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What is experiential learning and how does it work?

In this article, we explore Kolb’s theory of experiential learning, discuss its cyclical nature, and think about how to apply experiential learning in the classroom and beyond.

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Everyone deserves access to an education, but it’s important that we’re given the opportunity to learn in a way that suits and respects our individual needs and differences. Traditional models of learning have often favoured those with a good memory, but learning is much more than just succeeding in an exam.

Experiential learning is a learning theory that provides an alternative to more traditional learning models, so we thought we’d explore what the experiential learning cycle looks like, the benefits of this model of learning, and how to apply it in different areas of life.

What is experiential learning?

Experiential learning is the idea that experiences are generated through our ongoing interactions and engagement with the world around us, and learning is an inevitable product of experience. This theory of learning is different from cognitive and behavioural learning theories as it takes a more holistic approach. It considers the role that all of our experiences play in our learning, including our emotions, cognition and environmental factors.

The experiential learning theory advocates for deep learning rather than surface learning, two things that are differentiated in our Active learning in practice open step by the University of Groningen. Surface learning normally involves studying for an exam, which might be achieved through memorising information in a textbook, and information may not be retained well. 

Deep learning, however, normally involves learning about something using a number of different methods, from reading and experimenting to role-playing and discussing. These methods help students to truly understand what they’re learning by having them applying and discussing theories rather than just memorising them. 

In our Learning from experience: What the student does open step by the University of New South Wales, they discuss how learning from experience involves a process of resolving conflict between contradictory ideas, known as ‘cognitive conflict’ and ‘cognitive dissonance’. This demonstrates that experiential learning may cause students to change old habits, question old ideas and explore new ways of thinking.

David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle

Now we’ve discussed what experiential learning is more generally, we’ll go into some detail about David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. Kolb is an American educational theorist who published his ideas about experiential learning in 1984. He suggested that there are four main stages of the learning cycle, which we’ll explain below:

Concrete Experience

The cycle begins with the learner having a concrete experience – this means either learning something brand new or experiencing something familiar in a new way. Examples of this include learning to ride a bike, watching a play for the first time, or playing an instrument, but it could be anything.

Reflective Observation

The next stage of the cycle is very important, and it’s all about reflection. After having a concrete experience, the learner should spend some time thinking about what happened, or watching others doing the same thing and reflecting on what’s occurring. 

In our Individual approaches to reflection open step, we discuss how reflecting using a journal or template can help you to review or evaluate your progress when you’re learning something new. Just asking yourself simple questions like ‘What went well?’, ‘What am I struggling with?’, and ‘What could I do differently?’ will help you to improve for next time.

Abstract Conceptualization

After the learner has reflected on their concrete experience, it’s time to make sense of their experience and reflections. They may think about their next steps for improving, come up with a plan of action, or confide in literature or an expert who can offer insight. This allows them to form new ideas, or modify existing abstract ideas so that they can take action afterwards. 

Active Experimentation

The final stage of Kolb’s cycle is about acting on your previous reflections and thoughts, and this is known as active experimentation. The learner applies what they have learnt from the initial experience and sees if there are any modifications when they try the experience for a second time. This is essentially an opportunity to test new ideas. 

As a result of this active experimentation, the learner will have a new concrete experience and the cycle will start all over again. This cycle can keep going until the learner feels confident about the area at hand and they’re happy with how the concrete experience pans out. By allowing learners to test their knowledge practically like this, you can ensure a higher retention of information.

The experiential learning styles

The Experiential Learning Institute discusses on their website how each person navigates the learning cycle in a slightly different way. Factors such as our personalities, education level, career, culture and more can affect our learning preferences, so the Kolb Learning Style Inventory (LINK) suggests there are nine different ways to navigate the learning cycle. 

He suggests that we tend to lead with one of these learning styles and default to it as a habit, particularly when we’re on autopilot or under some stress. Knowing about these different learning styles can help us understand those who approach learning differently to us, and this can improve our teamwork, leadership, and communication skills.

