Learning, thinking and doing
Learning, thinking and doing

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Learning, thinking and doing

3.3 The experiential model of learning

The main proponent of this approach to learning, David Kolb, put forward a theory which he intended to be sufficiently general to account for all forms of learning (Kolb, 1984). He argued that there are four distinctive kinds of knowledge and that each is associated with a distinctive kind of learning. The four kinds of learning are:

  • concrete experiencing

  • reflective observation

  • abstract analysis

  • active experimentation.

Kolb suggested that the ideal form of learning was one that integrated all four of these, integration being achieved by a cyclical progression through them in the way shown in Figure 4. The result of the journey round the cycle is the transformation of experience into knowledge, and this forms the basis of Kolb's definition of learning: the production of knowledge through the transformation of experience.

Thus Kolb views learning as a process – one through which any experience (including the experience of being taught) is transformed. If, for example, information is reproduced by the learner in exactly the form taught, learning would not have occurred, according to his view, because nothing would have been changed or transformed. Memorisation might be judged to have occurred, but not learning, which has a kind of 'value added' quality in this model because it generates something more than or different from the original stimulus.

The cyclical process shown in Figure 4 can begin anywhere. Starting at the 'top', we have concrete experiencing, on which we can reflect and draw out observations. These in turn provide the raw material for the abstract analysis and conceptualization stage, out of which we can derive new ideas or theories, to try out in practice. Active experimentation combines therefore the fruits of both concrete experience and abstract analysis, and when we put our experimental ideas into practice, we generate another episode for concrete experiencing so that the cycle can begin over again.

Kolb argues that all four stages in the experiential learning cycle are essential for the full integration of direct, concrete experience and action with knowledge and theories about the world. The integration, as I mentioned earlier, comes by working through each of the four stages identified in the model, from concrete experiencing through reflective observation, abstract analysis and active experimentation. Each of the four stages has a distinctive activity and function which is essential for the achievement of learning. Kolb's theory requires that each stage be given its full value by the learner, with outcomes that feed forward into the next stage of the model – wherever we begin on the cycle.

Figure 4
Figure 4 The Kolb model of learning

Thus if our learning begins with some kind of formal teaching, we are starting the Kolb cycle at the bottom – abstract conceptualization. At the higher education level especially, teaching is about generalisations and abstractions, and our learning is mediated through texts and symbolic representations of the kind that you are now studying in this course.

Kolb's argument is that much education and training stops there and leaves the learning process incomplete, with knowledge that has not been reflected on and digested, nor used in action and integrated into the person's way of seeing the world and accounting for its effects. What should happen is that we test out our grasp of new knowledge by using it in some purposeful and planned way (thus achieving the next stage – active experimentation) and this active experimentation will generate opportunities for direct concrete experiencing (top of the diagram). This experience provides the substance for the next stage of the cycle – reflective observation – where we can reflect by comparing our understanding of abstract concepts with experience of how they worked out in practice at the concrete experience stage.

If we then adjust our understanding by a second stage of abstract analysis, we re-start the cycle and re-visit each stage. But for the second tour of the cycle, the content at each stage will be different.

The process of completing an assignment, for example, may correspond quite closely to a movement round the Kolb cycle. Course material gives us new ideas or theories to check out in practice. We will apply these theories in drawing up a research plan which requires some local research or fact finding. The observations that we make as a result of this concrete experience will be the basis of a reflective stage, which in turn needs to feed into a re-visit of our starting ideas or theories. These may be confirmed and enlarged as a result of our research. Alternatively, our experiences may have suggested that they need to be changed or developed in a new direction. Having clarified the revisions to these abstract ideas or models, we are ready to move on, applying the new thinking to the final stage in the cycle, by deciding on their implications for practice.

The model in Figure 4 shows a single cycle of learning, for simplicity's sake. However, if learning does progress through each of these stages a second, third or more times, it is not a simple repetitive process but a spiral, progressive movement in which the content of our learning will be different at each successive working through of the cycle.

Although I have given you an example which begins the cycle at the abstract conceptualisation stage, experiential learning is most commonly associated with a process beginning at the top of the diagram with direct concrete experiencing. This partly reflects Kolb's aim in writing his book, which was to argue the view that western industrialised societies overvalue abstract analytical knowledge and that direct experience ought to be used more often to identify explicit learned outcomes. He argued that we should reflect much more on our direct experience as a way of integrating theory with practice and of taking into account the full effects of our ideas and theories in action. He argued that 'head knowledge' alone, which does not take into account the practical and emotional effects of theories and abstractions, was at best limiting of human potential and at worst dangerous.

Experiential learning has been used in a variety of ways in higher education and elsewhere, and it has played a strong role in the movement towards bringing work experience and ways of learning in the workplace into higher education studies. It has also been used as the basis for distinguishing between so-called 'learning styles', which differentiate one learner from another. Kolb argued that we tend to prefer some stages of the model to others – to find concrete experience, say, more congenial than active experimentation or reflection. As a result, we tend to skip these least preferred stages, and to do them little justice in our regular way of learning.

