Module 1: planning for learning at work: learner's workbook

2.4 The cycle of learning

Page last updated: 2004

The experiential learning cycle
Key dimensions of the cycle of learning

The experiential learning cycle

So what is 'learning'? Basically learning is about:
  • Growth – in knowledge
  • Development – of skills
  • Change – in attitudes, values and perceptions
Given the range of human diversity there are no formulas or packages that can totally encompass the complex process of learning. However, let's spend some time exploring the Experiential Learning Cycle developed by Kolb (1984).

The Kolb learning model describes learning as a never-ending cycle comprising four stages. It shows how experience is translated through reflection into concepts, which in turn are used as guides for active experimentation and new experiences.

These stages follow each other in the learning cycle (see 'The Kolb experiential learning cycle').

While the cycle may be entered at any point, the stages should be followed in sequence. The learning cycle thus provides feedback, which is the basis for new action and evaluation of the consequences of that action. As learners ideally go through the cycle several times, it may be thought of as a spiral of cycles.

Let's use a simple example of how we can use the cycle. (see 'Example: Riding a horse and falling off')

The Kolb experiential learning cycle

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Text version of The Kolb experiential learning cycle

The four stages of the cycle are:
  • Concrete experience (being open to, aware of, and valuing experience). Sensing and feeling leads to 'Reflection'.
  • Reflection (making use of and investigating experience, use of feelings/intuition, ideas and options). Watching/Reflecting leads to 'Conceptualisation'.
  • Conceptualisation (analysing and creating meaning from the experience). Thinking leads to 'Active experimentation'.
  • Active experimentation (preparing for action and trying things out). Doing/Behaving leads to 'Concrete experience'.

Example: Riding a horse and falling off

Text equivalent below for Example: Riding a horse and falling off

Text version of Example

  • Experience (Riding a horse and falling off) leads to 'Reflection'.
  • Reflection (What went wrong?) leads to 'Conceptualisation'.
  • Conceptualisation (Concluding from the experience: The saddle was too loose and I rode over very rough ground) leads to 'Active experimentation'.
  • Active experimentation (Try again - applying my new learning from the experience by tightening saddle straps and riding over smoother terrain where possible) leads to 'Experience'.
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Key dimensions of the cycle of learning

Kolb's model explains how we link theory to practice. The model highlights:
  • that experience is a critical part of our learning
  • that learning cannot take place without reflection - it results from making sense of our experience
  • the importance of feedback to reinforce learning.
Let's consider these points in more detail.


Kolb (1984) suggests that learning starts with experience. However, the model explains that experience alone is not sufficient for us to learn. We need to reflect on our experience:
  • concrete experience - having an experience
  • reflection - reviewing the experience
  • conceptualisation - concluding from the experience
  • active experimentation - planning the next step

Critical reflection

A central part of self-directed learning is the capacity to reflect. What does this actually mean? Reflection is an essential part of the learning process because it results in making sense of or extracting meaning from the experience. Critical reflection or critical thinking focuses on becoming aware of our own faulty assumptions and thinking processes.

To engage in critical reflection requires moving beyond the acquisition of new knowledge, to a questioning of existing assumptions, values and perspectives. Of course, critical reflection can lead to self-doubt and feelings of isolation and uncertainty. Learners who engage in activities to facilitate critical reflection must be supported in their efforts.

Engaging in reflective practice takes time and effort but the rewards can be great. The following list summarises reflective practice processes (Roth 1989):
  • Questioning what, why, and how one does things and asking what, why and how others do things
  • Seeking alternatives
  • Keeping an open mind
  • Comparing and contrasting
  • Seeking the framework, theoretical basis and/or underlying rationale
  • Viewing an issue from various perspectives
  • Asking 'what if...'?
  • Asking for others' ideas and viewpoints
  • Considering consequences
  • Hypothesising
  • Synthesising and testing
  • Seeking, identifying, and resolving problemsTop of page


Feedback plays an important part in the reflection process and is an important aspect of professional development. Feedback is necessary to check your progress towards your goals. Self-assessment is one way of receiving feedback but it is important to involve others as well.

Of course, there is no point in asking others to give you feedback unless you are prepared to be open to it and consider comments which differ from your own perspective. Here are some of the characteristics of a good receiver of feedback:
  • be explicit - Make it clear what kind of feedback you are seeking. If necessary indicate what sort of feedback you do not want to receive.

  • be attentive - Concentrate on what is being said. Focus on what the person wants you to know, not on what you would like to hear.

  • be aware - Take note of your reactions, both intellectual and emotional. Note any reactions of rejection on your part. Do not dismiss the viewpoint if it is different to yours. It is important to be aware of the reactions of others even if you think they are wrong.

  • be silent - Don't even begin to frame a response until you have listened carefully to what has been said. Don't be distracted by the need to explain or correct factual errors. If you need to give an explanation, do it after the feedback session once you have attended to all that has been said.
This ongoing cycle of learning and reflection is known as action learning. Action learning is an approach to the development of people in organisations and it is based on the premise that there is no learning without action and no purposeful action without learning!

Another important feature of the learning cycle theory is that different stages are associated with distinct learning styles. Recognising that individuals differ in their preferred learning styles is the first stage in raising your awareness of alternative possible approaches which will help you to become more flexible. Let's look at these learning styles in more detail.