Theories of learning: Experiential Learning

Theories of learning: Experiential Learning

Kolb proposed a four-stage learning process with a model that is often referred to in describing experiential learning (McGill & Beaty 1995). The process can begin at any of the stages and is continuous, ie there is no limit to the number of cycles you can make in a learning situation. This theory asserts that without reflection we would simply continue to repeat our mistakes.

Kolb’s research found that people learn in four ways with the likelihood of developing one mode of learning more than another. As shown in the ‘experiential learning cycle’ model, learning is:

  • through concrete experience
  • through observation and reflection
  • through abstract conceptualisation
  • through active experimentation

Differences in learning styles

As already discussed, the idea that people learn in different ways has been explored over the last few decades by educational researchers. Kolb, one of the the most influential of these, found that individuals begin with their preferred style in the experiential learning cycle (see above).

Honey and Mumford (1986 cited in McGill & Beaty 1995 p.177) building on Kolb’s work, identified four learning styles:

  • Activist (enjoys the experience itself),
  • Reflector (spends a great deal of time and effort reflecting)
  • Theorist (good at making connections and abstracting ideas from experience)
  • Pragmatist (enjoys the planning stage)

There are strengths and weaknesses in each of these styles. Honey and Mumford argue that learning is enhanced when we think about our learning style so that we can build on strengths and work towards minimising weaknesses to improve the quality of learning.

This theory shows that individuals learn in different ways, and that we have a preferred style in the experiential learning cycle that we start with and when we can recognise what this style is, our learning is strengthened and enhanced. This is part of a continuous process, where we move through each stage of the cycle and through reflection, we can identify our mistakes and learn through these.


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