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David A. Kolb

                          David A. Kolb

David A. Kolb (born 1939) is an American educational theorist whose interests and publications focus on experiential learning, the individual and social change, career development, and executive and professional education. He is the founder and chairman of Experience Based Learning Systems, Inc. (EBLS), and a Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.

Kolb earned his BA from Knox College in 1961 and his MA and Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1964 and 1967 respectively, in social psychology.

Experiential learning
Main article: Experiential learning
In the early 1970s, Kolb and Roger Fry (now both at the Weatherhead School of Management) developed the Experiential Learning Model (ELM), composed of four elements:
  • concrete experience,
  • observation of and reflection on that experience,
  • formation of abstract concepts based upon the reflection,
  • testing the new concepts,
  • (repeat).
These four elements are the essence of a spiral of learning that can begin with any one of the four elements, but typically begins with a concrete experience. He named his model to emphasize its links to ideas from John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Kurt Lewin, and other writers of the experiential learning paradigm. His model was developed predominantly for use with adult education, but has found widespread pedagogical implications in higher education.

Learning Style Inventory

Kolb is renowned in educational circles for his Learning Style Inventory (LSI). His model is built upon the idea that learning preferences can be described using two continuums: active experimentation-reflective observation and abstract conceptualization-concrete experience. The result is four types of learners: converger (active experimentation-abstract conceptualization), accommodator (active experimentation-concrete experience), assimilator (reflective observation-abstract conceptualization), and diverger (reflective observation-concrete experience). The LSI is designed to determine an individual's learning preference. The Kolb Learning Style Inventory (version 3.1) is available exclusively through Hay Group.


  1. ^ Kolb. D. A. and Fry, R. (1975) Toward an applied theory of experiential learning. in C. Cooper (ed.) Theories of Group Process, London: John Wiley
  2. ^ Experience Based Learning Systems, Inc. (EBLS)
Kolb, D.A., Rubin, I.M., McIntyre, J.M. (1974). Organizational Psychology: A Book of Readings, 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

External links

1. http://www.infed.org/biblio/b-explrn.htm
2. http://reviewing.co.uk/research/experiential.learning.htm
3. Hay Group On Demand products
4. Kolb Learning Style Inventory (LSI)
5. Faculty Profile at Case Western University

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David A. Kolb

david a. kolb on experiential learning

David A. Kolb's model of experiential learning can be found in many discussions of the theory and practice of adult education, informal education and lifelong learning. We set out the model, and examine its possibilities and problems.

contents: · introduction · david a. kolb · david kolb on experiential learning · david kolb on learning styles · issues · developments - jarvis on learning · a guide to reading · links · how to cite this piece
The workshop picture representing experiential learning is from the EFEO Action Workshops in 2008. It was taken by devilarts and is copyrighted. It is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic) flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/devilarts/2458317215/.As Stephen Brookfield (1983: 16) has commented, writers in the field of experiential learning have tended to use the term in two contrasting senses. On the one hand the term is used to describe the sort of learning undertaken by students who are given a chance to acquire and apply knowledge, skills and feelings in an immediate and relevant setting. Experiential learning thus involves a, 'direct encounter with the phenomena being studied rather than merely thinking about the encounter, or only considering the possibility of doing something about it.' (Borzak 1981: 9 quoted in Brookfield 1983). This sort of learning is sponsored by an institution and might be used on training programmes for professions such as social work and teaching or in field study programmes such as those for social administration or geography courses.
The second type of experiential learning is 'education that occurs as a direct participation in the events of life' (Houle 1980: 221). Here learning is not sponsored by some formal educational institution but by people themselves. It is learning that is achieved through reflection upon everyday experience and is the way that most of us do our learning.
Much of the literature on experiential learning, as Peter Jarvis comments (1995: 75), 'is actually about learning from primary experience, that is learning through sense experiences'. He continues, 'unfortunately it has tended to exclude the idea of secondary experience entirely'. Jarvis also draws attention to the different uses of the term, citing Weil and McGill's (1989: 3) categorization of experiential learning into four 'villages':
Village One is concerned particularly with assessing and accrediting learning from life and work experience....
Village Two focuses on experiential learning as a basis for bringing change in the structures... of post-school education....
Village Three emphasizes experiential learning as a basis for group consciousness raising....
Village Four is concerned about personal growth and self-awareness.
These 'villages' of approaches retain a focus on primary experience (and do not really problematize the notion of experienceitself). Jarvis (1995: 77-80) makes the case for a concern for secondary or indirect experience (occurring through linguistic communication).
While there have been various additions to the literature, such as the above, it is the work of David A. Kolb (1976; 1981; 1984) and his associate Roger Fry (Kolb and Fry 1975) that still provides the central reference point for discussion. Following on from Kolb's work there has been a growing literature around experiential learning and this is indicative of greater attention to this area by practitioners - particularly in the area of higher education. David Kolb's interest lay in exploring the processes associated with making sense of concrete experiences - and the different styles of learning that may be involved. In this he makes explicit use of the work of Piaget, Dewey and Lewin.

David A. Kolb

David A. Kolb is Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Weatheread School of Management. He joined the School in 1976. Born in 1939, Kolb received his Batchelor of Arts from Knox College in 1961, his MA from Harvard in 1964 and his PhD from Harvard in 1967. Besides his work on experiential learning, David A. Kolb is also known for his contribution to thinking around organizational behaviour (1995a; 1995b). He has an interest in the nature of individual and social change, experiential learning, career development and executive and professional education.

