Kolb’s Learning Cycle

David Kolb published the book Experimental Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development in 1984 that introduced his learning cycle. The basic idea is that people learn from experience and that a structure can be put in place to support this learning.

Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.

David Kolb

The cycle has four stages:

  1. Do: Concrete learning – encounter a new experience
  2. Review: Reflective observation – study and reflect on the experience
  3. Learn: Abstract conceptualisation – form new ideas or adapt existing ones based on reflections
  4. Apply: Active experimentation – apply new ideas to a unique situation

Kolb argues that all four stages must be present for effective learning to happen. A learning experience can start at any of the four stages but should move through the stages logically. The active experimentation forms the concreate learning for the next cycle allowing the process to repeat.

You might review something that happens at work, thinking about what worked and what didn’t and suggest why, using any data available to you. You can then create some general principles based on your reflections that can be applied in other situations. You can then plan another situation where you can apply these general principles. Finally, you can carry out your planned experiment and repeat the cycle, generating new or more robust general principles with each iteration. 

This process can also be used as the basis for planning learning experiences for other people. At University, the learn stage would represent the lecture in a traditional course where existing theories help conceptualise a set of general principles. The additional steps might take place as either independent study, small group seminars, tutorials or labs.

When designing online learning that uses technology to reimagine the learning experience, these four stages can form a framework for the student’s interactions with materials, collaboration, and active learning. Students could work through the cycle each day, each week, each month, or the course could be designed as just one repetition of the process with the expectation that the student continues iterations once the course has finished. 

Kolb’s Learning cycle is a simple introduction to structured learning that you can expand on with other approaches. Next time you are designing learning, think about if all four stages are present and experienced in a logical order for a more effective learning experience.