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Experiential Learning

Outdoor Education Theory

Experiential Learning Cycles
Overview of 9 Experiential Learning Cycle Models

James Neill
Last updated:
14 Nov 2010

Confucius Tell me, and I will forget.
Show me, and I may remember.
Involve me, and I will understand.
Confucius, 450 B.C.

John Dewey

...there is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education.
- John Dewey, 1938

What are Experiential Learning Cycles?

Experiential Learning Cycles are models for understanding how the process of learning works.  They are distinct from other models of learning, such as behavioral models or social learning models, in two notable ways:

  • Experiential Learning Cycles treat the learner's subjective experience as of critical importance in the learning process.  ELCs draw on experiential education principles, which are largely based on the educational philosophy of John Dewey (1920's-1950's).

  • Experiential Learning Cycles propose an iterative series of processes which underlies learning.  Depending on the model, there is anywhere between one stage (experience alone) through to six stages of learning to be considered.

Experiential Learning Cycles are commonly used to help structure experience-based training and education programs.  For example, Experiential Learning Cycle models are amongst the most important pieces of theory used in many outdoor education programs.

Why break down learning into distinct stages?

By breaking fuzzy processes (such as learning) down into distinct stages (such as a 4-stage model), the idea is that we can better understand, test out, and make use of the main components. 

However, trainers and educators who use convenient models, need to be critical consumers.  Whilst a good model can greatly aid research and practice, a poor model (one which is wrong or misinterpreted) can create more problems than it solves.

Here is an example of how it can helpful to break learning down into discrete steps:

Tom is a typical three-year old boy in almost all respects, except that recently he has been throwing more temper tantrums than usual, they seem to be lasting longer, and occasionally they become particularly destructive to furniture, etc.  Tom's parents are struggling to find ways to help Tom learn other ways of dealing with his frustrations and anger.  They are concerned that if Tom doesn't learn to deal more appropriately with his emotions, that the problem could continue through his early schooling years and perhaps longer.

Tom's parents seek help from a psychologist who recommends implementing either a Time-Out procedure or a "Stop-Say-Listen" approach.  Both of these procedures have been shown to be effective in helping children learn to deal with emotions and learn more effective behaviors because they intentionally add a "reflection" stage to the "action" stage.  Such approaches to parenting can be seen as similar to the 2-stage Experiential Learning Cycle (action - reflection).

In many fields related to experiential learning, education, and training, the underlying "theoretical engine" is the idea that people can learn very effectively through direct, hands-on experience, as long as these experiences are well designed and facilitated. 

But there are many examples where experience alone is not sufficient for meeting particular learning goals.  In such situations, it seems to work better if the raw experience is packaged together with facilitated exercises which involve thinking, discussing, or creatively processing cognitions and emotions related to the raw experience.

Note that the term "Experiential Learning Cycle" is often used to refer to the 4-stage process model discussed extensively by Kolb (1984), but 8 other models are discussed on this page, plus Juch (1983) has collated 17 models.

Underlying Philosophy

How, exactly, do people "learn from experience"?  The most famous response to this question comes from John Dewey's philosophy of education (see 500 Word Summary of John Dewey's "Experience & Education"). 

The underlying philosophy of experiential learning cycle (ELC) models is Deweyian.  By Deweyian is meant that Experiential Learning Cycle models emphasize that the nature of experience as of fundamental importance and concern in education and training.  

A further, Deweyian assumption underlying ELCs is that people learn experientially and that some experiences are educative whilst other experiences are miseducative.  All experiences are understood to be continuous, that is, each experience influences each future experience. 

It is the teacher's responsibility to structure and organize a series of experiences which positively influence each individual's potential future experiences (Dewey, 1938/1997).  In other words, "good experiences" motivate, encourage, and enable students to go on to have more valuable learning experiences, whereas, "poor experiences" tend to lead towards a student closing off from potential positive experiences in the future. 

This can be easier to understand with an extremely negative example, such as child abuse.  Abusive experiences, particularly at an early age, tend to lead an individual towards shutting down or turning away from potentially positive experiences, particularly those involving trust of others.  On the other hand, nurturant, warm experiences, particularly during the foundational years in child development, can help to foster an openness to experience, which augurs well for the child's future.