David Kolb on experiential learning

David A. Kolb (with Roger Fry) created his famous model out of four elements: concrete experience, observation and reflection, the formation of abstract concepts and testing in new situations. He represented these in the famous experiential learning circle that involves (1) concrete experience followed by (2) observation and experience followed by (3) forming abstract concepts followed by (4) testing in new situations (after Kurt Lewin). It is a model that appears time and again.
Kolb and Fry (1975) argue that the learning cycle can begin at any one of the four points - and that it should really be approached as a continuous spiral. However, it is suggested that the learning process often begins with a person carrying out a particular action and then seeing the effect of the action in this situation. Following this, the second step is to understand these effects in the particular instance so that if the same action was taken in the same circumstances it would be possible to anticipate what would follow from the action. In this pattern the third step would be understanding the general principle under which the particular instance falls.
Generalizing may involve actions over a range of circumstances to gain experience beyond the particular instance and suggest the general principle. Understanding the general principle does not imply, in this sequence, an ability to express the principle in a symbolic medium, that is, the ability to put it into words. It implies only the ability to see a connection between the actions and effects over a range of circumstances. (Coleman 1976: 52).
An educator who has learnt in this way may well have various rules of thumb or generalizations about what to do in different situations. They will be able to say what action to take when say, there is tension between two people in a group but they will not be able to verbalize their actions in psychodynamic or sociological terms. There may thus be difficulties about the transferability of their learning to other settings and situations.
When the general principle is understood, the last step, according to David Kolb is its application through action in a new circumstance within the range of generalization. In some representations of experiential learning these steps, (or ones like them), are sometimes represented as a circular movement. In reality, if learning has taken place the process could be seen as a spiral. The action is taking place in a different set of circumstances and the learner is now able to anticipate the possible effects of the action.
Two aspects can be seen as especially noteworthy: the use of concrete, 'here-and-now' experience to test ideas; and use of feedback to change practices and theories (Kolb 1984: 21-22). Kolb joins these with Dewey to emphasize the developmental nature of the exercise, and with Piaget for an appreciation of cognitive development. He named his model so as to emphasize the link with Dewey, Lewin and Piaget, and to stress the role experience plays in learning. He wished to distinguish it from cognitive theories of the learning process (see Coleman 1976).

David Kolb on learning styles

David Kolb and Roger Fry (1975: 35-6) argue that effective learning entails the possession of four different abilities (as indicated on each pole of their model): concrete experience abilities, reflective observation abilities, abstract conceptualization abilities and active experimentation abilities. Few us can approach the 'ideal' in this respect and tend, they suggest, to develop a strength in, or orientation to, in one of the poles of each dimension. As a result they developed a learning style inventory (Kolb 1976) which was designed to place people on a line between concrete experience and abstract conceptualization; and active experimentation and reflective observation. Using this Kolb and Fry proceeded to identify four basic learning styles.
Kolb and Fry on learning styles (Tennant 1996)
Learning style Learning characteristic Description
Converger Abstract conceptualization + active experimentation
· strong in practical application of ideas
· can focus on hypo-deductive reasoning on specific problems
· unemotional
· has narrow interests
Diverger Concrete experience + reflective observation
· strong in imaginative ability
· good at generating ideas and seeing things from different perspectives
· interested in people
· broad cultural interests
Assimilator Abstract conceptualization + reflective observation
· strong ability to create theoretical models
excels in inductive reasoning
· concerned with abstract concepts rather than people
Accommodator Concrete experience + active experimentation
· greatest strength is doing things
· more of a risk taker
· performs well when required to react to immediate circumstances
· solves problems intuitively
In developing this model Kolb and Fry have helped, along with Witkin (1950), have helped to challenge those models of learning that seek to reduce potential to one dimension such as intelligence (Tennant 1997: 91). They also recognize that there are strengths and weaknesses associated with each style (and that being 'locked into' one style can put a learner at a serious disadvantage). However, there are a number of problems with the model.


Here I want to note six key issues that arise out the Kolb model:
It pays insufficient attention to the process of reflection (see Boud et al 1983). While David A. Kolb's scheme 'has been useful in assisting us in planning learning activities and in helping us to check simply that learners can be effectively engaged', they comment, 'it does not help... to uncover the elements of reflection itself' (ibid.: 13), see reflection.
The claims made for the four different learning styles are extravagant (Jarvis 1987; Tennant 1997). As Tennant (1997: 91) comments, even though the four learning styles neatly dovetail with the different dimensions of the experiential learning model, this doesn't necessarily validate them. David Kolb is putting forward a particular learning style. The problem here is that the experiential learning model does not apply to all situations. There are alternatives - such as information assimilation. There are also others such as memorization. Each of these may be appropriate to different situations (see Jarvisbelow).
The model takes very little account of different cultural experiences/conditions (Anderson 1988). The Inventory has also been used within a fairly limited range of cultures (an important consideration if we approach learning as situated i.e. affected by environments). As Anderson (1988, cited in Tennant 1996) highlights, there is a need to take account of differences in cognitive and communication styles that are culturally-based. Here we need to attend to different models of selfhood - and the extent to which these may differ from the 'western' assumptions that underpin the Kolb and Fry model.
The idea of stages or steps does not sit well with the reality of thinking.There is a problem here - that of sequence. As Dewey (1933) has said in relation to reflection a number of processes can occur at once, stages can be jumped. This way of presenting things is rather too neat and is simplistic - see reflection.
Empirical support for the model is weak (Jarvis 1987; Tennant 1997). The initial research base was small, and there have only been a limited number of studies that have sought to test or explore the model (such as Jarvis 1987). Furthermore, the learning style inventory 'has no capacity to measure the degree of integration of learning styles' (Tennant 1997: 92).
The relationship of learning processes to knowledge is problematic.As Jarvis (1987) again points out, David Kolb is able to show that learning and knowledge are intimately related. However, two problems arise here. David Kolb doesn't really explore the nature of knowledge in any depth. In chapter five of Experiential Learning he discusses the structure of knowledge from what is basically a social psychology perspective. He doesn't really connect with the rich and varied debates about the nature of knowledge that raged over the centuries within philosophy and social theory. This means that I do not think he really grasps different ways of knowing. For example, Kolb focuses on processes in the individual mind, rather than seeing learning as situated. Second, for David Kolb, learning is concerned with the production of knowledge. 'Knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it' (Kolb 1984: 41). Here we might contrast this position with Paulo Freire. His focus is upon informed, committed action (praxis).
Given these problems we have to take some care approaching David Kolb's vision of experiential learning. However, as Tennant (1997: 92) points out, 'the model provides an excellent framework for planning teaching and learning activities and it can be usefully employed as a guide for understanding learning difficulties, vocational counselling, academic advising and so on'.

