2    Experiential learning theory

It is common for courses to be described as either practical or theoretical: as either involving doing or involving thinking. Learning is seen to take place either 'on the job' or in the classroom. Even in courses which contain both elements they tend to be sharply divided. An academic teacher may present theory in a lecture in the classroom whilst a practical supervisor is in charge of the follow-up practical experience in a workshop.

It is also common for both types of course to have limited success.

It is not sufficient simply to have an experience in order to learn. Without reflecting upon this experience it may quickly be forgotten or its learning potential lost. It is from the feelings and thoughts emerging from this reflection that generalisations or concepts can be generated. And it is generalisations which enable new situations to be tackled effectively.

Similarly, if it is intended that behaviour should be changed by learning, it is not sufficient simply to learn new concepts and develop new generalisations. This learning must be tested out in new situations. The learner must make the link between theory and action by planing for that action, carrying it out, and then reflecting upon it, relating what happens back to the theory.

It is not enough just to do, and neither is it enough just to think. Nor is it enough simply to do and think. Learning from experience must involve links between the doing and the thinking. The four-stage model of learning by doing which is elaborated below is that of Kolb. Quite a few theorists have proposed cyclical models to explain how people learn from experience, but they all share the important features of Kolb's model which is itself derived from Lewin. Learning from experience involves four stages which follow each other in a cycle, as in the following diagram.

The terms used here as labels for the four stages come from Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory, and placed in this sequence they form the experiential learning cycle. The cycle can be entered by the learner at any point, but its stages must be followed in sequence.



A trainee nurse might start learning how to lift a patient by taking part in supervised practice with a dummy, which would give experience of (a simulation of) what it is like (stage 1 in the diagram below).

The charge nurse might then ask: "How did that feel? What might you have done differently?" to encourage the nurse to be reflective about the experience (stage 2).

That night the nurse could look up, in a textbook, how to lift patients and read about the reasons for doing it in particular ways (stage 3).

Next day, confronted with a real patient to lift, the nurse would think:"As a result of what happened yesterday, and because of what I read last night I ought to do it like this" (stage 4). This would provide a new experience and start the nurse on the next learning cycle.




This learning cycle is exactly the same as that involved in carrying out experimental work. A chemistry course might involve the sequence of learning activities illustrated below:



1 Taking notes in a lecture about a type of chemical reaction
2 Designing and running an experiment to test whether this type of reaction occurs with a particular group of elements
3 Gaining the experience of seeing what happens in the experiment
4 Looking at the results and comparing these with others' results
5 Discussing possible explanations of these results
6 Designing and running an experiment to test these alternative explanations
7 Gaining the experience of seeing what happens in this experiment
8 Looking at the results and comparing them with previous results

and so on, round and round the cycle, until an adequate understanding of the nature of the chemical reaction has been arrived at.



Exercise 1

Take a section of a course or a teaching or training session which you are responsible for and try to describe the sequence of learning activities involved in terms of the stages of the experimental learning cycle. Use the two examples above as models, and use this diagram and the space below it to plot the sequence.

Stage 1:

Stage 2:

Stage 3:

Stage 4:

Stage 5:

Stage 6:


Which stages of the experiential learning cycle have been missed out (if any)? What could you add to complete the cycle(s)?



The following list of points may help to clarify what experiential learning is, and what it is not:


Learners are involved in an active exploration of experience. Experience is used to test out ideas and assumptions rather than to obtain practice passively. Practice can be very important but it is greatly enhanced by reflection.


Learners must selectively reflect on their experience in a critical way rather than take experience for granted and assume that the experience on its own is sufficient.

3 The experience must matter to the learner. Learners must be committed to the process of exploring and learning.

There must be scope for the learner to exercise some independence from the teacher. Teachers have an important role in devising appropriate experiences and facilitating reflection. However the transmission of information is but a minor element and the teacher cannot experience what the learner experiences or reflect for the learner.


Experiential learning is not the same as 'discovery' learning. Learning by doing is not simply a matter of letting learners loose and hoping that they discover things for themselves in a haphazard way through sudden bursts of inspiration. The nature of the activity may be carefully designed by the teacher and the experience may need to be carefully reviewed and analysed afterwards for learning to take place. A crucial feature of experiential learning is the structure devised by the teacher within which learning takes place.


Openness to experience is necessary for learners to have the evidence upon which to reflect. It is therefore crucial to establish an appropriate emotional tone for learners: one which is safe and supportive, and which encourages learners to value their own experience and to trust themselves to draw conclusions from it. This openness may not exist at the outset but may be fostered through successive experiences of the experiential learning cycle.


Experiential learning involves a cyclical sequence of learning activities. Teaching methods can be selected to provide a structure to each stage of the cycle, and to take learners through the appropriate sequence.

  Sections 4 and 5 provide practical advice on appropriate teaching methods .

Further reading

Boud, D., Keogh, R. and Walker, D. (Eds.)

Reflection: Turning Experience Into Learning Kogan Page, London. 1985.

Kolb, D. A. Experiential Learning - Experience as the Source of Learning and Development Prentice- Hall, New Jersey. 1984.

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Created by Claire Andrew
Page created 10 January 2001