‘I Do and I Understand’ – Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory Explained

Written by Gil Gruber, Explorance.

Experiential learning has traditionally held a place in education in the form of either internships or job-shadowing to complement a conventional program. However, with technology and the rise of MOOCs, higher education is looking towards implementing more experiential learning methods. A good example of this is the recent trend of competency-based degrees where students develop skills from real-world experiences.

What is experiential learning?

How one learns is a fascinating process that includes a variety of theoretical methods and individual learning styles. In 1984, David Kolb created the Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) and it is still one of the most widely used learning models. ELT is based on the premise that a person learns from direct experience or ‘learns by doing’.

“I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” – Confucius

Confucius’ quote summarizes Kolb’s theory wonderfully, the crux being that a person learns through action. Kolb’s theory is particularly interesting because it focuses on the learner’s perspective and on personal development. In experiential learning, the individual guides the learning process as opposed to the conventional, didactic method.

The experiential learning cycle

Kolb views learning as a four-stage, continuous process where the participant acquires knowledge from each new experience. His theory treats learning as a holistic process where one continuously creates and implements ideas for improvement. According to Kolb, effective learning can only take place when an individual completes a cycle of the four stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation.

  1. Concrete experience:

    In the first stage of the cycle a person has an experience that serves as the basis for observation. The individual encounters a new experience that creates an opportunity for learning. According to Kolb’s theory, a person cannot learn by simply observing or reading. The goal is for the individual to actively participate in the experience so they can learn from it.

  2. Reflective observation:

    In the second stage, the individual reflects on the experience before making any judgements. Particular notice is paid to any inconsistencies between experience and understanding. The goal is for the individual to review the situation and find meaning behind the experience.

  3. Abstract conceptualization:

    In abstract conceptualization, the individual develops theories to explain their experience. This analysis often gives rise to a new idea or changes a preexisting concept. In this stage, the individual identifies recurring themes, problems and/or issues that will help them with new learning experiences. The goal is to create concepts that they can apply in the future.

  4. Active experimentation:

    In the final stage, individuals apply what they learned in the experience to another situation. They use their theories to solve problems, make decisions and influence people and/or events. The learner takes risks and implements theories to see what will result (experimentation). The goal is to test the concepts in different and new situations to discover ways to improve.

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