Developments - Peter Jarvis on (experiential) learning

Jarvis (1987, 1995) set out to show that there are a number of responses to the potential learning situation. He used Kolb's model with a number of different adult groups and asked them to explore it based on their own experience of learning. He was then able to develop a model of which allowed different routes. Some of these are non-learning, some non-reflective learning, and some reflective learning. To see these we need to trace out the trajectories on the diagram he produces.
figure: jarvis on learning from ymca george williams college 1994
reproduced from Jarvis 1994
Presumption (boxes 1-4). This is where people interact through patterned behaviour. Saying hello etc.
Non-consideration (1-4). Here the person does not respond to a potential learning situation.
Rejection (boxes 1-3 to 7 to 9).
Pre-conscious (boxes 1-3 to 6 to either 4 or 9). This form occurs to every person as a result of having experiences in daily living that are not really thought about. Skimming across the surface.
Practice (boxes 1-3 to 5 to 8 to 6 to either 4 or 9). Traditionally this has been restricted to things like training for a manual occupation or acquiring particular physical skills. It may also refer to the acquisition of language itself.
Memorization (boxes 1-3 to 6 and possibly 8 to 6 and then either to 4 or 9)
Reflective learning:
Contemplation (boxes 1-3 to 7 to 8 to 6 to 9). Here the person considers it and makes an intellectual decision about it.
Reflective practice (boxes 1-3 (to 5) to 7 to 5 to 6 to 9). This is close to what Schön describes as relfection on and in action.
Experiential learning (boxes 1-3 to 7 to 5 to 7 to 8 to 6 to 9). The way in which pragmatic knowledge may be learned.
While this represents a useful addition to our thinking about learning, a number of problems remain. There is still an issue around sequence - many things may be happening at once, but Jarvis' model falls into trap of stage thinking. As with Kolb's work there is a limited experimental base to support it. We can also ask questions as to whether these are different forms or routes - or can they grouped together in a different and more compact way.

Further reading and references

The literature around this area can be pretty dire. We have picked one or two of the better collections/explorations plus a couple 'standards'.
Boud, D. et al (eds.) (1985) Reflection. Turning experience into learning, London: Kogan Page. 170 pages. Good collection of readings which examine the nature of reflection. The early chapters make particular use of Dewey and Kolb.
Boud. D. and Miller, N. (eds.) (1997) Working with Experience: animating learning, London: Routledge. Useful collection of pieces exploring experiential learning. The editors focus on animation (not so much in the French and Italian senses as 'breathing life into' - to activate, enliven, vivify. Includes introductory and closing pieces by the editors: Brookfield on breaking dependence on experts; Smyth on socially critical educators; Heron on helping whole people learn; Tisdell on life experience and feminist theory; Harris on animating learning in teams; and Mace on writing and power.
Fraser, W. (1995) Learning From Experience. Empowerment or incorporation, Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. Examines APL / APEL and asks what is lost and gained in the translation of private experience into the public sphere. Based on the experience of various courses.
Jarvis, P. (1987) Adult Learning in the Social Context, London: Croom Helm. 220 pages. Peter Jarvis uses Kolb's model to explore the process of learning in context. The result is a better appreciation of context and the ability to approach memorization, contemplation, practice etc. However, he also inherits a number of problems e.g. around stages. The model is revisited and summarized in P. Jarvis (1995) Adult and Continuing Education. Theory and practice 2e, London: Routledge.
Johnson, D. W. and Johnson, F. P. (1996) Joining Together: Group theory and group skills, 6e., Boston, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon. 612 pages. Rightly popular practical groupwork guide with plenty of examples and exercises, plus some good foundational chapters. It was one of the first texts to pick up on Kolb and to link experiential learning with the work around groups by Lewin and others. Chapters on group dynamics; experiential learning; group goals and social independence; communications within groups; leadership; decision making; controversy and creativity; conflicts of interest, the uses of power; dealing with diversity; leading learning and discussion groups; leading growth and counselling groups; and team development, team training.
Keeton, M. T. (ed.) (1976) Experiential Learning, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. Ageing but still useful collection. See, in particular, Coleman's contrasting of information assimilation with experiential learning.
Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall. 256 pages. Full statement and discussion of Kolb's ideas concerning experiential learning. Chapters deal with the foundation of contemporary approaches to experiential learning; the process of experiential learning; structural foundations of the learning process; individuality in learning and the concept of learning styles; the structure of knowledge; the experiential learning theory of development; learning and development in higher education; lifelong learning and integrative development.
Mezirow, J. (1991) Transformative Dimensions of Adult Learning, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. 247 + xix pages. Develops a comprehensive theory of how adults learn by making meanings of their experiences. Particular focus on perspective transformation.
Weil, S. Warner & McGill, I. (eds.) (1989) Making Sense of Experiential Learning. Diversity in theory and practice, Milton Keynes: Open University Pres s. The texts on experiential learning tend to be rather atheoretical (and often precious). This text doesn't totally escape this - but has a number of useful contributions.


Anderson, J. A. (1988) 'Cognitive styles and multicultural populations', Journal of Teacher Education, 39(1): 2-9.
Brookfield, S. D. (1983) Adult Learning, Adult Education and the Community Milton Keynes Open University Press.
Borzak, L. (ed.) (1981) Field Study. A source book for experiential learning, Beverley Hills: Sage Publications.
Dewey, J. (1933) How We Think, New York: Heath.
Houle, C. (1980) Continuing Learning in the Professions, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Jarvis, P. (1994) 'Learning', ICE301 Lifelong Learning, Unit 1(1), London: YMCA George Williams College.
Jarvis, P. (1995) Adult and Continuing Education. Theory and practice 2e, London: Routledge.
Kolb, A. and Kolb D. A. (2001) Experiential Learning Theory Bibliography 1971-2001, Boston, Ma.: McBer and Co, http://trgmcber.haygroup.com/Products/learning/bibliography.htm
Kolb, D. A. (1976) The Learning Style Inventory: Technical Manual, Boston, Ma.: McBer.
Kolb, D. A. (1981) 'Learning styles and disciplinary differences'. in A. W. Chickering (ed.) The Modern American College, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Kolb, D. A. (with J. Osland and I. Rubin) (1995a) Organizational Behavior: An Experiential Approach to Human Behavior in Organizations6e, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kolb, D. A. (with J. Osland and I. Rubin) (1995b) The Organizational Behavior Reader 6e, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Kolb. D. A. and Fry, R. (1975) 'Toward an applied theory of experiential learning;, in C. Cooper (ed.) Theories of Group Process, London: John Wiley.
Schön, D. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner, New York: Basic Books
Tennant, M. (1997) Psychology and Adult Learning 2e, London: Routledge.
Witkin, H. and Goodenough, D. (1981) Cognitive Styles, Essences and Origins: Field dependence and field independence, New York:


