Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory

Table of Content


The paper contains a discussion of Kolb’s Learning Theory and an elaboration of the experiential learning cycle as well as the four staged learning styles. These learning styles which are diverging, accommodating, converging and assimilating are perceived by Kolb to be helpful in aiding the mentor to develop the suitable style for the student. The paper also presents the view of academicians like Mirriam Webb and Curtis Kelly on the theory developed by Kolb.  The view that these academicians presents is centred in the lapses of the theory and the areas that needs to be improved on.

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Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory

            Learning is inevitable.

            As Philip Race (n.d.) said, learning is not limited to students. Learning is for everyone, even professors and teachers who are already engaged in teaching is needs to learn to impart better and more fruitful knowledge.

            In an attempt to explain how an individual processes information and eventually learns, David Kolb, an Organizational Behaviour professor, formulated in 1984 the experiential learning theory and cycle of learning. Kolb noted in his theory that there is a four stage learning cycle wherein the four distinct learning styles are based. These learning styles attempt to provide an explanation why there is a variety in learning (Smith, 1996).

            The learning cycle, which is the core principle of Kolb’s theory, touches all bases: experience, reflection, thinking and acting. The cycle may actually start anywhere within the cycle and should be approached in a continuous spiral (Smith, 1996). In illustration, it may start with the individual’s acquisition of concrete or immediate experiences (feeling) which will later on provide basis for reflections and observations (watching) or the undertaking of a certain action and waiting for the effect of this act (Business balls, n.d.). The effect/s of these acts in turn are processed to become abstract concepts (thinking) giving the individual an avenue for the individual to understand the act’s effects. The understanding that the individual generates from the results of the action will then give him an idea on how to react on a specific situation. (Smith, 1996)It will produce inkling in the individual to take the action to an active test (doing). The result of the experiment, whether positive or negative, creates a new experience for the individual and another round of the learning cycle (Business balls, n.d.).

            In relation to this learning cycle, Kolb realized that an individual may be faced with more than one situation in the learning cycle, thus, there is a need for him to make a choice for learning to progress. In analyzing this decision making process, he introduced the four learning styles: diverging (diverger), assimilating (assimilator), converging (converger) and accommodating (accommodator) (Business balls, n.d.).

(Source: http://www.businessballs.com/kolblearningstyles.htm)

            Divergers are reflective observers or concrete experiencers. They are inquisitive; they are fond of asking why and start from the smallest detail of something in order to understand the bigger picture. They are willing to go through an experience and deeply reflect on it thus, leading their single experience to multiple possible meanings. They also enjoy working with others, participating in activities and receiving constructive feedbacks, however, they are not very good in dealing with conflicts, they usually fret. Generally, they prefer to learn through a logical instruction, hands-on exploration and intelligent conversations (Changing minds, n.d.).

            Convergers are active experimenters or abstract conceptualizers. The process of learning for them works in a way that they conceptualize an idea and bring this into practice. Unlike divergers who usually ask why, convergers go through the process of learning by asking how. Facts fascinate them and they use this in making careful changes in the system. They are independent thinkers and prefer to work alone. They learn efficiently through computer-based learning (Changing minds, n.d.).

            Accommodators are concrete experiencers and active experimenters. Their approach to learning is hands-on and they have a strong preference for action rather than merely mind work. Practical learning is more effective for them rather than lecture or merely reading books. They are fond of asking what if and why not so that they can find support for their action-first approach. They are also innovators and prefer to take creative risks rather than engage in routinary activities. They love complexity and explore through direct interaction. Like convergers, they function better when they are working alone (Changing minds, n.d.).

            Assimilators on the other hand have the combination of an abstract conceptualizer and a reflective observer. They approach learning cognitively and prefer mind action rather than physical action. They normally ask what in relation to information which they have not yet encountered. In contrast to accommodators, lecture function better for their learning and they also respect the knowledge provided by experts. They also take pleasure in logical and thoughtful conversations. The best teaching strategy for serious learners like them is the lecture type. The educator should provide books and start discussing concepts from a high level down to the detailed level (Changing minds, n.d.).

            More likely, according to Kolb, an individual will only fall on a single type of learning style as what is developed will become the individual’s preferred learning style. According to Kolb, the diversity in learning style is the result of the individual’s stages of development. These stages of development that Kolb refer to are the following:

1.      Acquisition- this stage starts from birth to adolescence. During this stage, the individual begins to develop basic abilities and structures of cognition

2.      Specialization-this stage starts from school age and continues through adulthood. During this period, the individual develops a special style of learning influenced by his social, educational and organizational relations

3.      Integration-this stage starts at mid-career and continues through life’s later stages. During this stage, there is an expression of non-dominant style of learning in his field of work as well as his personal life (Business balls, n.d.).

            According to Curtis Kelly (1997), understanding one’s preferred learning style will help understand the areas of weakness and give an opportunity to the individual to work on becoming more effective in other fields. Moreover, knowing the preferred learning style will also help in realizing one’s strengths that might be advantageous in certain endeavours such as career decision making.