  1. Experiencing. You find meaning in experience and relationships; therefore, you thrive on teamwork and emotional connection with others.
  2. Imagining. You learn the most from observing and reflecting on experiences, and you tend to work with an empathetic and creative mindset.
  3. Reflecting. You are patient and careful, preferring to observe others and gather different perspectives and information before acting.
  4. Analysing. You like to think systematically and critically about your experiences and then plan to minimise mistakes and test assumptions.
  5. Thinking. You generally frame arguments using logic and reasoning and enjoy using quantitative tools to make judgements and communicate your ideas.
  6. Deciding. You’re good at decision-making and like to set tangible goals and work towards them directly by planning and evaluating along the way.
  7. Acting. You are goal-oriented and seek to make accomplishments under a time constraint by being assertive and committed.
  8. Initiating. You have a spontaneous mindset and like to think on your feet and take risks in order to seek new opportunities.
  9. Balancing. You weigh the pros and cons of any situation and identify gaps, bridge differences between people and help your team to adapt quickly.

What are the benefits of experiential learning?

  • There is more room for creativity
  • It allows you to learn from mistakes
  • It encourages reflection and introspection
  • It’s easier to grasp difficult or abstract concepts
  • It prepares you for future experiences and adult life
  • Teachers observe improved attitudes toward learning

How to apply experiential learning in the classroom

If you’re a teacher or teaching assistant, you might be wondering how you can implement experiential learning into your classroom. 

For an in-depth look into educational theories, you might want to try our Educational Neuroscience: Research-Led Teaching Approaches ExpertTrack by Central Queensland University, or our Education Research that Matters: Applying Research to Your Teaching Practice course by the University of Birmingham and the Chartered College of Teaching.

However, for a more specific lesson, our Reflective practice and identifying your needs open step by the British Council has some tips on how to take a more reflective approach to teaching. Below is an example:

  1. You have an experience. For example, you teach a lesson.
  2. You reflect on the experience. You think about what went well, or not so well in the lesson.
  3. You critically analyse the experience. You identify what it was that made the lesson good or bad. Was it the activity, your instructions, your subject knowledge, or something else?
  4. You plan future actions based on what you have learnt. Once you’ve decided what the problem was, you make a plan to improve and then try the same activity again with another class. This may include creating a new plan or brushing up on your knowledge.

Some ways to reflect

  • Keep a learning diary of what went well or not so well in a lesson
  • Ask your learners for feedback on a lesson or activity
  • Make notes in your coursebook after each lesson
  • Talk through your lessons with another teacher
  • Ask a colleague to sit in and observe your lesson
  • Record yourself teaching (and then watch it!)
  • Use an online journal to keep your reflective practices in one place – notes, videos, documents, links.

Other places to apply experiential learning theory

  • Sports coaching. Experiential learning can help athletes train to the best of their abilities by offering them time to reflect on their performance. Equally, it can be a great tactic for sports coaches to help their athletes progress.
  • Workplace training. How this works will vary vastly depending on the type of workplace you’re at, but experiential learning can be much more effective for retaining new information rather than reading guidebooks and articles.
  • Research field trip. Experiential learning theory is perfect for conducting research, as it’s vital to experiment, reflect, amend and re-evaluate during a research trip or project.
  • Learning new skills. Whether you want to learn a new sport, instrument, or soft skill, the experiential learning cycle can help you to make steady progress.
  • Internship. An internship is the perfect learning opportunity for anyone testing out a new role, and experiential learning can help you to learn as much as possible in the time you’re given.

Final thoughts

No matter who you are, whether you’re a teacher, student, or something completely different, experiential learning can be extremely valuable. It encourages the idea that learning is a lifelong process and that you don’t have to stick to traditional learning methods in order to develop personally or professionally.

We have several courses that encourage this growth mindset when it comes to learning, so you might want to consider joining one if you’re interested in challenging yourself. For example, our Designing a Future Where Learning is a Lifestyle course by Samsung will show you how you can use tech to help redesign the future of education.

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