Experiential learning: helpful review of sites by Tim Pickles.
Experiential Learning Theory Bibliography: Prepared by Alice Kolb and David Kolb, this is an extensive bibliography of on experiential learning theory from 1971-2001.
Acknowledgement: The workshop picture representing experiential learning is from the EFEO Action Workshops in 2008. It was taken by devilarts and is copyrighted. It is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence (Attribution-Non-Commercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic) flickr:http://www.flickr.com/photos/devilarts/2458317215/.
How to cite this article: Smith, M. K. (2001). 'David A. Kolb on experiential learning', the encyclopedia of informal education. Retrieved[enter date] from http://www.infed.org/b-explrn.htm.


Many of us engaged in professional learning have a broad understanding of the work of David Kolb. His highly influential book entitled 'Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development' was first published in 1984 since when his ideas have had a dramatic impact on the design and development of lifelong learning models. Of course, David Kolb's work can be traced back to that famous dictum of Confucius around 450 BC:
"Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand."
This article aims to help you explore the development of experiential learning from its original proposal into some of its current refinements and applications today, using the World Wide Web (the Internet) as a vast reference library... A useful place to start this online exploration is David Kolb's own website. Here you need to be careful. There is another and different David Kolb, a professor of philosophy at Bates College, who is a prolific author. The man we seek is the professor of organisational behaviour at Weatherhead School of Management. David A Kolb describes himself as a "contemporary advocate of Experiential Learning". His own professional webpage [now at http://www.learningfromexperience.com ] where you can find information about his background, current work and most well known publications - including references to his most well-known subject - experiential learning and learning styles.
The concept of experiential learning explores the cyclical pattern of all learning from Experience through Reflection and Conceptualising to Action and on to further Experience. One of the sites which explores the model and its practical application is http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/experience.htm. This is a very well-known model which now forms the heart of many training and learning events. It also describes the process for recording continuous professional development, through taking time to capture, record and implement learning in our daily work. There are many adaptations and uses of the model. A fascinating one is provided on the Natural Learning website where analogy between this model of learning and organic growth in the plant and gardening worlds is well made [was at: humanoptions.com/learning.html]
David Kolb has extended his original work to explore the different ways in which we all learn. Honey and Mumford defined four styles, based loosely around the four stages of David Kolb's learning cycle: Activists, Reflectors, Theorists and Pragmatists. Perhaps the best exposition of these learning styles, together with a range of fascinating illustrations is to be found at the University of New South Wales, and I would strongly recommend this page: [archived at: http://www.fbe.unsw.edu.au/Learning/instructionaldesign/styles.htm] The work on learning styles has been used and developed by many groups and institutions. A Polytechnic in Hong Kong adapted the work to provide a Learning to Learn guide for its students: [archived at: http://www.ic.polyu.edu.hk/posh97/student/Learn/Learning_to_learn.htm]. Meanwhile, staff members at Mason College have done a very creditable job of creating a directory of all the main learning style instruments including a summary of their main benefits and features: http://mason.gmu.edu/~bgiven/models1.html.
In Britain, the most accessible resource is the best-selling Manual of Learning Styles created by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford which includes a self-assessment instrument and advice on how to diversify your learning. The Manual is available online at http://www.peterhoney.co.uk. If you want to track down the original publications by David Kolb, or to find other books on experiential education, have a look through the 'experiential' section of the Active Learning Bookshop.
David Kolb's work has influenced the work of many in the learning, development and education fields. The National Society for Experiential Education is a membership association and networking resource promoting experience-based approaches to teaching and learning (http://www.nsee.org). Their site has an extensive library of further resources. The Association for Experiential Education aims to "contribute to making a more just and compassionate world by transforming education" (http://www.aee.org). The International Consortium for Experiential Education organises its networking activities within four 'villages', two of which are concerned with community action and social change, and with personal growth, self awareness and group effectiveness (http://www.icel.org.uk)
A further development of these ideas has led to the notion of groups and companies transforming themselves into Learning Organisations. An impressive and highly active network of people are busy exploring all aspects of this field through the email discussion groups to be found at http://www.learning-org.com. TrainingZone has itself, in collaboration with the European Consortium for the Learning Organisation provided an open conference about learning organisation matters.
We can explore and develop our own learning in an experiential way. The Internet offers a virtually limitless resource for extending our own knowledge as this article seeks to demonstrate. To explore some of these ideas further, look up any of the links from this article, and register for further updates with TrainingZone.


The above article ''Experiential Learning ... on the Web'' by Tim Pickles is reproduced with permission from LearningWire, a free digest to accompany TrainingZone Updates are added [in brackets] by Roger Greenaway as web addresses move or disappear.

Everything below this line is authored or collated by Roger Greenaway.

Critiques of David Kolb's theory of experiential learning

These critiques should discourage unquestioning acceptance or misapplication of David Kolb's widely quoted model. I have attempted to gather together the strands of a discussion about experiential learning theory. If you know of any more voices in this discussion - or venues (web, journals, conferences) where it is taking place please write to me at roger@reviewing.co.uk and I will add the information to this page.

Critiquing the critiques of David Kolb's theory of experiential learning

Unquestioning acceptance of the above critiques is no better than unquestioning acceptance of Experiential Learning Theory (ELT). Since the publication of 'Experential Learning' in 1984, David Kolb has answered (some of) his critics while also adapting, developing and extending his Experiential Learning Theory. Some of this work is published at:
  • The EBLS Research Library which provides electronic access to selected publications and a bibliography on experiential learning theory.
Of particular interest is Kayes' article (next) which includes 'A Critique of the Critics' and a table entitled 'Critiques and Responses to Experiential Learning' that summarises key points from different perspectives.

