(Video by Alice Y. Kolb.)

David A. Kolb’s Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing The­o­ry is a pow­er­ful foun­da­tion­al approach to all forms of learn­ing, devel­op­ment and change. Expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing describes the ide­al process of learn­ing, invites you to under­stand your­self as a learn­er, and empow­ers you to take charge of your own learn­ing and devel­op­ment.

The way you learn is the way you approach life in gen­er­al. It is also the way you solve prob­lems, make deci­sions, and meet life’s chal­lenges. Learn­ing occurs in any set­ting and con­tin­ues through­out your life. The expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing process sup­ports per­for­mance improve­ment, learn­ing and devel­op­ment.

“There are two goals in the expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing process. One is to learn the specifics of a par­tic­u­lar sub­ject, and the oth­er is to learn about one’s own learn­ing process.”
— David A. Kolb

In How You Learn Is How You Live: Using Nine Ways of Learn­ing to Trans­form Your Life, David Kolb and Kay Peter­son elab­o­rate on the Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing The­o­ry and how it can be used by edu­ca­tors, cor­po­rate teams, lead­ers and indi­vid­ual life­long learn­ers.

The mis­sion of the Insti­tute of Expe­ri­en­tial Learn­ing is to com­mit to releas­ing the untapped poten­tial in indi­vid­u­als, teams and orga­ni­za­tions through the delib­er­ate and trans­for­ma­tive process of expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing.

And watch our Learn­ing Explain­er video on what expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing is all about:

The Experiential Learning Cycle

David Kolb’s work on the expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing cycle is among the most influ­en­tial approach­es to learn­ing. The expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing cycle is a four-step learn­ing process that is applied mul­ti­ple times in every inter­ac­tion and expe­ri­ence: Expe­ri­ence – Reflect – Think – Act.

It’s a learn­ing process ini­ti­at­ed by a con­crete expe­ri­ence, which demands reflec­tion, review and per­spec­tive-tak­ing about the expe­ri­ence; then abstract think­ing to reach con­clu­sions and con­cep­tu­al­ize the mean­ing of the expe­ri­ence; lead­ing to a deci­sion to act, engag­ing in active exper­i­men­ta­tion or try­ing out what you’ve learned.

This cycle is so nat­ur­al and organ­ic that peo­ple engage in it with­out being aware that they are learn­ing. It hap­pens almost effort­less­ly all the time and is con­stant­ly trans­form­ing our lives. Most peo­ple have pref­er­ences for the way they use this learn­ing cycle, focus­ing on some modes more than oth­ers.

The Experiential Learning Styles

The way in which we nav­i­gate the learn­ing cycle varies from per­son to per­son. Due to per­son­al­i­ty, edu­ca­tion­al spe­cial­iza­tion, pro­fes­sion­al career, cul­ture, and adap­tive com­pe­ten­cies, peo­ple devel­op pref­er­ences for how they use the learn­ing cycle. The Kolb Learn­ing Style Inven­to­ry (LINK) describes nine dif­fer­ent ways of nav­i­gat­ing the learn­ing cycle by learn­ing styles. We lead with our pre­ferred style and default to it when we are on auto­mat­ic pilot or under stress.

Learn­ing styles are dif­fer­ent than oth­er typolo­gies that describe inher­ent traits. Learn­ing styles are habits or steady states of learn­ing and liv­ing involv­ing a pref­er­ence on some modes of learn­ing and under­uti­liza­tion of oth­ers.
Learn­ing styles also pro­vide a frame­work for under­stand­ing oth­ers whose approach­es are dif­fer­ent from yours. Being aware of your own learn­ing style ten­den­cies and know­ing the pre­ferred learn­ing styles of those with whom you inter­act help fos­ter pro­duc­tive inter­ac­tions, team­work and rela­tion­ships.

Expe­ri­enc­ing: When using the Expe­ri­enc­ing style, you are engaged, con­nect­ed, warm and intu­itive. You excel in team­work and estab­lish trust­ing rela­tion­ships with oth­ers. You are com­fort­able with emo­tion­al expres­sion.

Imag­in­ing: When using the Imag­in­ing style, you are car­ing, trust­ing, empa­thet­ic and cre­ative. You demon­strate self-aware­ness and empa­thy for oth­ers. You are com­fort­able in ambigu­ous sit­u­a­tions, and you enjoy help­ing oth­ers, gen­er­at­ing new ideas and cre­at­ing a vision for the future.

Reflect­ing: When using the Reflect­ing style, you are patient, care­ful and reserved, allow­ing oth­ers to take cen­ter stage. You lis­ten with an open mind and gath­er infor­ma­tion from a vari­ety of sources. You are able to view issues from many per­spec­tives and iden­ti­fy under­ly­ing prob­lems and issues.

Ana­lyz­ing: When using the Ana­lyz­ing style, you are struc­tured, method­i­cal and pre­cise. You plan ahead to min­i­mize mis­takes, inte­grate infor­ma­tion to get the full pic­ture, and use crit­i­cal think­ing to under­stand sit­u­a­tions. You are method­i­cal as you ana­lyze details and data.

Think­ing: When using the Think­ing style, you are skep­ti­cal, struc­tured, lin­ear and con­trolled. You use quan­ti­ta­tive tools to ana­lyze prob­lems and frame argu­ments with log­ic. You know how to com­mu­ni­cate ideas effec­tive­ly and make inde­pen­dent judg­ments.

Decid­ing: When using the Decid­ing style, you are real­is­tic, account­able and direct. You find prac­ti­cal solu­tions to prob­lems and set per­for­mance goals. You are able to com­mit to one focus.

Act­ing: When using the Act­ing style, you are on time, assertive, achieve­ment ori­ent­ed and coura­geous. You com­mit to goals and objec­tives and find ways to accom­plish them under a dead­line. You are able to imple­ment plans with lim­it­ed resources.

Ini­ti­at­ing: When using the Ini­ti­at­ing style, you are out­go­ing, spon­ta­neous and able to shrug off loss­es or “fail­ure” in favor of try­ing again. You active­ly seize oppor­tu­ni­ties and par­tic­i­pate with­out hold­ing back.

Bal­anc­ing: When using the Bal­anc­ing style, you iden­ti­fy blind spots in a sit­u­a­tion and bridge dif­fer­ences between peo­ple. You are resource­ful and can adapt to shift­ing pri­or­i­ties.

Read more about Learn­ing Styles.