Experiential Learning Theory

Kolb (1984) theory of experiential learning discusses the key components of learning-by-doing, how it works and the characteristics which contribute to meaningful practice. As a widely-accepted theory, educators can use incorporate the model to support teaching practice and learner experience. The model is known for its holistic approach to student learning, which incorporates action/reflection and experience/abstraction. (Kolb & Kolb, 2011). There are four key phases to the experiential learning cycle: concrete experience (CE), reflective observation (RO), abstract conceptualization (AC), and active experimentation (AE) (Figure 3) (Kolb & Kolb, 2011). There is no starting or end-point to the cycle, ensuring students can jump-in at any phase.

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Figure 3: Kolb's Model of Experiential Learning

  • Concrete experience (CE): This is the action phase. Students are encouraged to try-out the action and have a new experience.
  • Reflective observation (RO): This is the observation phase. Students are encouraged to intentionally reflect on their experience from multiple perspectives and the factors involved (e.g. environment, stakeholder, context, outcomes)
  • Abstract conceptualization (AC): This is the integration phase. Students are encouraged to integrate the experience (action and result) into existing knowledge schemas and with existing theory. As a result, a new concept is formed and can be applied to future experience(s).
  • Active experimentation (AE): This is the hypothesizing and trial phase. Students are encouraged to hypothesize what will happen and try the action out by making decisions and solving problems.

Kolb and Kolb’s (2011) extensive work in the field of experiential learning have resulted in some considerations that educators should review. They recommend that educators recognize that learning is cyclical and while students learn about specific content and subject matter, reflection and learning about the self and individual learning processes is just as important.

Remember that experiential learning takes work and time; it should be purposeful and beneficial to student learning. Educators should EL activities based on the appropriate and most meaningful level of involvement for students (Kolb & Kolb, 2011, p. 58). Kolb and Kolb (2011) suggest the following principles as a guideline:

  • respect learning and their experience;
  • begin learning with the learner’s experience of the subject matter;
  • create and hold a hospitable space for learning;
  • make space for conversational learning;
  • make space for acting and reflecting;
  • make space for feeling and thinking;
  • make space for inside-out learning;
  • make space for development of expertise; and
  • make space for learners to take char of their own learning (2011, p. 61-62).

The Library at Mohawk has created a digital library guide for educators, which includes additional resources (e.g., books, articles, databases, and videos), to provide additional educator support.

Kolb, A. Y. & Kolb, D. A. (2011). Experiential learning theory: A dynamic, holistic approach to management learning, education and development. In Armstrong, S. J. & Fukami, C. (Eds.) Handbook of management learning, education and development. 10.4135/9780857021038.n3.