What Is the Experiential Learning Theory of David Kolb?
Experiential learning theory is about learning by doing. Developed by psychologist David Kolb, the theory describes the learning process whereby knowledge is created through experience. Kolb’s theory explains that concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation form a four-stage process (or cycle) transformed into effective learning. Applying Kolb’s learning theory has benefits for students, educators and employers.
Become Involved In Experiential Learning
Before starting an experiential learning program, it’s wise to figure out how much work is involved. For example, educational researchers Lee Andresen, David Boud, and Ruth Cohen have created a criteria that makes a project to be truly experiential. These include a personally meaningful goal to the student, personal student engagement, and involvement of the whole person in the learning experience (including their senses, emotions, and personality).
Moreover, projects need to recognise relevant prior learning and provide opportunities for students to reflect on their experiences throughout. They add that teachers must establish a sense of respect, trust, openness, and concern for student wellbeing.
Who Is David Kolb?
The model was published in 1984 by David Kolb, an American psychologist, professor and education theorist. Kolb was born in 1939 and earned his undergraduate degree from Knox College in 1961. He then earned a PhD in social psychology from Harvard University.
Kolb’s experiential learning theory was influenced by the work of other education theorists, including Jean Piaget, John Dewey, and Kurt Lewin. Kolb has written numerous books, book chapters, and journal articles. He has been bestowed four honorary degrees and won several awards.
Learn more about the benefits of Experiential Learning in our ‘Effective Experiential Learning’ whitepaper
What Is the Experiential Learning Theory Kolb Developed?
As the name says, experiential learning involves the transformation of experience into effective learning. Kolb’s experiential learning theory stresses how our experiences, including our thoughts, emotions and environment, impact the learning process.
Kolb’s theory defines experiential learning as a four-stage process:
- Concrete learning occurs when a learner has a new experience or interprets a previous experience in a new way. For example, a nursing student has to learn a new procedure as part of their clinical education.
- Reflective observation – the learner reflects on the new experience to understand what it means. In our example, the nursing student might think about how they could have done the procedure better.
- Abstract conceptualisation – the learner adapts their thinking or constructs new ideas based on experience and reflection. For example, the nursing student realises they need to have all their materials ready before starting the procedure.
- Active experimentation – the learner applies their new ideas to real-world situations to test whether they work and see if any changes need to be made. This process can happen quickly or over an extended time. Our nursing student might note how smoothly things go consistently when they have everything ready for a procedure in advance.
The Importance of Preferences in David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle
The four stages of Kolb’s model are portrayed as an experiential learning cycle. Learners can enter the cycle at any time. For example, imagine a group of students are learning to use computer-aided design (CAD) software. One student might begin the learning process by observing others using it. Another learner might start by reading about the program. Still, another learner might immediately jump in and have a go at using it.
Kolb explains learners have natural preferences for how they enter the experiential learning cycle. “Because of our hereditary equipment, our particular past life experiences, and the demands of our environment, we develop a preferred way of choosing,” he wrote.
Kolb’s learning styles model
These preferences are the basis of Kolb’s learning styles model, which divides learners into four types based on their dominant learning style.
Kolb’s learning styles are:
- Diverging – In this learning style, learners focus on concrete experience and reflective observation. They prefer to watch and reflect on what they’ve observed before jumping in.
- Assimilating – This learning style incorporates learners who favour abstract conceptualisation and reflective observation. They like using analytical models to explore and prefer concepts and abstract ideas.
- Converging – Learners using this learning style focus on abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation. They like to solve problems and enjoy applying learning to practical issues.
- Accommodating – Learners using this learning style favour concrete experience and active experimentation. They relish a challenge and using intuition to solve problems.
How Can Experiential Learning Benefits Students?
Experiential learning has many benefits for students, including:
- The chance to immediately apply the learning process to real-world experiences, which supports knowledge retention
- Improved motivation, as students are more excited about learning in real-world situations
- Promotion of learning through reflection, which deepens and strengthens the learning experience
- The chances to make good use of their preferred style of learning
- Enhanced teamwork because experiential learning often involves working as part of a team
- The opportunity to prepare for future work through genuine, meaningful real-world practice
- The chances to meet colleagues and potential employers.
How Can Experiential Learning Benefit Employers and Educators?
For educators, utilising experiential learning can:
- Allow you to develop highly engaging and appropriate learning opportunities for students, supporting your reputation as an educator of choice for preparing students for the real-world workforce
- Help you design learning and reflection activities that allow students to learn in ways that suit their preferred learning styles
- Ensure your students develop skills that enhance employability and optimise their chances of future success.
For employers, experiential learning gives you access to teams of highly motivated students who are equipped with the latest knowledge. It provides a chance to upskill your current workers, identify and attract leading graduate talent, and build relationships with key stakeholders in your industry.
How Practera can help
This might seem like a lot to organise, and it is if you’re doing it alone. But with support from Practera, starting an experiential learning program is probably much easier than you think. Our fully supported experiential learning programs help students develop practical employability skills by connecting them to real-world activities with industry partners.
Practera can offer programs across a huge range of experiential learning categories, including team projects, internships, boot camps, mentoring, work simulations and more. Importantly, our experiential learning programs can be scaffolded to foster student competency before undertaking a full placement or internship. Education institutions taking this approach enable more students to experience success in the long term.
Crucially, Practera’s highly engaging experiential learning programs have all been designed for online delivery. Whether you’re providing programs onsite or online, our user-friendly, innovative platform incorporates features that maximise the student experience and quality of learning.
Practera’s integrated assessment, feedback, and performance tracking devices are all designed to foster premium-quality online experiential program delivery. For example, inbuilt intelligence discerns optimal moments for reflection and encourages students to pause and think deeply, encouraging learning and retention.
During COVID-19, Practera even committed $1 million in funding to support 26 experiential learning projects across 12 universities, which benefited more than 100,000 learners. This helped universities continue to provide quality learning experiences when education was being done completely online.