Dewey emphasizes the subjective nature of experience - the maxim "one's man's meat can be another man's poison" applies in education and training.  Thus, the educator must be constantly alert to individual uniquenesses in the background of the participants, and personality, learning style, etc.

This does not necessarily mean descending into a completely free, unstructured style of education and training.  Many educators claim the headiness of completely student-driven education has been tried and failed (e.g., A. S. Neill's "Summerhill"). 

However, there is also much disgruntlement with over structured training approaches (such as competency-based training) and overly prescriptive, restrictive schooling, particularly for non-academically inclined students.  What's more, there is an ever-increasing need to provide people with less direct "content" or "information" and more of the underlying skills that foster learning capabilities and life skills.

Thus, we might construct a philosophical spectrum with regard to the structuredness of approaches to learning:

Progressive, "Free"


Traditional, "Structured"

Free, permissive, learner-driven, practically-oriented, progressive education

Semi-structured education, e.g., the subjectivity of learning experience is recognized, however the experiences are guided somewhat via structured planning and reviewing processes

Structured, knowledge-oriented, competency-driven, normative, traditional education

At various times or in different circumstances, a more free or a more structured approach may be more appropriate.  Most often, however, a learner needs some amount of freedom to develop experience-based understanding; likewise in most educational settings, learners need some degree of guidance as well.

Thus, Experiential Learning Cycles can be seen as providing a semi-structured approach.  There is relative freedom to go ahead in activity and "experience", but the educator also commits to structuring other stages, usually involving some form of planning or reflection, so that "raw experience" is package with facilitated cognitive (usually) thinking about the experience.

The length of time spent of each stage can vary between seconds, minutes, hours, or even days, but a cycle is most typically applied to short activities, e.g., to 10 to 60 minute activities.

Descriptions of the 9 Experiential Learning Cycle Models

Nine Experiential Learning Cycle models commonly in experiential learning  literature have been identified and can be organized in terms of the number of stages they propose, from 1 to 6.


1-stage model

The first model, a 1-stage model (experience), is simply that experience alone is sufficient for learning.  In many cases this is true.  Pickles (n.d.) traces this underlying philosophy further back to the oft-used by experiential educator's Confucius quote (from around 450 BC):

Tell me, and I will forget.
Show me, and I may remember.
Involve me, and I will understand.

The goal of education from this point of view then would be to structure and organize learning activities in which experiences themselves facilitate learning.  For more information about the 1-stage model, see the "Outward Bound" model in James (1980/2000), Bacon (1987) and "Are the Mountains Still Speaking for Themselves?" (Neill, 2002).

2-stage model

The second model, a 2-stage model (experience-reflection), is that experiences followed by periods of reflection is an effective way to structure and facilitate experiential education. 

For more information about the 2-stage model, see the "Outward Bound plus" model in James (1980/2000), Bacon (1987) and Neill (2002).

3-stage models

Figure 1. 3-stage experiential learning cycle.

At least two major, 3-stage models exist. 

The simplest is experience-reflection-plan, which suggests that following an experience and reflection, it is helpful to develop a plan for future experience (see Figure 1).  For more information, see Greenaway (2002b) and "Is a 3-stage model more practical?"

The second 3-stage model is based more directly on Dewey's (1938/1997) theory of experience, involving: "observation of surrounding conditions-knowledge obtained by recollection-judgment, which puts together what is observed and what is recalled to see what they signify" (Dewey, 1938/1997, cited in Priest & Gass, 1997, p. 145)

4-stage model

The fourth model, a 4-stage model (experience-reflection-abstraction-experimentation - see Figure 2), is Kolb's (1984) classic "Experiential Learning Cycle".  David Kolb drew on Dewey's philosophy in proposing a 4-stage experiential learning cycle.

Figure 2. 4-stage experiential learning cycle (from Exeter, 2001, adapted from Kolb, 1984).

This model suggests that a participant has a Concrete Experience, followed by Reflective Observation, then the formation of Abstract Conceptualizations before finally conducting Active Experimentation to test out out the newly developed principles.

