How to Maximise Your Development with Kolb’s Learning Cycle

Kolb's learning cycle and learning styles
Photo by cottonbro studio via pexels

Kolb’s 4 Stage Learning Cycle and 4 Learning Styles

How do we best learn? That may be a question you have not considered before, but it is certainly important. If we want to be in a growth mindset, we need to ensure we are developing effectively. It turns out that effective learning happens cyclically, in a continual loop, and that is what the Kolb learning cycle helps us to embrace.

I find Kolb’s learning cycle useful on several levels. Firstly, it gives insight into my preferred learning style. Secondly, it helps me as a leader and coach, supporting the development of others. Thirdly, it informs how I construct the leadership education programmes that I deliver at businesses, universities and in the military. You will soon see how you can apply it too. 

What is the Kolb cycle of learning?

Kolb’s learning cycle is a conceptual model that explains learning from the perspective of experiential learning theory. As you would expect, experiential learning is education through experience and the application of knowledge. As Kolb himself puts it:

“Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience”

Kolb’s model is a four-stage learning cycle and has four associated learning styles. We will explore this in more detail a bit later.

Why is Kolb’s learning cycle important?

Following extensive research at the Weatherhead School of Management (Ohio), David A. Kolb published his learning cycle in 1984 as part of his influential book, ‘Experiential Learning: Experience As The Source Of Learning And Development’. Since then, Kolb’s learning cycle has become probably the best-known and most respected learning model among educators, academics, and laypeople alike.

Kolb’s experiential learning theory is based on psychology and approaches developed by the likes of Lewin, Jung, and Dewey. Kurt Lewin, the gestalt psychologist was an expert in mindset change. Carl Jung, the analytical psychologist, developed the ideas of personality type, and the concepts of introversion and extroversion, which both relate to learning styles. John Dewey, the philosopher, and educational reformer was also a proponent of experiential learning. 

Beyond the field of educational psychology, there are other obvious influences and useful comparisons. Kolb’s learning cycle reflects a decision-making process and is almost synonymous with John Boyd’s OODA loop (ObserveOrientateDecideAct). There are also similarities with Eric Rees’s Lean Start-up model, as the ThinkMakeCheck process is a learning cycle too. 

What are the 4 stages of Kolb’s learning cycle?

The four stages of Kolb’s learning cycle are:

  1. Concrete Experience (CE)
  2. Reflective Observation (RO)
  3. Abstract Conceptualisation (AC)
  4. Active Experimentation (AE)

Effective learning is only achieved when the loop is completed. But, the loop can be entered at any point, as long as the full cycle is accomplished.

How to use Kolb's learning cycle and learning styles
Kolb’s 4-Stage Learning Cycle (by author)

Here is a further explanation of each stage.

Concrete experience

A concrete experience (CE) is a new experience or similar experience under new circumstances. The key element is some sort of novelty in the situation that promotes a learning opportunity. 

Reflective observation

Reflective observation (RO) is the mental process of assessing the situation with existing knowledge and identifying gaps in understanding. 

Abstract conceptualisation

The next stage is abstract conceptualisation (AC) where a new or modified idea is introduced to address the intellectual gap. This abstract concept takes the form of a mental model. 

Active experimentation

The fourth stage is active experimentation (AE) where the new or modified mental model is implemented into the new situation. The approach is one of experimentation, where the learner observes what happens so that the cycle can start again, and further adaptations can be incorporated as needed. 

Developing a Growth Mindset using Kolb’s Learning Cycle

What is an example of Kolb’s learning cycle?

We can illustrate how this cycle works by taking the example of playing a video game. I am a fan of many computer games but let us take the ever-popular Supercell app, Clash Royale, as a specific example in this case. For those who don’t know (and suffer an addition to) Clash Royale, then in simple terms, it is a strategy game where you battle other players in real-time online, with a limited deck of attack cards. Here is a simple application of the Kolb model in this scenario.

