The Experiential Learning Cycle

The ideas on this page have been adopted and adapted to all kinds of learning situation, but it should be noted that they refer to learning from experience or discovery (such as situated learning) rather than to taught (or "reception" learning, as Ausubel calls it) or rote learning.

Kolb (1984) provides one of the most useful (but contestable) descriptive models available of the adult learning process, inspired by the work of Kurt Lewin.

The claimed Lewin cycle: from Concrete Experience, through Reflective Observation, to Abstract Conceptualisation and then Active Experimentation, leading to new Experience.

Despite many claims, Lewin did not develop a learning "cycle" as such. See his paper on "Field Theory and Learning" (1942; ref. below)

For the latest tools
and information see Kolb's website at: www.

This suggests that there are four stages in learning which follow from each other: Concrete Experience is followed by Reflection on that experience on a personal basis. This may then be followed by the derivation of general rules describing the experience, or the application of known theories to it (Abstract Conceptualisation), and hence to the construction of ways of modifying the next occurrence of the experience (Active Experimentation), leading in turn to the next Concrete Experience. All this may happen in a flash, or over days, weeks or months, depending on the topic, and there may be a "wheels within wheels" process at the same time.

The most direct application of the model is to use it to ensure that (pace the reservations above) teaching and tutoring activities give full value to each stage of the process. This may mean that for the tutor or mentor, a major task is to "chase" the learner round the cycle, asking questions which encourage Reflection, Conceptualisation, and ways of testing the ideas. (The Concrete Experience itself may occur outside the tutorial/mentoring session).

Kolb is not the only writer to develop a cyclical model: go here for an overview of alternatives.

See this page on tutorial practice.

Honey and Mumford's rather static typology of learning styles.



Honey and Mumford (1982) have built a typology of Learning Styles around this sequence, identifying individual preferences for each stage (Activist, Reflector, Theorist, Pragmatist respectively), Kolb also has a test instrument (the Learning Style Inventory) but has carried it further by relating the process also to forms of knowledge.

Peter Honey's site

 Learning styles mean that: 

  • At a minor level there is a need for adjustment between learner and teacher: sometimes their preferences are complementary, sometimes antagonistic, and of course sometimes collusive if they both tend to go for the same stages in the cycle.
  • At a major level, neglect of some stages can prove to be a major obstacle to learning. 
  • At a really serious level, teachers are easy to con with plausible but pernicious snake-oil (e.g. ideas about "learning styles" —follow the links to the right).

A sceptical view of learning styles in general

And a press release on research to support the argument

And the full paper (Coffield, Moseley, Hall & Ecclestone, 2004, for download)

A group of doctors immediately grasped the significance of this distinction: their patients, they said, know their illness by direct acquaintance, whereas they know about it.

For many people, knowledge by acquaintance is the only valid form of knowledge, and they distrust "book-learning". One of the most frequent questions to social workers from parents is, "Do you have any children?". Answer "no", and your credibility is shot.

Elaborations of the Experiential Learning Cycle

Not all forms of skill and knowledge emphasise all the stages of the Cycle to the same extent, and Kolb has carried the argument further by relating topics and subject areas to the cycle in the following ways:

Two ways of knowing, in Kolb's model.

  • Reflective Observation concentrates on what the experience means to the experiencer, (it is transformed by "Intension") or its connotations, while Active Experimentation transforms the theory of Abstract Conceptualisation by testing it in practice (by "Extension") and relates to its denotations.


The two ways in which Kolb argues that experience is transformed in the process of learning.



The denotation/connotation construct is mine rather than Kolb's, offered as a way of clarifying the model. Kolb also plays around with the spelling of "intension" (sic.).

This distinction is not easily identified by many people, and is one example of where Kolb may go over the top: he does have a tendency to elevate his model to a theory of Life, the Universe and Everything. Nevertheless, there is a simpler point here, which he does not make very clearly: Concrete Experience and Reflective Observation are essentially the private and personal parts of the cycle, whereas Abstract Conceptualisation and Active Experimentation are more public and visible to others. Hence behavioural theories of learning concentrate almost exclusively on the visible Active Experimentation processes.


 My distinction between public and private aspects of Kolb's scheme.


Forms of Knowledge and the Learning Cycle

The four quadrants of the cycle are associated with four different forms of knowledge, in Kolb's view. Each of these forms is paired with its diagonal opposite.

