What is Experiential Learning?

Experiential learning theory, based on the experience of learning, Dewey emphasizes the importance of individuals being active in the learning process, and is based on the work of Piaget, who considers intelligence not only as an innate trait but as a result of interaction between people and the environment.

These scientists have tried to develop an integrated experiential learning process and model for adult education. David A. KOLB is the one who has adopted the theory of experiential learning in the most generally accepted way. Kolb defines learning as a process in which experience is transformed into knowledge.

From Experience To Knowledge

We all learn from our experience. This learning process, which started in infancy and then in childhood, actually continues in our youth and adulthood. We try to push our boundaries, get new skills and overcome our challenges. Every experience gives us an experience. We reflect on this experience, analyze it, and observe our own experience and the experiences of others. These analyzes and observations give us new insights and ideas. This implements new ideas and we naturally get a new experience from this application. This cycle, which is the natural learning process of man, is integrated into the educational processes by the leading scientists of the 20th century.

Experiential Learning Cycle

Experiential Learning Theory is a dynamic view of learning based on a learning cycle driven by the resolution of the dual dialectics of action/reflection and experience/abstraction. Learning is defined as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience.” . Grasping experience refers to the process of taking in information, and transforming experience is how individuals interpret and act on that information. The Experiential Learning Theory Model portrays two dialectically related modes of grasping experience:

Concrete Experience and Abstract Conceptualization

Two dialectically related modes of transforming experience (Reflective Observation and Active Experimentation)

Learning arises from the resolution of creative tension among these four learning modes. This process is portrayed as an idealized learning cycle where the learner “touches all the bases”—experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting—in a recursive process that is sensitive to the learning situation and what is being learned. Immediate or concrete experiences are the basis for observations and reflections. These reflections are assimilated and distilled into abstract concepts from which new implications for action can be drawn. These implications can be actively tested and serve as guides in creating new experiences.

6 Propositions Behind Theory

Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes. Although punctuated by knowledge milestones, learning does not end at an outcome, nor is it always evidenced in performance. Rather, learning occurs through the course of connected experiences in which knowledge is modified and re-formed. To improve learning in higher education, the primary focus should be on engaging students in a process that best enhances their learning – a process that includes feedback on the effectiveness of their learning efforts. “…education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience: … the process and goal of education are one and the same thing.”

All learning is re-learning. Learning is best facilitated by a process that draws out the students’ beliefs and ideas about a topic so that they can be examined, tested and integrated with new, more refined ideas. Piaget called this proposition constructivism—individuals construct their knowledge of the world based on their experience and learn from experiences that lead them to realize how new information conflicts with their prior experience and belief.

Learning requires the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world. Conflict, differences, and disagreement are what drive the learning process. These tensions are resolved in iterations of movement back and forth between opposing modes of reflection and action and feeling and thinking.

Learning is a holistic process of adaptation to the world. Learning is not just the result of cognition but involves the integrated functioning of the total person— thinking, feeling, perceiving and behaving. It encompasses other specialized models of adaptation from the scientific method to problem solving, decision making and creativity.

Learning results from synergetic transactions between the person and the environment. In Piaget’s terms, learning occurs through equilibration of the dialectic processes of assimilating new experiences into existing concepts and accommodating existing concepts to new experience. Following Lewin’s famous formula that behaviour is a function of the person and the environment, ELT holds that learning is influenced by characteristics of the learner and the learning space.

Learning is the process of creating knowledge. In ELT, knowledge is viewed as the transaction between two forms of knowledge: social knowledge, which is co-constructed in a socio-historical context, and personal knowledge, the subjective experience of the learner. This conceptualization of knowledge stands in contrast to that of the “transmission” model of education in which pre-existing, fixed ideas are transmitted to the learner.

David KOLB

David A. Kolb is Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Weathered School of Management. He joined the School in 1976. Born in 1939, Kolb received his Bachelor of Arts from Knox College in 1961, his MA from Harvard in 1964 and his PhD from Harvard in 1967. He has also been awarded four honorary degrees recognizing his contribution to experiential learning (from SUNY Empire State College; Franklin University; Buckingham University, UK; and Knox College). In 2008 David A. Kolb received the Educational Pioneers of the Year award (with Alice Kolb) from the National Society of Experiential Education.