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How does Experiential Education Work?

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

Simply giving students a concrete experience is not enough to foster critical thinking. An experience alone may not deliver the appropriate lesson unless it is framed and debriefed correctly. How to do this is a topic of ongoing discussion.

There is a great deal of evidence supporting Kolb’s Learning Cycle. David Kolb (1984) believed that “learning is a process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (p. 38). He proposed a cyclical model of learning consisting of four stages. One may begin at any stage, but then must follow in sequence (See Figure 2). The phases are:

  • concrete experience ( “DO”)
  • reflective observation (“OBSERVE”)
  • abstract conceptualization (“THINK”)
  • knowledge transfer or active experimentation (“PLAN”)


While the cycle is a simplified description of how students learn, it also serves as a course planning tool. In a typical course, a student can go through the cycle once or multiple times, depending on their level of engagement and the intentions of the instructor. It is through the intentional sequencing of activities in line with Kolb’s Cycle that instructors can achieve the dual outcome of teaching course material and fostering critical thinking and student development. Instructors teaching in this manner will also find that, through instructing their students, they too come to realizations and new understandings about their work and subject matter.

[i] 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.

Updated on April 17th, 2013.