Try it and see

This is number 22 in my series on learning theories. I'm working through the alphabet of psychologists and theorists, providing a brief overview of each theory, and how it can be applied in education. In my last post I wrote about Gestalt theorist Wolfang Köhler and his studies into insight and intuition. In this post, we will explore the work of David Kolb on experiential learning. As usual, this is a simplified interpretation of the theory, so if you wish to learn more, please read the associated literature.

The theory

American psychologist David Kolb is best known for his work on learning styles and in particular for his cyclical model of learning. The various learning styles theories have been heavily criticised in recent years as we have discovered more about how we learn - so Kolb's contribution in that area does not feature in this post.

What will be discussed is Kolb's best work around the concept of experiential learning, where he identified the components of learning through sensory experiences. Kolb's model is typically depicted as a cyclic process involving four stages of thinking. These are:

1. Concrete experience: This can be either a completely new experience or an experience that has been previously encountered.
2. Reflective observation: Thinking back on the experience and determining whether there is any discrepancy between the experience and one's knowledge/understanding.
3. Abstract Conceptualisation: Reflecting on the experience may give rise to new ways of thinking, or changing of existing though patterns.
4. Active experimentation: Application of new things/skills/knowledge one has learnt through the experience.

A key problem of this model is that it is sequential, the cycle flows in only one direction and is therefore prescriptive. What should be noted is the criticism that has centred on the nature of this flow. Can a learner for example have an experience and then reflect on it before going back and repeating the experience having avoided any conceptualisation or experimentation for example? What is to stop an individual from experimenting and then conceptualising before reflecting (a reverse of the cyclical process). A side issue (one alluded to earlier on in this post) is that many now believe Kolb made an error in deriving four distinct learning styles from these thinking activities. Whether of not such 'learning styles' actually exist is one question, but assigning students to one or two predominant styles of thinking on the basis of a tick box test is a serious error, particularly when we are equally capable of all four.

How it could be applied in education

Teachers should be aware of the power of experiential learning. Doing is far more powerful than simply listening or watching. The ability to reflect on an experience loses its power if no direct experience has occurred. Students should be given the chance to 'get their hands dirty' through direct involvement with their subjects, including time to think, reflect, experiment and observe the results of their ideas in action. Teachers should avoid rigid structures which constrain thinking and limit experimentation. There should be no set sequence of discovery, and learners should be free to ask not only 'how and why?', but also the 'what if?' and 'why not?' questions. They should also be free to go off and answer these questions themselves through active experimentation.  What learners can do with their new knowledge is potentially limitless - how can they apply their learning in new contexts or unusual situations? Ultimately, self-driven learning which encompasses all of the components identified by Kolb, seems to be the most effective for deeper, more reflective learning.


Kolb D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning experience as a source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Previous posts in this series:

1.  Anderson ACT-R Cognitive Architecture
2.  Argyris Double Loop Learning
3.  Bandura Social Learning Theory
4.  Bruner Scaffolding Theory
5.  Craik and Lockhart Levels of Processing
6.  Csíkszentmihályi Flow Theory
7.  Dewey Experiential Learning
8.  Engeström Activity Theory
9.  Ebbinghaus Learning and Forgetting Curves
10. Festinger Social Comparison Theory
11. Festinger Cognitive Dissonance Theory
12. Gardner Multiple Intelligences Theory
13. Gibson Affordances Theory
14. Gregory Visual Perception Hypothesis
15. Hase and Kenyon Heutagogy
16. Hull Drive Reduction Theory
17. Inhelder and Piaget Formal Operations Stage
18. Jung Archetypes and Synchronicity
19. Jahoda Ideal Mental Health
20. Koffka Gestalt theory
21. Köhler Insight learning

Photo by Steve Ford Elliott on Wikimedia Commons

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Try it and see by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

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