 Four kinds of knowledge located in Kolb's scheme


Convergent and Divergent Knowledge

  • This distinction was first made by Hudson (1967) in terms of styles of thinking rather than forms of knowledge: convergent knowledge brings to bear a number of facts or principles on a single topic: problems have "right" and "wrong" answers. Hudson believed convergent learners tended to be more highly valued in school, because most assessment approaches focus on convergent skills. Examples include applied maths, engineering, and some aspects of languages. It is located in the quadrant between Abstract Conceptualisation and Active Experimentation
  • Divergent knowledge on the other hand, is (very broadly) more about creativity — it is about the generation of a number of accounts of experience, such as in literature or history or art. Judgement about the quality of divergent knowledge and skills is much more difficult, because these are private areas. It is generated between Concrete Experience and Reflective Observation.

Assimilation and Accommodation

Hands up if you remember your Piaget! Assimilation and Accommodation are in his view two dialectically related processes (i.e. opposing principles — thesis and antithesis — between which a compromise — synthesis — has to be negotiated) which describe (roughly) different relationship between knowledge of the outside world and knowledge already held in our heads.

Kolb's approach to integrating these Piagetian ideas with the cycle is generally less successful than his application of Hudson. The search for new rules (Abstract Conceptualisation) to formalise observations (Reflective Observation) may well be an accommodative exercise, and very often trial and error learning (Active Experimentation) consists of moving from one known rule to another in the hope that one of them fits, so it is has an important element of assimilation in it. Nevertheless, the approach does help to focus attention on the relationship between the general and the particular. Assimilation includes fitting particular instances into general categories, and Accommodation is about working from the general principle to the particular application

Personally, I would replace the term "Assimilation" with the more common-sense one of "Description" and "Accommodation" with "Prescription", in the sense of a concern for what you ought to or must do.

For academics only! See ILLERIS K (2007) How We Learn; learning and non-learning in school and beyond London; Routledge, for a discussion which encompasses the latest European as well as American and British thinking in the field. But it's not easy going.

The Kolb Model and Subject Disciplines

Kolb and his colleagues have undertaken extensive empirical work using the Learning Styles Inventory to relate different subject disciplines to the quadrants of the learning cycle and hence to different forms of knowledge: partly for reasons of space and partly for copyright reasons, you are referred to the text for the results.

  • Broadly speaking, he suggests that practitioners of creative disciplines, such as the arts, are found in the Divergent quadrant.  
  • Pure scientists and mathematicians are in the Assimilative quadrant  
  • Applied scientists and lawyers are in the Convergent quadrant  
  • Professionals who have to operate more intuitively, such as teachers, are in the Accommodative quadrant 
  • There are also differences in the location of specialists within the more general disciplines

This would suggest that different subject areas call for different learning styles, and raises the usual chicken and egg question as to whether the discipline promotes a particular learning style, or whether preferred learning style leads to adoption of a discipline, or of course, both. (All of the above assumes that there is some validity in this conceptualisation of "learning styles".)

More links and ideas (although some may bring you back here!)

Click here to read a Belorussian translation of this page courtesy of Galina Miklosic


Kurt Lewin

(1890-1947) Originally a Gestalt psychologist in Berlin, Lewin moved to the USA and kick-started theoretical work on adult learning (applied particularly to attitude change in health promotion) and group dynamics. His work on life-space etc. was broadly phenomenological in approach. Little read now because of his tortuous pseudo-mathematical style, but the grandfather of many current ideas.

The closest reference is to LEWIN K (1942) "Field Theory and Learning" in D Cartwright (ed.) Field Theory in Social Science: selected theoretical papers, London; Social Science Paperbacks, 1951.

More on Lewin from the excellent "Infed" site. Read and stay to browse!


Learning Styles Inventory

The latest version of the LSI can be downloaded or taken on-line at (for a fee).

Dissenting voices

Phil Race, one of the most inspiring (and practical) staff developers in higher education in the UK, finds Kolb and other cyclical models unrealistic, prescriptive and needlessly academic. Download his PowerPoint™ presentation on his alternative "ripples" model from It is discussed in more detail in RACE P (2005) Making Learning Happen, London; Sage.

And Peter Jarvis, one of the most authoritative researchers on adult education, also has a serious critique of the model in Jarvis (2006)

(Last up-dated 4 April 2013)

(Last up-dated 2 September 2015)


To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Learning and Teaching; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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