  1. Concrete experience. I start a game and enter a battle with another player.
  • Reflective observation. With my chosen deck I see the effect of the battle cards I chose and how they fare against the opposition. I think about when, where, and how I place the cards, drawing upon previous experience of playing the game or similar games.
  • Abstract conceptualisation. Depending on how my strategy performs (but particularly if it goes badly) I will think about changing my deck to select other cards that might perform better in another match.
  • Active experimentation. I will start a fresh match with my new deck and experiment with how the alternative cards perform as compared to my old deck. But inevitably this new experience will be against a new player with a slightly different deck to the last one played and so the cycle begins again. 

Hopefully, you can see from this how easily the model can apply to everyday situations. Think about experiences you have had today; that could be commuting, cooking, practising a musical instrument, writing or one of a thousand other things. What novel circumstance promoted the learning loop for you in that experience and what was the outcome?

What are Kolb’s 4 learning styles?

Four learning styles complement the four stages of the Kolb learning cycle. In my mind, these are less useful than the cycle, but they are still worth considering. The learning styles, as they relate to the learning cycle, are:

  1. Diverging (CE/RO)
  2. Assimilating (AC/RO)
  3. Converging (AC/AE)
  4. Accommodating (CE/AE)

These terms need unpacking a little more so here is each in turn:

Diverging – feel and watch

The Diverging preference is predominant in the CE and RO phases of the cycle. People with this preference are often sensitive, open to different perspectives, like idea generation and brainstorming, and are imaginative and in touch emotionally.

Assimilating – think and watch

Assimilators prefer the reflective observation and abstract conceptualisation stages. They tend to be concise, and logical, want a clear explanation, and access to a wide range of information. They have a tendency towards science, reading and analysis.

Converging – think and do 

The Converging style concentrates on the abstract conceptualisation and active experimentation phases. People with this preference like practical issues, problem-solving, and taking a hands-on approach. They tend to be technically minded and gifted.

Accommodating – feel and do 

Those with the Accommodating style particularly enjoy the active experimentation and concrete experience elements of the cycle. They use intuition rather than logic, relish new challenges and experiences and often prefer to rely on others for getting knowledge and data.

What is my preferred learning style?

According to Kolb, we all have a preferred learning style and after reading the descriptions above there is a good chance you will have an idea of which one best depicts you. For example, I tend to reflect before I do which makes assimilation my preference. By contrast, my wife loves to do and would be closer to the accommodating preference. Suffice to say, in any team (and there I include the family) it is good to have a range of preferences.

The four learning styles are based on the psychology of Carl Jung (as mentioned earlier) and his ideas on personality preferences for how we understand and interact with the world. You might recognise some of the terminologies if you have done a personality test such as the Myers-Briggs (MBTI) profile. Doing and watching relate to introversion and extraversion. Similarly, experience and conceptualisation relate to feeling and thinking. For those familiar with the work of Honey and Mumford (The Manual of Learning Styles, 1986) you will also see parallels with their ‘activist’‘reflector’‘theorist’, and ‘pragmatist’ typology. 

I mentioned before that I feel that these preferences are – on balance – less useful than the cycle and that is because I don’t like to put people into boxes. Preferences are just that, preferences, not exact types. Styles relate to a rough spectrum that has flexibility, rather than a box with firm boundaries, but we often forget that when it comes to personality profiles. This can lead to unhelpful assumptions such as “I can’t learn that way because I am this particular type.” That would be a wrong assumption; we all have elements of each type and need to engage through each stage of the learning cycle. 

Every day is a school day

I love the phrase, “every day is a school day” as it sums up the growth mindset. We should all seek to be in learning mode with every new day and new experience. But as John Dewey points out, 

The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative.

 John Dewey

Kolb’s learning cycle gives us a model to ensure that experiences can be educative. If we take the concrete experience, apply reflective observation, build our abstract concepts, and apply them in active experimentation, then we can be sure to learn, develop and educate ourselves effectively – whatever our preferred learning style.

So, what new thing can you learn today? Have fun!

Would you like a free e-book to help you set goals and create a personal action plan? Then just subscribe to my newsletter. Don’t miss out; sign up here!

3 thoughts on “How to Maximise Your Development with Kolb’s Learning Cycle

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.