Critiques of David Kolb's theory from a training perspective

Clare Forrest's 4 page article on "Kolb's Learning Cycle" for Fenman's Train the Trainer series highlights these four issues in relation to David Kolb's theory of experiential learning (on which Kolb's Learning Style Inventory is based):
  • "The idea of a nice set of neat learning stages does not equate to most people's reality. The problem is that a number of processes can occur at once and stages can be jumped or missed out completely."
  • "The experimental research base for the model was small, and there have been only a few further studies."
  • "Several commentators suggest that the learning styles are too simplistic and, whilst they fit neatly into Kolb's cycle, they fail to take account of ways of learning other than experiential."
  • "The inventory has been used within a fairly limited range of (mainly Western) cultures and thus the assumptions that underpin the Kolb abd Fry model are Western. There is a need to consider the different cultural models of selfhood."
quoted from "Kolb's Learning Cycle" by Claire Forrest in Train the Trainer Issue 12 (2004)
Train the Trainer: publisher's description at
Claire Forrest's website: http://www.structuredlearning.com

Critiques of David Kolb's theory from an informal education perspective

On the www.infed.org site you will find some fundamental criticisms of David Kolb's theory ... e.g. ''In reality, these things may be happening all at once.'' (Jeffs and Smith, 1999) at http://www.infed.org/foundations/f-explrn.htm Here's a summary of the main criticisms as presented by Mark K. Smith (interestingly including an anachronistic one from Dewey!)
''A number of criticisms can be made of the Kolb model. It pays insufficient attention to the process of reflection (see Boud et al 1983); the claims made for the four different learning styles are extravagant (Jarvis 1987; Tennant 1997); the model takes very little account of different cultural experiences/conditions; the idea of stages or steps does not sit well with the reality of thinking (Dewey 1933); and the empirical support for the model is weak (Jarvis 1987; Tennant 1997). ''
Jarvis, P. (1987) Adult Learning in the Social Context, London: Croom Helm.
Tennant, M. (1997) Psychology and Adult Learning 2e, London: Routledge.

Prepared by Mark K. Smith
© the informal education homepage

Critiques of David Kolb's theory from an adult education and ESL perspective

David Kolb, The Theory of Experiential Learning and ESL
by Curtis Kelly, Heian Jogakuin College (Osaka, Japan)
Limitations of David Kolb's Theory and Inventory
"Not all writers agree with Kolb's theory. Rogers, for example points out that "learning includes goals, purposes, intentions, choice and decision-making, and it is not at all clear where these elements fit into the learning cycle." (Rogers, 1996, p. 108) Habermas has also proposed that there are at least three kinds of learning and that we have different learning styles for each. (Rogers,1996, p. 110)

"As for the Inventory, Kolb, himself, points out its greatest limitation. The results are based solely on the way learners rate themselves. It does not rate learning style preferences through standards or behavior, as some other personal style inventories do, and it only gives relative strengths within the individual learner, not in relation to others. In my own case, I found the results dubious. The wording in the questions seemed vague and the results did not jive with my own view of my preferred learning style.

"Nonetheless, Kolb's contributions cannot be underestimated. Whatever their limitations, by presenting a model of experience in a scientific form, he has helped move educational thought from the locus of the instructor back to the learner. As many of the major contributors to the field have pointed out, experience has once again become a viable topic of discussion. (Brookfield, 1990; Cross, 1981; Jarvis, 1995; Kemp, 1996; Knowles, 1990, McKeachie, 1994, Peters, 1991)"
The full article (plus references*) provides a useful historical overview (placing Kolb in context) with some interesting insights. But I can't quite believe that the role of experience in learning was so completely overlooked until the 1980's. Why, for example, are the writings of Dewey, Kelly and Lewin not referred to in this article?
* n.b. The reference to 'Rogers 1996' is Alan not Carl ...
Rogers, A. (1996). Teaching Adults (2nd ed.). Buckingham: Open University Press.

For another adult education perspective on Kolb's theory see
Prof. Knud Illeris's The Three Dimensions of Learning (below)

Critiques of David Kolb's theory from a psychological and philosophical perspective

Feelings and Personhood: Psychology in Another Key (1992) by John Heron (founder of the Human Potential Resources Group at the University of Surrey), includes a four page critique of David Kolb's theory of experiential learning. His points include:
  • it is too narrow and underdeveloped
  • its phenomenal base in psychological modes is too restricted
  • its philosophical justification is invalid
  • it's all arranged to support Kolb's preferred paradigm of scientific enquiry
  • ''...the prehension-transformation distinction, as Kolb uses it, is fundamentally incoherent, and cannot be used to support his learning model'' (p.197)
  • ''He ... has to tack on other modes such as intuition and imagination in an unsatisfactory way, onto this structure to make up for its limitations.'' (p.197)
Feelings and Personhood: Psychology in Another Key (1992) by John Heron

Critiques of David Kolb's theory from an experiential education perspective

Extracts from the archives of the outdoor research discussion group

Chris Loynes (Sept 2000) writes:
"Kolb's theory is based on research measuring the non-conscious development of psycho-motor skills. The evidence that other kinds of learning follow this pattern is weak.

"The application of Kolb's theory, which models an innate process, to the pedagogy of a deliberate educational event has never been shown convincingly. Neither has the transfer of learning from one context to another been demonstrated.

"It remains a powerful planning and thinking tool for facilitators. I wonder if there is evidence of the application of the model stimulating better designed and led classes/sessions resulting in better outcomes?"

Tracey Dickson (Sept 2000) writes:
  • the research basis of the model particularly with reference to lack of research with people from different backgrounds (eg: cultures, gender, ages, socio-economic, education etc..)
  • the seemingly simplistic linear nature of the model (many people I know do not learn in this nice linear way, they are much more random, may "regress" through Kolb's stages, work in different orders)
  • the circular model may also give the impression that the stages are equal in time, emphasis etc..

Critiques of David Kolb's theory from a lifelong education perspective

"Kolb's learning cycle does not illustrate the fact that empirical (i.e. experiential) thinking based on action has limitations:
  • It may result in false conclusions.
  • It may not help us understand and explain change and new experiences.
  • It may cause mental laziness and dogmatic thinking.
Miettinen also suggest that Kolb's experience and reflection occur in isolation and that there is the necessity for the individual to interact with other humans and the environment in order to enhance the reasoning and conclusions drawn."
quoted from Beard and Wilson (2002: 37) reporting on: Miettinen, Reijo (2000) The concept of experiential learning and John Dewey's theory of reflective thought and action, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19 (1), January-February, pp 54-72

Abstract [of Miettinen (2002)]:
"The conception of experiential learning is an established approach in the tradition of adult education theory. David Kolb's four-stage model of experiential learning is a fundamental presentation of the approach. In his work Experiential Learning, Kolb states that John Dewey, Kurt Lewin and Jean Piaget are the founders of the approach. The article discusses Kolb's eclectic method of constructing his model of experiential learning. It studies how Kolb introduces and uses the Lewinian tradition of action research and the work of John Dewey to substantiate his model. It is concluded that Kolb generalizes a historically very specific and unilateral mode of experience- feedback session in T-group training- into a general model of learning. Kolb's interpretation of John Dewey's ideas is compared to Dewey's concepts of reflective thought and action. It is concluded that Kolb gives an inadequate interpretation of Dewey's thought and that the very concept of immediate, concrete experience proposed by the experiential learning approach is epistemologically problematic. The theory historical approach of the article discusses both substantial questions related to experiential learning and the way concepts are appropriated, developed and used within adult education theory."
Miettinen, Reijo (2000) The concept of experiential learning and John Dewey's theory of reflective thought and action, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19 (1), January-February, pp 54-72

Critiques of David Kolb's theory from a management education perspective

In Behind and Beyond Kolb's Learning Cycle Russ Vince appreciates the value of Kolb's Learning Cycle before identifying five key issues that constitute a critique of the cycle which he summarises as follows:
  1. Experience needs to be seen as constructed, shaped and contained by social power relations.
  2. Complex and unequal relations around knowledge are constructed between people as an integral part of the learning process.
  3. There is a need to focus on the here and now experience and the mirroring process between the people within the education environment and the organizations they represent.
  4. Finding ways of working with underlying and unconscious processes, particularly defense mechanisms, is necessary.
  5. Second-order or metaprocesses relating to each aspect of the cycle are included.
Vince explores these issues and suggest ways of developing the cycle that takes these issues into account.

• Vince, R (1998) Behind and Beyond Kolb's Learning Cycle, Journal of Management Education 22 (3) pp 304-319

In Experiential Learning: Best Practice Handbook for Educators and Trainers Beard and Wilson (2002: 37) report that in management education Kolb's theory is "extremely influential" and "is rarely seen as problematic". But they do describe a number of issues raised by others which I have summarised here:
  1. Kolb's theory locates itself in the cognitive psychology tradition, and overlooks or mechanically explains and thus divorces people from the social, historical and cultural aspects of self, thinking and action.
  2. The idea of a manager reflecting like a scientist in isolation on events is like an 'intellectual Robinson Crusoe'. The social interactions of a person are very important to the development of self, thought and learning.
  3. Progressing sequentially through the cycle is questioned: "Learning can be considered as a process of argumentation in which thinking, reflecting, experiencing and action are different aspects of the same process. It is practical argumentation with oneself and in collaboration with others that actually forms the basis for learning."
Experiential Learning: Best Practice Handbook for Educators and Trainers Beard and Wilson (2002: 37)

Original sources:
• Reynolds, M (1997) Learning styles: a critique, Management Learning, 28 (2) pp 115-33, Sage, London
Abstract [part of the source for point 1 above]
• Holman, D, Pavlica, K and Thorpe, R (1997) Rethinking Kolb's theory of experiential learning in management education, Management Learning, Sage, London
Abstract [source for all 3 points above]

Critiques of David Kolb's theory from a pedagogical perspective

James Atherton's 'Learning and Teaching' is a superb online presentation, digest and discussion of a wide range of learning and teaching theories. It includes many clear and colourful diagrams illustrating the theories under discussion. Atherton maintains a critical edge throughout his presentation. His section on The Experiential Learning Cycle is certainly no exception. It is mostly about Kolb's theory. He makes several criticisms, and each criticism is accompanied by a proposal for improving the model. The cumulative effect of adopting all of Atherton's constructive proposals would result in a model very different from the original. It is not clear whether Atherton is tidying up Kolb's theory or making fundamental criticisms of it.
Some examples:
On the plus side:
"Kolb (1984) provides one of the most useful descriptive models of the adult learning process available."
"The most direct application of the model is to use it to ensure that teaching and tutoring activities give full value to each stage of the process."
On the other hand:
"This distinction [between 'intention' and 'intension'] is not easily identified by many people, and is one example of where Kolb may go over the top: he does have a tendency to elevate his model to a theory of Life, the Universe and Everything."
Atherton does not consider that Kolb's integration of Piaget's concepts of 'assimilation' and 'accommodation' is very successful.
He also considers that Kolb overlooked the importance of the contrast between the private and public parts of his model.
ATHERTON J S (2002) Learning and Teaching: Learning from experience [On-line]: UK: Available: http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/experience.htm Accessed: 20 July 2007

Critiques of David Kolb's theory from a human potential perspective

These extracts from the Human Potential Research Group Dictionary criticise the stereotypical application of David Kolb's model and question how well the model matches the reality of how people actually learn through experience.
" This experiential learning cycle has been very influential in, for example, education and management development, although it used typically in a much simplified and even stereotypical form that neglects the depth and variation to be found in Kolb (1984). For example (following Lewin and others) Kolb saw the opposite 'poles' of the learning cycle as important dialectical tensions (e.g. that between concrete experience and abstract conceptualisation). The ways in which these dialectics are resolved or handled greatly influences the type and level of learning that ensues." "The model has been criticised for being stronger conceptually than as an accurate representation of the way people actually learn through experience."
Human Potential Research Group Dictionary was at: http://www.hprg.org/dictef.htm
but now appears to have evolved into the book:
Dictionary of Personal Development by Paul Tosey and Josie Gregory,
Human Potential Research Group.

A critique of Experiential Learning Theory and its hypothesized construct validity

ABSTRACT from Miriam W. Webb's 'A DEFINITIVE CRITIQUE OF EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING THEORY' The paper is a critique of Experiential Learning Theory and its hypothesized construct validity. A thorough examination of the intellectual and scientific roots of Experiential Learning Theory, its assumptions, and foundational references were analyzed to address three substantive questions fundamental to the theory.
  1. What is learning?
  2. Are the Experiential Learning Model modes separate and distinct in their functions so as to necessitate a four-stage cycle for learning to take place?
  3. Is dialectic tension the mechanism that mediates the relationship between the modes and between the person and the environment?
  1. First, the research addresses learning, and the definition derived by Experiential Learning Theory. This section concludes that Experiential Learning Theory’s definition is a dramatic distortion of the very epistemological fundaments it references. The author proposes a different definition more consistent with those fundaments.
  2. Second, the research addresses Experiential Learning Model’s foundational propositions, experiential learning modes, their constitutive natures, and their place in relation to learning theory. It concludes that all four modes are not required for learning to take place, and demonstrates that this component of the theory is rife with inherent contradiction and inconsistency. The author suggests ways in which these contradictions could be resolved.
  3. Finally, the research addresses the use of dialectic tension as the mediating function of learning, by tracing the meaning of dialectic from its inception with Socrates through Karl Marx and up to its place in Experiential Learning Theory. The research concludes that dialectic tension is not a viable mechanism for mediating modes of learning. The research further substantiates that the proposition that learning, by its very nature, is a tension and conflict-filled process is a misapplication of dialectic tension. The author recommends a complete re-examination of the mechanisms which mediate between learning modes.
The paper concludes that the infrastructure of Experiential Learning Theory, its Model, and the Learning Style Inventory is faulty at the core, and recommends that the operational evolution of learning styles as a combination of contiguous modes of learning be re-evaluated. The full abstract and a summary of key points are presented (with the author's permission) on this site at http://reviewing.co.uk/experiential.learning.theory.critique.htm
The full critique (including the full abstract) is available in a PDF file at http://cc.ysu.edu/~mnwebb

A critique of Kolb's Learning Style Inventory (and other learning style models)

"Should we be using learning styles?"
This research report from the Learning & Skills Research Centre (2004) examines 13 learning style models and is generally critical of learning style theory. Kolb's model does not escape criticism but it is only those criticisms that are highlighted below. For a more balanced view refer to
the original report.
    Kolb's Learning Style Inventory These are some of the weaknesses presented on page 37 of 'Should we be using learning styles?'
    • Reliability
      Long, public dispute over reliability of LSI. Third version is still undergoing examination.
    • Validity
      The construct validity of the LSI has been challenged and the matter is not yet settled.
      It has low predictive validity, but it was developed for another purpose as a self-assessment exercise.
    • Implications for pedagogy
      The notion of a learning cycle may be seriously flawed.
      The implications for teaching have been drawn logically from the theory rather than from research findings.
    • Evidence of pedagogical impact
      There is no evidence that ‘matching’ improves academic performance in further education.
      The findings are contradictory and inconclusive. No large body of unequivocal evidence on which to base firm recommendations about pedagogy.
    Overall Assessment (by Coffield et al) One of the first learning styles, based on an explicit theory. Problems about reliability, validity and the learning cycle continue to dog this model.
COFFIELD F, MOSELEY D, HALL E and ECCLESTONE K (2004) Should we be using Learning Styles? What research has to say to practice London; Learning and Skills Development Agency. This 84 page report is free to download from http://www.lsnlearning.org.uk

'Research into the relative stability of learning style… remains both confusing and confused’ (Robotham 1999: 403).

Robotham D (1999) The application of learning style theory in higher education teaching. Unpublished
article, Wolverhampton Business School, Wolverhampton UK.cited in
Learning together: Kolb’s experiential theory and its application
by Devi Akella, College of Business, Albany State University, Albany GA, USA

Critique of reflective constructivist learning theory from a feminist perspective

This is part of a wider critique, not just of David Kolb's theory but of all experiential learning theory that upholds the reflective constructivist view. It is quoted from Tara Fenwick's Classifying Alternate Perspectives in Experiential Learning (1999 AERC Proceedings)
"From a feminist perspective, Michelson (1996) observes that emphasis on (critical) reflection depersonalizes the learner as an autonomous rational knowledge-making self, disembodied, rising above the dynamics and contingency of experience. The learning process of "reflection" presumes that knowledge is extracted and abstracted from experience by the processing mind. This ignores the possibility that all knowledge is constructed within power-laden social processes, that experience and knowledge are mutually determined, and that experience itself is knowledge-driven and cannot be known outside socially available meanings. Further, argues Michelson (1996), the reflective or constructivist view of development denigrates bodily and intuitive experience, advocating retreat into the loftier domains of rational thought from which 'raw' experience can be disciplined and controlled."

Michelson, E. (1996). Usual suspects: experience, reflection, and the (en)gendering of knowledge. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 15 (6), 438-454.

Critique of constructivist learning theory from a socio-cultural perspective

This is an extract from Jayson Seaman's article in which he challenges "longstanding assumptions about the radical autonomy of learners, about 'direct experience,' and about the centrality of independent, cognitive reflection in experiential learning".
"Constructivist perspectives (Kolb, 1984) typically define experiential learning as 'the change in an individual that results from reflection on a direct experience and results in new abstractions and applications' (Itin, 1999, p. 93)....

"Despite the ubiquity of the constructivist perspective in the literature and its unmistakable influence on the field's guiding principles (see AEE, n.d.; Russell, 2006), numerous critiques have been levelled against it. Critics argue that constructivist models offer a narrowly psychological, 'mechanistic' conception of learning (Quay, 2003), ignore the ways perceptions and actions are culturally determined (Miettinen, 2000), and fail to account for the complex ways in which 'people in interaction become environments for each other' (McDermott, in Erickson & Schultz, 1977, p. 6). The constructivist perspective of experiential learning thus renders experience a static abstraction existing in 'splendid isolation' (Jarvis, in Fenwick, 2001, p. 20). The final criticism of constructivist assumptions - and the one addressed most directly in this paper - is that 'the activity and context in which learning takes place are thus regarded as merely ancillary to learning - pedagogically useful, of course, but fundamentally distinct and even neutral with respect to what is learned' (Brown, Collins, & Duguid, 1989, p. 32)." (Seaman, 2007:5)

Seaman, J. (2007). Taking things into account: learning as kinaesthetically-mediated collaboration.
Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning, 7(1), 3 - 20. Abstract.