            As cited in Kelly, Rogers do not agree with Kolb’s theory. He believes that learning include goals, purposes, intentions, choice and decision making. It was not made clear in Kolb’s experiential learning cycle where all these factors come in. In addition, Roger said that Kolb’s learning styles are not accurate as they are based solely on the rating of the students themselves and not based on standards or behaviour. This kind of evaluation is only limited to the relative strength present in the individual learner and not in relation to others.

            Mark Smith on the other hand cites six issues with regard to the model provided by Kolb. The first issue that he raised is the insufficient attention that the model gives to reflection process. the design created by Kolb is effective in assisting educators to plan learning activities and in checking that learners are able develop an effective engagement to learning but it is deficient in uncovering reflection or the way humans process the information they receive (Smith 1996).

            As to the second issue, he said that Kolb made extravagant claims in the learning styles that he developed. The author elaborated saying that the experiential learning model that he created is not applicable to all situations. There are alternatives to these learning styles and these are information assimilation and memorization (Smith 1996).

            Smith also raised that Kolb gave a limited merit to cultural experiences and conditions. The learning styles that Kolb formulated have only been used in a limited cultural range. There are certain cultural considerations to be looked into as there are certain cultural differences in cognitive and communication styles (Smith 1996).

            On the fourth issue, the author noted that the stages or the steps that Kolb presented were too neat and simplistic, which are quite unrealistic. Learning, according to Smith is a more complicated process (Smith 1996).

            As to the fifth issue, he said that the empirical support provided for the model Kolb created is weak. The initial base for the research was relatively small and there are only a limited number of studies that tested or deeply delved on the model. The author cited that the model Kolb created cannot measure the degree of learning integration (Smith 1996).

            The last issue is the problematic relationship between learning processes and knowledge.  The author noted that the exploration made by Kolb on the nature of learning is only superficial and did not delve on it in a deeper perspective. His discussion was based on social psychology. He also failed to interrelate his theory of learning to the debates concerning the nature of knowledge. In addition, Kolb’s model is focused on the production of knowledge and not on information and committed action which are also essential in knowledge formation (Smith 1996).

            In a paper written by Mirriam Webb (2003), she said that the techniques advocated in the model of Kolb do not reveal an epistemological explanation of an individual’s knowing and learning—how they come to know and learn. She noted that the model’s definition of learning is problematic. The theory of Lewin’s on experiential learning in groups was adapted was utilized in attempting to explain learning qua learning. Webb suggested in her work that in defining learning, one should start answering the query on how humans know rather than immediately attack the question on how humans are able to adapt in groups. The answer to the latter question is dependent on a “longitudinal socialization derivative of how the human mind comes to learn”.

            Unlike the mentioned academicians who attempted to point out the flaws of the experiential learning theory, Brian Delahaye, adheres to the teachings of the theory, follows them and even lectures on them. In a power point presentation on Human Resource Development, he indicated that experiential learning includes learning instruments, simulations, projects and sensitivity groups. These components that he lectures on are the very components which Kolb’s indicated in his experiential learning theory (Ballarat, n.d.)

            Despite its lapses, Kolb’s contribution of experiential learning theory to psychology is still deeply recognized and there are also academicians like Delahaye who believe in the doctrine that the theory attempts to explain.

            The experiential learning theory, the cycle and the learning styles that are helpful in creating an effective learning strategy for the learner. If the preferred learning style of an individual is determined, it will be easier for the mentor to devise the method that will work for the student. The learning approach and materials can be easily adjusted to suit the style which the learner prefers.

            Although there are indicated flaws, the effectivity of the model is not yet completely flawed. Its defects are evident only on certain details and not on the whole theory itself, thereby it may still prove to be effective in certain cases. Utilizing the model will be more beneficial than not having anything to base a learning strategy at all. The mentor on the other should just be careful in interpreting the results and the effects and be careful in using the model. He must be guided not to take the theory as gospel truth.


Business Balls. (n.d.). Kolb’s Learning Styles. Retrieved 8 May 2008 from   

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Changing Minds. (n.d.). Kolb’s Learning Styles. Retrieved 8 May 2008, from




Delahaye, Brian. (n.d). Human Resource Development: Principles and Practice. Ballarat. Retrieved 8 May 2008 from http://uob-community.ballarat.edu.au

Kelly, Curtis. (9 September 1997). David Kolb, The Theory of Experiential Learning and            ESL. Internet TESL Journal. Retrieved 8 May 2008 from   http://iteslj.org/Articles/Kelly-Experiential/

Race, Phil. (n.d.). How students really learn ‘Ripples’ model of learning. Retrieved 8 May            2008 from www.phil-race.com/files/ripples4.ppt

Smith, Mark. (1996). David A. Kolb on Experiential Learning. Infed.org. Retrieved 8 May          2008, from q=cache:QciLsDz42k4J:www.infed.org/biblio/

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Webb, Mirriam. (2003). The Critique of Kolb’s ELT. Retrieved 8 May 2008 from             http://cc.ysu.edu/~mnwebb/critique.htm


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