stages. If you have a diverging learning style, you are likely good at seeing things from different perspectives. You prefer to gather information and use your imagination to solve problems. You would excel in brainstorming sessions, where generating innovative ideas is paramount.
Assimilating (Watching and Thinking)
The assimilating style combines reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation. As an assimilator, you might be more interested in logical theories than practical applications. You prefer a concise, logical approach to solving problems. You would likely excel in situations where you need to understand and produce logical, complex information, like writing papers or planning research.
Converging (Doing and Thinking)
The converging style blends abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation. If you fall into this category, you are good at solving problems and making decisions based on what you have learned. You would likely excel in practical applications of ideas and theories, like using your technical know-how to address specific challenges.
Accommodating (Doing and Feeling)
The accommodating style involves a preference for concrete experience and active experimentation. As an accommodator, you are hands-on and rely more on intuition than logic. You like to take risks and are often good at adapting to new situations. You would likely excel in roles that require action and initiative, like leading a project or navigating a challenging situation.
Applications of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle
In higher education, teachers can harness the power of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle to enrich their classrooms and education technology. Activities that involve real-world experiences set the stage for concrete experiences. Subsequent discussions and reflections can help students conceptualise and apply their learning.
New strategies emerge through abstract conceptualisation, and active experimentation allows for the practical implementation of workplace skills.
3. Personal Growth & Self-Improvement
Kolb’s cycle can be an invaluable tool for personal growth and self-improvement. Engaging in new activities provides direct experience. Reflecting on these experiences leads to new insights.
When you conceptualise, these insights form new understandings, and testing them in real-life situations helps in personal development. This process can significantly enhance personal learning and growth.
Critiques and Limitations
Despite the potential applications and advantages of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, it’s important to acknowledge its critiques and limitations. Like any theoretical model, it isn’t immune to pitfalls or challenges. Here are a few to consider:
1. False Conclusions
The cycle is inherently subjective. It hinges on personal experience and individual interpretation. This may sometimes lead to false conclusions based on uneven perceptions or limited information.
2. Overlooking Implicit or Unconscious Learning
Kolb’s learning cycle largely focuses on conscious reflection and active experimentation. However, some critics argue that this approach seems to overlook the potential for implicit or unconscious learning, which can also contribute significantly to an individual’s knowledge and skills development.
3. Difficulty with Change and New Experiences
The learning cycle advocates learning from experiences to handle new scenarios. However, it might not provide sufficient insight when we face entirely new or drastic changes that go beyond our current knowledge or expectations. Such situations might be challenging for the cycle to address effectively.
4. Potential for Mental Laziness and Dogmatic Thinking
The repetitive cycle may inadvertently promote mental laziness. It may cause learners to fall into a pattern of opinionated thinking. Learners may neglect fresh perspectives or challenge established theories while working around the same processes.
5. Inflexibility in Learning Process
Critics also argue that learning may not always follow a linear or cyclical process, as proposed in Kolb’s model. Some people may learn in different ways that don’t neatly fit into Kolb’s four-stage cycle, suggesting that the model might not be flexible enough to accommodate all learning scenarios.
Final Thoughts on Kolb’s Learning Cycle
In conclusion, Kolb’s experiential learning cycle presents a comprehensive framework for understanding the process of learning from experience. Its stages of concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, and active experimentation offer a roadmap for personal and professional development.
Despite its limitations and critiques, the cycle remains a valuable tool in various fields such as education, business training, and personal growth. As with any learning theory, it serves best when adapted to individual learning styles and contexts, promoting a more inclusive, flexible approach to learning and development.
Other Learning Theories to Consider
‘How’ we learn is one of the most important things to consider for any training – whether it be corporate training, students in school, or learners studying VET. These learning theories shape our understanding of the knowledge we are receiving. Kolb’s Learning Cycle is one such theory, but there are many others that you can consider. At Cloud Assess, we pride ourselves in understanding learning as well as we can. As a result, we have compiled a database of some of the most relevant theories we could find, such as: