What Is Experiential Learning?

Kolb Experiential Learning Theory, developed by David A. Kolb, is widely recognized and influential framework that describes how people learn through experience.  Since learning is the primary process used to navigate life, people can use this process for all forms of learning, development, and change. Learning occurs in any setting and continues throughout life. The experiential learning process supports performance improvement, learning and development.

David Kolb described the ideal process of learning in a four-step Experiential Learning Cycle:

Experiencing – Reflecting – Thinking – Acting.

  1. Experiencing (Concrete Experience): Learning begins when a learner uses senses and perceptions to engage in what is happening now.
  2. Reflecting (Reflective Observation): After the experience, a learner reflects on what happened and connects feelings with ideas about the experience.
  3. Thinking (Abstract Conceptualization): The learner engages in thinking to reach conclusions and form theories, concepts, or general principles that can be tested
  4. Acting (Active Experimentation): The learner tests the theory and applies what was learned to get feedback and create the next experience.

Kolb, Alice. “This is Experiential Learning”. Experience Based Learning Systems video, 2:59. April 15, 2020.

“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.”

Experiencing, Reflecting, Thinking, Acting

The Experiential Learning Cycle

This cycle is natural and organic way that people engage in life situations, often without being aware that they are learning.  Because the cycle is composed of two pairs of opposite ways of grasping information (Experiencing and Thinking) and transforming it into knowledge (Reflecting and Acting), most people have preferences for the way they use this learning cycle, focusing on some modes more than others. When one engages deliberately with all four modes of the Experiential Learning Cycle, deep learning occurs. Watch our Learning Explainer video on what experiential learning is all about:

Kolb, Alice. “This is Experiential Learning”. Experience Based Learning Systems video, 2:59. April 15, 2020.

Diagram with Learning Styles in a circle and the Balancing learning style in the center

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 Experiential Learning Profile (KELP) describes nine different ways of navigating the learning cycle: the Experiential Learning Styles. Learning styles are different than other typologies that describe inherent traits. Instead, Learning styles are habits or steady states of learning and living involving a preference for some modes of learning and underutilization of others.  This makes understanding your own process an exceptional way of building self-awareness and having choice about what you might do to meet situations more effectively. We tend to lead with our preferred style and default to it when we are on automatic pilot or under stress.  However, no one uses only one learning style.  Everyone has “back up” styles that make them more flexible to managing different types of situations.  Learning flexibility, the ability to use all nine learning styles, is very beneficial.  Flexible learners are more flexible in life, more effective in making changes, more mature, and they even report being happier. 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 approaches of those with whom you interact help foster stronger relationships, an appreciation for deep diversity, productive outcomes, and effective teamwork.

Experiencing: In the Experiencing style, one emphasizes feeling while balancing
acting and reflecting, spending the least amount of time thinking.

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: In the Imagining style, one emphasizes feeling and reflecting, spending the least amount of time deciding.

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: In the Reflecting style, one engages in sustained reflection informed by both feelings and thoughts, spending the least amount of time acting.

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: In the Analyzing style, one learns primarily through thinking and reflecting, spending the least amount of time initiating.

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: In the Thinking style, one emphasizes thinking while balancing
reflecting and acting, spending the least amount of time experiencing.

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: In the Deciding style, one emphasizes thinking and acting in situations, spending the least amount of time imagining.

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: In the Acting style, one uses feeling and thinking to initiate action,
spending the least amount of time reflecting.

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: In the Initiating style, one uses feeling and acting to initiate action,
paying the least attention to analyzing.

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: In the Balancing style, one tends to shift between the opposites of
experiencing-thinking and acting-reflecting.

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.

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, work on teams, and meet life’s challenges.

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.

Kolb, Alice. “8 Things to Know About the Experiential Learning cycle”. Experience Based Learning Systems video, 8:07. August 3, 2019.