The Experiential Learning Theory of David Kolb

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As the name suggests, experiential learning involves learning from experience. The theory was proposed by psychologist David Kolb who was influenced by the work of other theorists including John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget.

According to Kolb, this type of learning can be defined as "the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combinations of grasping and transforming the experience."

Experiential learning theory differs from cognitive and behavioral theories in that cognitive theories emphasize the role of mental processes while behavioral theories ignore the possible role of subjective experience in the learning process.

The experiential theory proposed by Kolb takes a more holistic approach and emphasizes how experiences, including cognition, environmental factors, and emotions, influence the learning process.

Experiential Model Theory

In the experiential model, Kolb described two different ways of grasping experience:

  • Abstract Conceptualization
  • Concrete Experience

He also identified two ways of transforming experience:

  • Active Experimentation
  • Reflective Observation

These four modes of learning are often portrayed as a cycle. According to Kolb, concrete experience provides information that serves as a basis for reflection. From these reflections, we assimilate the information and form abstract concepts.

People then use these concepts to develop new theories about the world, which they then actively test.

Through the testing of our ideas, we once again gather information through experience, cycling back to the beginning of the process. The process does not necessarily begin with experience, however. Instead, each person must choose which learning mode will work best based upon the specific situation.

For example, let's imagine that you are going to learn how to drive a car:

  • One person may choose to begin learning via reflection by observing other people as they drive.
  • Another might prefer to start more abstractly, by reading and analyzing a driving instruction book.
  • Yet, a different person could decide to just jump right in and get behind the seat of a car to practice driving on a test course.

Preferences Play a Role

How do we decide which mode of experiential learning will work best? While situational variables are important, our own preferences play a large role. Kolb notes that people who are considered "watchers" prefer reflective observation, while those who are "doers" are more likely to engage in active experimentation.

"Because of our hereditary equipment, our particular past life experiences, and the demands of our environment, we develop a preferred way of choosing," Kolb explains.

These preferences also serve as the basis for Kolb's learning styles. In this learning style model, each of the four types has dominant learning abilities in two areas. For example, people with the diverging learning style are dominant in the areas of concrete experience and reflective observation.

Factors That Influence Learning Styles

Kolb suggests that a number of different factors can influence preferred learning styles. Some of the factors that he has identified include:

  • Adaptive competencies
  • Career choice
  • Current job role
  • Educational specialization
  • Personality type

Experiential Learning Theory Support and Criticism

While Kolb's theory is one of the widely used learning models in the field of education, it has been widely criticized for a number of reasons.

Support for Experiential Learning Theory

Kolb's own research suggests that there is a correlation between students learning styles and their chosen majors. People who choose college majors and professions that are well-aligned to their learning styles tend to be more committed to their field.

Experiential learning can be good for helping people explore their own strengths when learning new things. The theory addresses how learners can play to their own strengths as well as developing areas in which they are weakest.

Criticism of Experiential Learning Theory

The experiential learning theory does not adequately address the role that non-reflective experience plays in the learning process. While the theory is good at analyzing how learning occurs for individuals, it does little to look at learning that occurs in larger social groups. How does the individual's interaction with a larger group impact the experiential learning process?

Learning styles may not be stable over time. For example, one study published in 1999 found that adults over the age of 65 tend to become more observant and reflective while learning. Other critics suggest that the theory is too narrowly focused and restrictive.

Understanding your own learning preferences may be helpful, but it does not necessarily mean that you can't learn in other ways or that your preferred style will always be the same.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Kolb, D. A. Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall; 1984.

  2. Sternberg RJ, Zhang L-fang. Perspectives on Thinking, Learning, and Cognitive Styles. Florence: Taylor and Francis; 2014.

  3. Truluck JE, Courtenay, BC. Learning Style Preferences Among Older AdultsEducational Gerontology. 1999;25(3):221-236. doi:10.1080/036012799267846.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."