Experience, Reflect, Critique: The End of the “Learning Cycles” Era

by Jayson Seaman, Journal of Experiential Education (2008)
"Existing cyclic models might be better valued for their important historical contribution, rather than as active theories of learning in experiential education".

Seaman's conclusion follows an historical account of the development of experiential learning theory (with extracts from Kolb's own perspective on historical influences). Seaman then surveys criticism of the constructivist perseptive of experiential learning from a range of different perspectives including: Challenges from within outdoor and adventure education; Methodological challenges; Epistemological challenges; Sociocultural challenges; and challenges from an ecological perspective.

Seaman argues that:
"the pattern of “experience-reflect-learn” might be considered an ideology of experiential learning rather than a philosophy or a theory of experiential learning. In its time, this framework served a useful purpose. However, given changes in knowledge, research methods, participant populations, societal trends, and educational goals, it might now be influencing research and practice in unhelpful ways."

Journal of Experiential Education (2008) Volume 31, No. 1 pp. 3–18

Learning Through Experience: Troubling Orthodoxies and Intersecting Questions

by Tara J. Fenwick
Publisher: Krieger Publishing Company (2003)
view at amazon.co.uk or at amazon.com
"Experiential learning is perhaps the most significant focus today for educators in the workplace, in communities, in literacy education, as well as in colleges and universities. Working from five perspectives of learning, the author examines their contributions to critiques and debates, suggested roles for adult educators, approaches to educational practice, and recent research in experiential learning. She discusses the nature of the intersection between individuals, situations, social relationships, and knowing; and asks, Where educators have an ethical role to play in experiential learning, what purposes and approaches should guide this role? For educators seeking explanations of various theoretical perspectives and current research in experiential learning, this book provides a solid introduction. For those interested in critique, the book also illustrates the oversights embedded in different experiential learning approaches. And for those who want examples, the book presents sample strategies and examples of practice."
(from the book description at amazon.com)

Earlier publications by Tara Fenwick on experiential learning:

The Three Dimensions of Learning: Contemporary Learning Theory in the Tension Field between the Cognitive, the Emotional and the Social

by Knud IllerisThe Three Dimensions of Learning: Contemporary Learning TheoryPublisher: Copenhagen: Roskilde University Press (2004)

Book Description (at amazon.com): The Three Dimensions of Learning is an extraordinary book offering an overview and critical examination of the most significant American and European learning theories. From them it develops a coherent overall theory covering the cognitive, the emotional and the social and societal dimensions of learning, thus addressing the current issue of competence development. One chapter discusses non-learning, learning defense, and learning resistance. With its construction of a comprehensive and contemporary theory of learning, this book has sold over 25,000 copies in Danish, Swedish, and English. Now available in North America, it will be useful to adult educators dealing with human and organizational learning and development. (amazon.com)

Professor Knud Illeris's comprehensive theory of learning includes a substantial critique of Kolb's theory of experiential learning. [Details to follow when I have read it! RG]
view at amazon.co.uk or at amazon.com

'Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development'

by David A. Kolb, reviewed by Roger Greenaway
Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and DevelopmentDavid Kolb's learning cycle has spawned many unauthorised imitations that misrepresent his theories. As you might guess from the title he has a theory of experiential development as well as a theory of experiential learning. Not bed time reading, but essential for anyone doing serious research in this area. Most readers will probably be surprised to find that there is very little about cyclical movement, even though his well known 'circle' is the central focus of his discussion of the various dynamics of his model of experiential learning. There is an important 4 page critique of David Kolb's theory in John Heron's Feelings and Personhood, in which Kolb's model is said to downplay the importance of feelings and intuition in experiential learning. Despite the range of Kolb's theorising, this generally positivistic book does not provide an adequate grounding for more holistic approaches to learning. (reviewed by Roger Greenaway)

More reviews of books about
experiential learning and learning to learn

David Kolb's Big Bibliography

Alice and David Kolb maintain an extensive bibliography of books and articles about experiential learning theory since 1971 (over 1,500 entries). It is updated twice a year. The latest bibliography is available from www.learningfromexperience.com
Index to some critiques of David Kolb's experiential learning theory.

More about Experiential Learning on this site

You will find several more experiential learning pages here at reviewing.co.uk including:
Receive free monthly site updates and original articles about experiential learning by signing up for Active Reviewing Tips.Learn how now.
You will find many more pages by looking up 'experiential' in the search box on the home page.

More about Experiential Learning on other sites

  • Beyond the Ropes: 14 principles of experiential learning by Martin Thompson (2008). "It’s clear to me that some of the underlying principles which appear to be common sense are far from common practice. Let me explain ..." Each principle of experiential learning is discussed in short paragraph.
  • What is Experiential Learning? [archived copy] is a FAQ-style article at www.teamskillstraining.co.uk that approaches 'experiential learning from many different angles: Is experiential learning team building? | The experiential learning process | Owning the experiential learning process | The experiential learning cycle for continuous improvement | The experiential learning laboratory | Is experiential learning self-rewarding? | Using experiential learning to reinforce the comfort zone concept | Principles of experiential learning | Applications of experiential learning to business | The experiential learning environment | The structure of an experiential learning programme
  • Why Experiential Learning is so Effective A list of 12 points presented by Sabre Corporate Development and based on research by Dr John Luckner and Reldan Nadler whose book 'Processing the Experience' is in the Active Learning Bookshop on this site.
  • An excellent place to continue your experiential learning quest is Marcia L. Conner's Learning from Experience
  • Experiential Learning ... on the Web (above)

Online Experiential Learning

Active Reviewing Guide Experiential learning articles + critiques of David Kolb's theory http://reviewing.co.uk/research/experiential.learning.htm#ixzz1V6TrPu4c
by Roger Greenaway