Experiential Learning

David Kolb synthesised three models to develop key characteristics of experiential learning.
1)    The Lewinian Model
2)    The Dewey Model, and
3)    The Piaget Model

The Lewinian Model of Action Research and Laboratory Training believes learning is an integrated process involving a feedback loop amongst concrete experiences, observations and reflections, formation of abstract concepts and generalizations. This is followed by the testing of implications of concepts in new (real world) situations – learning is conceived as a four stage cycle.
The Lewinian Experiential Learning Model- Kolb, D. A. (1984).  Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development.  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice Hall p.21

The Dewey Model of Learning developed the nature of learning further by describing how learning transforms the impulses, feelings and desires of concrete experience into high-order purposeful action. Learning is still considered a dialectic (the process of reconciliation of contradiction through discourse) process to integrate experience and concepts, observations and action. Reflection is important to decide upon how to intervene and action is essential to achieve a purpose – this is to distinguish action that is based on blind impulse.

Dewey’s Model of Experiential Learning – Kolb, D. A. (1984).  Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development.  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice Hall p.23

The Piaget Model of Learning and Cognitive Development holds that adult cognitive development is based on experience, concepts, reflection and action where the mutual interaction between the four dimensions bring about learning.

An example is the process of accommodating of concepts/schemas into the real world and assimilation of events and experiences from the world into existing concepts/schemas – it is a constant transaction between assimilation and accommodation (from concrete to abstract and from active to reflective) in successional rounds to develop new and higher cognitive development.


Piaget’s Model of Learning and Cognitive Development – Kolb, D. A. (1984).  Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development.  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice Hall p.25

Experiential learning theory is not to be used exclusively or replace behavioural or cognitive theories, but to be used as a complement to a comprehensive understanding of learning theory based on concepts of experience, perception, cognition and behaviour.  In Experiential learning theory, learning is best conceived as a process, not as an outcome. Ideas are not fixed and thoughts about experiences are formed and re-formed over time. Non-learning is then a process that fails to modify ideas and action as a result of experience and could be considered maladaptive.

Learning is a continuous process grounded in experience. Learning and knowledge are not static but are continuously modified by experience and reflection of the learner. This is based on the logic that continuity of experience is a reality of the human condition.  The process of learning requires the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaption in the world. Learning results from resolving conflicts between concrete and the abstract (i.e. concepts and experience, action and reflection). This can be resolved through joint processes of inquiry and learning with others in dialogue.

Kolb learning cycle explained:  An Experiential learner needs to have four different abilities to participate in the joint process:
1.    Concrete experience abilities
2.    Reflective observation abilities
3.    Abstract conceptualization abilities
4.    Active experimentation abilities.

This is illustrated in the Kolb Learning Cycle:

Experiential learning describes the central process of human adaptation to the social and physical environment. It involves the integrated functioning of the total person – thinking, feeling, perceiving and behaving. It is not confined to one part of the brain or specialised environment (i.e. education space).

Experiential learning is seen as a lifelong process that is applied in all life situations and makes explicit the transactional relationship between the learner and their environment as the internal experience and the experience of the ‘other’ (external environment).  Kolb and other educational psychologists suggest that effective learning proceeds around a cycle. Completing each stage is important not just for itself, but because it improves learning in the next stage of the learning cycle.   Learning styles are matched with learning processes and perception.

“The concept of learning style is used to describe individual differences in the way people learn. Each person has a unique way to absorb and process experiences and information. Consideration of learning styles has become increasingly important for individuals, parents, educators and organisations at large to understand what is the appropriate learning environment that fosters and honours individual’s differences. For example, research had indicated that particular learning environment seem better suited for particular learning content and learning preferences and that students perform better when the learning environment is consistent with their learning preferences.” – Source Experienced Based Learning Inc.

Kolb believes that learning styles are not fixed personality traits, but relatively stable patterns of behaviour that are based on personal background and experiences.  The learning styles are:

  • Diverging process/perception (concrete, reflective learning style) – Emphasises the innovative and imaginative approach to doing things. Views concrete situations from many perspectives and adapts by observation rather than by action. Interested in people and tends to be feeling-oriented. Orientated towards activities that involve cooperative groups and brainstorming.
  • Assimilating process/perception (abstract, reflective learning style) – Pulls a number of different observations and thoughts into an integrated whole. Likes to reason inductively and create models and theories. Likes to design projects and experiments.
  • Converging process/perception (abstract, active learning style) – Emphasises the practical application of ideas and solving problems. Likes decision-making, problem-solving, and the practical application of ideas. Prefers technical problems over interpersonal issues.
  • Accommodating process/perception (concrete, active learning style) – Uses trial and error rather than thought and reflection. Good at adapting to changing circumstances; solves problems in an intuitive, trial-and-error manner, such as discovery learning. Also tends to be at ease with people.

To hear David Kolb speak on  ‘What is experiential learning’ click on this YouTube link published on October 15th 2012 by Hay Group Global.


Content source and further information

Kolb, D. A. (1984).  Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development.  Upper Saddle River, NJ:  Prentice Hall (Book)

Experienced Based Learning Systems.  http://learningfromexperience.com/