Your ultimate guide to Kolb's experiential learning cycle & styles

Discover the key concepts of Kolb's experiential learning cycle and learn how to apply them to your educational process with this comprehensive guide.
August 14, 2023
8 min
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As an educator, you know the feeling of excitement that comes with teaching a new lesson. You've spent hours preparing visual aids, modeling examples, and handouts that you hope will make your students engage with the material.

Halfway through the lesson, you look out at your students, and all you see are confused looks and glazed eyes. Despite your best efforts, some of your students just can't seem to grasp the material. It's a frustrating feeling that all educators can relate to.

But what if there was a way to tap into your student's individual learning styles and tailor your lessons to their unique needs? This is where experiential learning comes in.

By the end of this ultimate guide, you'll have a deep understanding of how to apply this model to your teaching practice, so you can engage all of your students and help them become effective learners. 

Key takeaways

  • Learners can gain valuable insights into new situations by progressing through the four stages of the learning cycle. 
  • Kolb's model identifies four different learning styles, and each style requires a unique approach to learning.
  • The experiential learning cycle can be applied to various contexts, such as educational settings, workplace training programs, team-building exercises, or personal development activities.

What is the experiential learning cycle?

In a nutshell, the experiential learning cycle is a model that describes the process of learning through experience. This model provides a framework for understanding how people learn and how to design activities that cater to different learning styles. 

It was developed by David A. Kolb, an American educational theorist, and suggests that learning is an iterative process that involves four stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. We’ll cover these in more detail below.

Benefits of using this concept include:

  • Increased engagement and motivation in the learning process
  • Improved understanding and retention of knowledge and skills
  • Development of critical thinking and problem-solving abilities
  • Enhanced self-awareness and personal growth
  • Improved decision-making and communication skills
  • Enhanced creativity and innovation
  • Greater adaptability to new situations and challenges

What are the stages of the experiential learning cycle?

The experiential learning cycle has four distinct stages that learners undergo when encountering new experiences. 

By progressing through these stages, learners can acquire a more profound comprehension of new encounters and gain valuable insights that can be implemented in various situations. These stages are:


1. Concrete experience

The first stage involves direct, hands-on experience with a new situation or activity. This can be something as simple as trying out a new recipe or as complex as learning a new skill.

For example, when learning a new language, you’ll take a class or use an application to help expand your vocabulary, understand grammar rules, and practice speaking the language.

2. Reflective observation

This stage is all about observing and analyzing the experience from different perspectives, taking note of the emotions and thoughts that emerged throughout the experience.

For example, after each lesson, you reflect on how you feel when you struggle to understand or speak, and you consider what techniques and methods work best for you.

You realize that you learn best when you have opportunities to practice speaking and listening in a supportive environment and that you need to focus on learning the most common vocabulary and grammar structures to make progress quickly.

3. Abstract conceptualization

This is where things get interesting! In this stage, learners use their reflections to draw connections and develop broader concepts that help them make sense of what they've learned.

For example, you realize that your speaking and listening skills are key to learning, and immersion helps you learn faster. You also find out that you have to practice regularly and use a variety of resources to stay motivated.

4. Active experimentation

This is where the magic happens! Learners take the insights they've gained from previous stages and use them to try out new things, testing different approaches and strategies to see what sticks.

Let’s go back to that language example one final time. You know that immersing yourself in the language will help you master it more quickly, so you try conversing with native speakers and incorporating various media in your daily activities (watching TV or movies, reading books, etc.). 

As you experiment with different approaches, you continue to reflect on your experience and adjust your approach accordingly, helping you gain confidence in your abilities and make meaningful progress toward your goal of becoming fluent.

Drilling down into Kolb’s experiential learning styles

According to Kolb, there are four different learning styles that individuals may employ when learning. Knowing which style your students have can help you create a learning approach that works best for them and maximizes their educational experiences. 

Here is a closer look at each style and how they relate to the learning cycle stages:


1. Diverging

The first learning style is diverging, and it’s associated with the first two stages of the experiential learning cycle.

Students with diverging learning styles are really good at observing and reflecting on experiences and like to look at things from many different perspectives. People with diverging styles are typically characterized by their:

  • Ability to think creatively and come up with new ideas
  • Diverse interests in different cultures, topics, art, and music
  • Imaginations and emotional connections 

Individuals with this style prefer to work in groups and listen to other people's opinions. They also like to get feedback that's tailored to them personally.

2. Assimilating

The assimilating learning style is linked to the second and third stages of the experiential learning cycle.

If your student has a learning style that is assimilating, they have a talent for taking complex information and making it easy to understand. Learners with an assimilating style are typically:

  • Analytical and often excel at developing theories and concepts based on their observations
  • Best-suited to a career in science or another field involving information
  • More interested in abstract ideas than concrete experiences and are skilled at synthesizing information from multiple sources

When it comes to learning, they prefer structured settings where they can read, listen to lectures, and analyze models.

3. Converging

Moving right along, the converging learning style is associated with the third and fourth stages of the experiential learning cycle.

