Educational theories you must know. Kolb’s learning cycle. St.Emlyn’s

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle is a four stage process that describes a four stage process of how we acquire and embed new knowledge. The theory embraces the idea that we  change as a result of experience, reflection, conceptualisation and experimentation.

It is typically presented as a four stage process with concrete experience at the top. This can suggest a starting point, but it is argued that you can start from any point. Kolb argues that for new knowledge to be effectively learnt then an individual must progress through all four stages.

Learning takes place when a person has an experience, then reflects upon it which leads to an analysis and formation of abstract concepts and generalisations which are then used in experimentation to test the hypothesis.



Think about how you learned to place an IV cannula. The concrete stage is physically experiencing the equipment (and patient or mannequin) in the moment, that experience allowed you to think about what is working and what is not (reflective observation) and thus think about ways to improve (abstract conceptualisation) and then use these to hopefully improve (active experimentation) thus creating a new experience, and so the cycle continues.

I have seen some people dismiss this as an obvious description of learning, or as an example of how an educator is not required to learn a new skill. The school of thought that suggests we can all learn by trial and error might suggest that this what Kolb describes, but think about your role as educator. How would you help your learners go through these cycles both within their own thoughts and also through experiences and reflections that you can facilitate. In the cannula experience I’m sure we have all had the experience of being told that we ‘are doing it wrong’. Embracing this model of learning might lead you as an observer/educator to ask different questions.

  • Why do you think that happened?
  • Why did it (or not) work this time?
  • Do you think that will work again?
  • How might you modify your technique in a patient with different anatomy?

This type of questioning encourages the learners to keep the cycle going and to develop their own reflections, concepts and experiments. It is more then than trial and error but when embraced and guided it is a way of learners constructing their own knowledge and solutions.

Kolb also produced work on learning styles which link closely to the experiential learning cycle.

There are many critques of Kolb and personally I am a fan of the Jarvis model which explicitly demonstrates change and reinforcement but it remains one of the best known and most referenced model of new knowledge acquisition.

Why Kolb matters.

I use the Kolb cycle as an example of how we can promote reflection and self led learning in practice. It is also one of the mechanisms that allows more advanced practitioners to achieve mastery and to innovate new solutions to problems in clinical practice.


Further reading

Kolb’s learning cycle at simply psychology

David Kolb links on activities to help learners through the cycle.

inf.ed critique on Kolb’s learning cycle and styles

The experiential learning cycle. Linking learning styles to the cycle.

Experiential learning on wikipedia


More in this series

  1. Maslow’s hierachy of learning needs.
  2. Constructivism and socio-constructivism
  3. Lave and Wenger’s communities of practice
  4. Spaced repetition
  5. Miller’s assessment pyramid
  6. Bloom’s taxonomy
  7. Mastery, improvement and deliberate practice
  8. Kolb’s learning cycle
  9. Lewis change model

Before you go please don’t forget to…

Cite this article as: Simon Carley, "Educational theories you must know. Kolb’s learning cycle. St.Emlyn’s," in St.Emlyn's, November 4, 2015,

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