David Kolb: Learning Style & Experiential Learning Theory

Instructor: Maria Howard

Maria is a teacher and a learning specialist and has master's degrees in literature and education.

In this lesson, learn about David Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory, which proposed a 4-stage cycle of learning. Discover Kolb's four proposed learning styles that classify learners by their preferred level of abstract thinking and desire for hands-on experience.

Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. -David A. Kolb, 1984

(Re)Learning to Drive

After living for five years in New York City without a car, I returned to my home state of California completely out of practice with my driving. For the record, I was never a particularly confident driver, and being behind the wheel again after several years away was not 'just like riding a bike.' (I'm convinced that whoever came up with that expression never had trouble merging onto a California freeway during rush hour.)

I decided I had to go back and relearn some driving basics, but I needed to make a few decisions first. Was I going to study a driving manual? Was I going to just get in the car and drive? Should I go to drivers' ed again? The answer may seem obvious to you, but that is likely because you have been faced with similar situations and have, over time, had to develop ways to solve learning situations like mine.

David Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory

David Kolb was an American psychologist who proposed that learning was an experiential process. Kolb's work has deep connections to the work of earlier educational theorists like John Dewey and Jean Piaget, both of whom advocated for a hands-on, learner-centered approach in the classroom.

Kolb developed a model to think about learning called the Experiential Learning Theory, which sought to emphasize experience as a major component of how we learn. It might seem obvious to us now that how we learn is connected to our experience of learning, but other theories around learning at that time emphasized how the brain processed information (cognitive) or focused on mainly repetitive actions (behavioral). Both cognitive and behavioral theories didn't take into account how our experiences make us unique, subjective learners.

Kolb proposed that there were four stages to the learning process, all four of which are necessary for learning:

Image of Kolb

First, the learner has a concrete experience, where he or she is faced with a new situation or a retread of a similar prior experience. This is when I got behind the wheel of my mom's Nissan and drove to the supermarket, my first driving experience in several years. Learning to drive by driving is as concrete and hands-on as it gets.

In the second stage, the learner undergoes a reflective observation, where he or she situates the new experience within his or her prior knowledge. This is where I think about how driving connects to what I already know. I can think back to my previous experience driving many years before, but also my understanding of the rules of the road and how cars work that I've carried with me most of my life: what a stop sign means, what a red light means, how to roll down the windows in a car, etc.

In third stage is abstract conceptualization, where the learner's reflections lead to a new understanding or the broadening of his or her current understanding. My abstract conceptualization of driving expanded as soon as I started driving again. I analyzed my experience while it was happening and broadened my ideas while driving: Slow down before turning; don't forget to look for cyclists.

Finally, the fourth stage, active experimentation, is when the learner takes his or her newly found or expanded knowledge and puts it to the test in other situations. This is when I took my expanded abstract conceptualization from driving to the supermarket and applied it on the return trip. (Or, as with the case of slowing down before turns, I applied that understanding to the very next turn I took.) The active experimentation phase leads to more concrete experience, which starts the cycle of learning all over again.

Kolb saw these four stages as interconnected, with each one leading to the next, and posited that we can enter the learning cycle at any stage. That means I could just as easily have started my learning by reading a drivers' training manual, entering the cycle at the reflective observation stage.

Learning Styles: The Kolb Model

If you look at the four stages, you can see they require different skills and therefore require learners to pick the most appropriate place to enter the learning cycle. When faced with driving again, I sought out the concrete experience of actually driving. When faced with a sheet of fraction word problems, I don't order a pizza just so I can subtract five-eighths from 1. Instead, I pick abstract conceptualization as the place to start.

Kolb proposed that these choices we make when learning, whether to begin with the concrete or the abstract or whether to experiment or watch from the sidelines, reflect our preferred learning styles. His different learning styles, unsurprisingly, reflected his model for learning. He put the two choices we make, level of abstraction and level of hands-on interaction, into a matrix that looks a lot like a giant plus sign. Each quadrant, or square, of the matrix represents one of four types of learners.

This matrix shows the four learning styles proposed by David Kolb in 1972.
Matrix of Kolb learning styles

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