Kolb's four-stage model has been used as the basis for a typology of learning styles which is listed in Table 6. Each of the four styles has been identified with a particular type of learner behaviour that is characteristic of that approach to learning. Thus the learner who is happy with the concrete experience stage of learning might be recognisable as someone who in their approach to learning is happy to have a go, to get involved, to take risks – even when the outcome is not clear at the beginning. By contrast, there are weaknesses with this same preference, such as a lack of reflection on the purpose of activity (see the lists in Table 6).

Just as learning models have strengths and weaknesses, so each style can be separated out in the form of positive statements which are its strengths and negative statements which are its weaknesses. I have used the typology shown in Table 6 (derived from Honey and Mumford, 1992) for Activity 7, which also provides an opportunity for you to try out and reflect on some of the ideas put forward by Kolb in his model of experiential learning.

Do you have strong preferences for how you learn and the type of activity that is required of you? Perhaps you have taken your own reactions for granted and assume that everyone learns the same way. You may also assume that the way you learn is something that cannot be affected by what you do or by your attitudes to learning. But some people believe that they can and do change the way that they learn – in the sense of managing their own reactions and activities where they feel this is necessary for the learning goal in hand.

The required basis for change however is self awareness, and that is one of the aims of the next activity, which is optional. The activity is split into two parts, and part 1 builds on the work you have been doing on the experiential model of learning, but, if you decide to complete the work, you will need to access an external website.

Table 6 Learning styles: strengths and weaknesses (adapted from Honey and Mumford, 1992)

Learning style Strengths Weaknesses
Activist Flexible and open-minded. Happy to have a go. Tendency to take the immediately obvious action without thinking.
Happy to be exposed to new situations. Often take unnecessary risks.
Optimistic about anything new and therefore unlikely to resist change. Tendency to do too much themselves and hog the limelight.
Rush into action without sufficient preparation.
Get bored with implementation or consolidation.
Reflector Careful. Tendency to hold back from direct participation.
Thorough and methodical. Slow to make up their minds and reach a decision.
Thoughtful. Tendency to be too cautious and not take enough risks.
Good at listening to others and assimilating information. Not assertive – they aren't particularly forthcoming.
Rarely jump to conclusions.
Theorist Logical 'vertical' thinkers. Restricted in lateral thinking.
Rational and objective. Low tolerance for uncertainty, disorder and ambiguity.
Good at asking probing questions. Intolerant of anything subjective or intuitive.
Disciplined approach. Full of 'shoulds, oughts and musts'.
Pragmatist Keen to test things out in practice. Tendency to reject anything without an obvious application.
Practical, down to earth, realistic. Not very interested in theory or basic principles.
Businesslike – get straight to the point. Tendency to seize on the first expedient solution to a problem.
Technique oriented. Impatient with waffle.
On balance, task oriented not people oriented.

The PDF file below gives a more detailed description of the four learning styles outlined in Table 6. You will need to refer to this PDF in order to complete Activity 7.

Click on 'View document' below to read 'The Four Learning Styles'.

View document [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

Activity 7 Doing (optional)

Part 1

The original source materials OpenLearn adapted to create this course used an article by Honey & Mumford that contained a questionnaire designed to encourage you to think about how you typically go about learning things. The article appeared originally in the Guardian in 1989 (Honey & Mumford, 1989), but it is now available at Peter Honey's website.

The idea behind the questionnaire is to use your replies to create a score that indicates the strength of your preference for each of the four learning styles defined by Honey and Mumford. The descriptive statements about each style are not meant to have any scientific value but to stimulate your own ideas about whether you do have strong preferences and what they are. If you choose to do the questionnaire, do not spend too long on each item, many of which prompt the thought 'well, it all depends on the circumstances…'. Remember, it is only a tool to give you ideas about your own learning.

If you decide not to take the complete questionnaire, you can get an idea of your learning styles preferences by looking at 'The Four Learning Styles' document by clicking on the link given above this activity. For each learning style, the document lists the types of activities that a learner may find easier or more difficult, and you might be able to get a feel for your preferences by identifying your favourite (and least favourite) ways of working.

Part 2

Honey & Mumford's article is intended to raise questions in your own mind about how you prefer to learn. People quite often find that they have strong preferences for one or two styles and feel that it would be helpful to extend their range of learning practices. One place to begin is to use more of the range of activities outlined in Table 6 and described in more detail in 'The Four Learning Styles' document above. Work through the activities suggested below before you return to the course text, so that you are ready to try out aspects of the learning styles you find least congenial over the next few weeks. Even if you found yourself to be quite a balanced learner, you probably found some questions harder to answer than others and further reflection would help you to pinpoint why this might be so.

  1. Look through the general descriptions of your most preferred style in Table 6. List some of the advantages and disadvantages to you of this style.

  2. Look through the descriptions of your least preferred style in Table 6. What advantages might there be for you if you used this style more often?

  3. Read through the strengths of your least preferred style shown in Table 6 and suggest some practical steps you could take to strengthen your use of this style in your work.


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