Students with a converging learning style are very practical and enjoy applying theoretical concepts to real-world situations. These learners:

  • Enjoy solving problems and using logical reasoning to find solutions to real-world questions or problems
  • Find technical tasks more appealing than social or interpersonal issues
  • Like to experiment with new ideas and theories in a controlled environment
  • Aren’t afraid to take risks and try new things

In formal learning situations, they prefer hands-on learning experiences such as laboratory assignments, simulations, and practical applications. 

4. Accommodating

Rounding out Kolb’s learning styles is accommodating, and this one is linked to the fourth and first stages of the experiential learning cycle.

Students that have an accommodating learning style tend to learn through trial and error and are adaptable and flexible, changing their approach as they gain more knowledge.

Individuals with this learning style are more likely to:

  • Take on new challenges and carry out plans with enthusiasm
  • Learn from their mistakes and follow their instincts 
  • Seek input from others when faced with a problem
  • Succeed in action-oriented careers, such as marketing or sales

In formal learning situations, these learners prefer to collaborate with others to complete assignments, set goals, and test out different approaches. They thrive in fieldwork and practical applications.

What are the main limitations of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle?

While Kolb's experiential learning cycle is a popular and widely used model, it is not without limitations. Here are some of the common challenges and criticisms of the theory:

  • Overemphasis on experience: Some critics suggest that Kolb's theory does not fully account for the social and cultural factors that can influence the learning process. According to Boud, Keogh, and Walker (1985), the experiential learning cycle model ignores the role of social interaction and cultural context in shaping learning experiences.
  • Limited applicability: Despite the effort to accommodate multiple learners, learning styles and preferences vary quite a bit, so some students may not completely fit into one of the four Kolb categories. On top of that, some individuals may exhibit a mix of different learning styles, or their learning preferences may change depending on the situation.
  • Lack of empirical evidence: Kolb's model has been criticized by some researchers for lacking empirical evidence. A few studies have been conducted, such as this one by T. H. Morris, on the effectiveness of the model, but the evidence is not universally convincing.

How to apply the experiential learning cycle

Whether you're a student, a professional, or simply someone looking to learn new things, the experiential learning cycle can be applied in a wide range of settings. Here are some examples:

  • Education: Teachers can design lessons that incorporate experiential learning activities, such as simulations, role-playing, and field trips. Students can also use the cycle to reflect on their learning experiences and identify areas for improvement.
  • Work: Companies can foster experiential learning by offering their employees the opportunity to work on new projects, attend workshops, and participate in hands-on training programs.
  • Personal development: People can use the experiential learning cycle to improve their personal development by seeking out new experiences, reflecting on them, and applying the lessons they learn to future experiences.

Implementing the experiential learning cycle involves following a few key steps: 

  1. Choose an experience that you want to learn from. This could be a task at work, a project in school, or a personal challenge.
  2. Reflect on the experience and ask yourself, what did you do well? What could you improve? What did you learn?
  3. Analyze the experience by breaking it down into its component parts. What were the key elements of the experience? How did they contribute to the outcome?
  4. Formulate abstract concepts based on your analysis. What general principles can you extract from the experience? How do they apply to other situations?
  5. Test the concepts by applying them to a new situation. How well do they work? Do they need to be modified?
  6. Repeat the cycle.

By following these steps, you can create a powerful learning cycle that will help you to gain insights and improve your skills in a wide range of settings.

Tips for making the most of this concept

  • Be intentional: Seek out new experiences that challenge you and provide opportunities for growth.
  • Be reflective: Take time to reflect on your experiences and identify key insights that you can apply in other contexts.
  • Be open-minded: Embrace new ideas and approaches, even if they feel uncomfortable at first.
  • Be persistent: Learning is a lifelong process, so keep experimenting and reflecting on your experiences to continue growing and improving.

Maximize the impact of experiential learning with Riipen

Experiential learning is a powerful tool for personal and professional growth, but it can be challenging to implement effectively in educational and work settings. Fortunately, there's a solution: Riipen

Riipen is an innovative work-based experiential learning platform that connects more than 450 educational institutions, 27,000 employers, and 100,000 students to collaborate on real-world projects, allowing learners and educators to apply the principles of experiential learning in a practical and impactful way.

Here's how Riipen works:

With Riipen, educators can:

  • Offer students real-world learning experiences that are directly relevant to their future careers.

  • Build partnerships with industry leaders and provide students with opportunities to network and build professional relationships.

  • Monitor student progress and provide personalized feedback to ensure that they are getting the most out of their experiential learning experiences.

  • Track student engagement and measure the impact of experiential learning on student outcomes.

If you're interested in exploring the potential of experiential learning, we invite you to schedule a demo and see how Riipen can transform the way you teach and learn.

Experiential learning cycle: FAQs

In this FAQ section, we'll answer some of the most common questions about the experiential learning cycle.

How many stages are in the experiential learning cycle?

The Experiential Learning Cycle consists of four stages: concrete experience (doing), reflective observation (reflecting), abstract conceptualization (thinking), and active experimentation (re-doing). Through repetition of this cycle, individuals can continuously improve their skills and knowledge.

What are the four steps of the experiential learning cycle?

The first step is experiencing something, which is followed by a period of reflection to consider the experience. Then, abstract concepts are developed based on the reflection, and these concepts are put to the test through active experimentation. 

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