Whilst attributed to Kolb, the stages of experience were derived from the work of Kurt Lewin (see Atherton, 2002; Priest & Gass, 1997).  Essentially, Kolb sought to capture Dewey's notion of continuity of experience and Lewin's field theory

Although its the most commonly cited, whether Kolb's 4-stage Experiential learning Cycle best represents learning in all situations is debatable. 

There are other stage models to be considered, and many critiques have been made.  Nevertheless, the Kolbian 4-stage model is widely known and used in education and training circles, and continues to grow in popularity.

1. Concrete

2. Reflective

4. Active

3. Abstract

For more extensive summaries of Kolb's four stage model, see American Education Network Corporation, Smith (2001) and Greenaway (2002b).  For an expansion of Kolb's 4-stage model, see Willis & Ricketts (2004).

5-stage models

A variety of 5-stage Experiential Learning Cycle models have been proposed, including:

6-stage model

Priest (1990) and Priest and Gass (1997) [pp. 145-146] describe a 6-stage model, called the "The Experiential Learning and Judgment Paradigm", consisting of: experience-induce-generalize-deduce-apply-evaluate.

Is a 3-stage Model More Practical?

Figure 3. Do-Review-Plan: A 3-stage experiential learning cycle.

Of course in briefly summarizing these 1- through 6-stage Experiential Learning Cycle models, details and variations and elaborations have been necessarily left aside.

One issue worth pursuing, however, is whether the 4-stage stage model is the most useful, particular in practical settings.

Personally, I've found the 4 obtusely named stages of Kolb's  Experiential Learning Cycle somewhat abstract and foreign.  I also like to explain the learning model or process being used to students, and the 4-stage model isnd not particularly student-friendly. 

Instead, I've found that a simple, 3-stage model, do-review-plan (see Figure 3) appeals, particularly when explaining the model directly to participants and  for basic staff training:

go forth and have an experience
review what happened and what can be learned
plan a way to tackle the next round of experience

The 3-stage do-review-plan is closely related to the 3-stage plan-do-review, which is a quality improvement cycle used in management and business.  The difference is that in experiential learning, experience (do) is often used as the initial stage, rather than planning (plan) which is often the initial stage for management and business.  However, the cycle is continuous in both cases, so the designation of a fixed starting point is rather arbitrary. 

For more background on the 3-stage model, go to Greenaway (2002b).

Applications, Critiques & Elaborations of Experiential Learning Cycle Models

The most direct application of the model is to use it to ensure that teaching...activities give full value to each stage of the process. This may mean that...a major task is to "chase" the learner round the cycle, asking questions which encourage Reflection, Conceptualisation, and ways of testing the ideas. (Atherton, 2002)

Critiques of Experiential Learning Cycles are basically, as follows:

  • How on earth can the fuzzy, varied process of learning be condensed into 4 ordered stages?
  • How many stages of learning are there really?  Could be anywhere from 0 to 100, there's no real way of telling.
  • The teaching of experiential learning cycles to trainee teachers can narrow them down into fixed ideas about how to teach (e.g., briefing, activity, debriefing, briefing, activity, and ever onward)
  • The research evidence for the experiential learning cycles models is generally lacking.

Greenaway (2002) has several interesting comments, criticisms, and further links.  For example, he makes the interesting point that:

It is often assumed that the stages of a 'learning cycle' are managed by a facilitator, but they can also be self-managed or even 'unmanaged' in the sense that learning from experience is a normal everyday process for most people.

My recommendations for further online critiques and elaborations of Kolb's (1984) theory of experiential learning and his Experiential Learning Cycle are to read:

Reflection Questions for Understanding and Using Experiential Learning Cycles

A worksheet has been developed for an introductory undergraduate class for students studying philosophy and methods of outdoor education.  It includes the following reflection questions:

1. What is an Experiential Learning Cycle?

2. How are the Experiential Learning Cycles related to John Dewey’s educational philosophy?

3. Which Experiential Learning Cycle do you prefer and why?  (Draw the cycle and explain)

4. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this Experiential Learning Cycle?

5. How does this Experiential Learning Cycle conceptually relate to your philosophy of learning?

6. Give an example of an activity or program which is based on an Experiential Learning Cycle and which is consistent with your philosophy of education.