(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.