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Is the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle still relevant in this age of instant information?

Is the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle still relevant in this age of instant information?

For over thirty years, David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle (1984) has been widely referenced and promoted by trainers and organisations involved in personal, team and organisational development.

With the advances in neuroscience, and a further three decades of research into how people learn, is the basic experiential learning cycle still relevant and useful to trainers, facilitators and learners?

Kolb recognised that individuals learn from experience only when they complete a number of stages in a ‘learning cycle’, in which their personal experience is reflected upon, understood and translated into relevant and applicable future action. Kolb suggested failure to complete this cycle can lead to a failure to assimilate learning from the experience, resulting in the repetition of poor strategies or ‘jumping to conclusions’ that have no evidence base. He also suggested that individuals have preferences in their learning styles, related closely to the different stages of the cycle. This assumption triggered the development of a number of ‘learning style inventories’ that trainers promoted for decades – and some still continue to use.

Learning styles models have largely been discredited and most educators accept that all learners benefit from being exposed to a wide variety of learning methods. Social learning, mobile learning and self-directed learning are replacing traditional ‘expert led’ training programmes as new generations of learners expect to access information and expertise as and when they need it, through their smartphones. Good learners are flexible, adapting their learning strategies to their current needs.

New ideas, new methods

Our developing knowledge of how we learn, (including many lessons from the emerging field of neuroscience, some of which are (summarised by the CIPD) alongside the vast opportunities for different types of learning offered by technology, are challenging some of our long-held beliefs.

So does any of Kolb’s work still resonate and how does it relate to our new insights? At RSVP Design we believe it does.  To illustrate this, let’s look at the AGES model referenced in the article above. AGES are four letters that stand for Attention, Generation, Emotion and Spacing. The suggestion is that learning (and specifically retention) is enhanced when:

  • The learner gives focused attention to the learning
  • The learner generates multiple connections between the new learning and existing cognitive maps and prior experiences, seeking out relevance
  • The learning has a base in emotion, as heightened emotion is connected to memorable and powerful learning
  • The learning is appropriately spaced and in manageable amounts, allowing the learner ‘time-out’ from the learning and chances to come back to it time and time again to review and assimilate it

Does this look familiar? 

It seems to me there is nothing there that isn’t inherent in expert use of the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle and the methods that we have developed from it. Let’s look at the 4 elements of the AGES model (although not in that order!).


  • Emotion
    Good experiential learning design is based upon giving learners a powerful, emotional experience. The emotions felt may be excitement,  frustration, irritation, anxiety, empathy, satisfaction…and many more. These emotions illustrate the fact that the experience means something, that learners are engaged in it and that they are more likely to remember the experience when it is tied to the emotional memory.

  • Attention
    If learners are actively engaged in an interesting, challenging task or a stimulating problem-solving process their attention is focused. Many of us will have experienced times when learners are so engaged in what they are doing that they refuse to leave an unfinished task, go back to it in their lunch break or continue to talk about it after completion. Their attention has been grasped and held and they are attentive to the learning process they are participating in.  Further more, the reflection stage of the cycle is when specific attention is given to noticing the detail of what happened, observing individual responses and being attentive to the reactions of others and the results of behaviours and actions.

  • Generation
    Generative learning is one of the fundamental principles of good experiential learning design. Well designed activities, including simulations, represent the learner’s experience in their own lives and environments and make the connections and parallels obvious and easy to find. When we use experiential learning methods we do not control what the learner learns, for exactly this reason. The learners make individual, personalised meaning, that makes sense to them and has direct relevance in their own lives.

  • Spacing
    A further principle of good experiential learning design is the concept of ‘repetition plus’. Experiences are designed to build upon each other, adding complexity and challenge each time.  Once new understanding has been gained, the learners determine changes (eg. in behaviour or process) to test and apply in new situations. Each new experience is a further iteration of the learning process, providing the spacing needed to add depth to the learning. 

So, is this simply slick new packaging?

It could be argued that trainers are simply jumping on the bandwagon of ‘neuroscience’ and, as many have done before, providing a glossy new spin on something that is popular, easy to grasp and lacking in scientific rigour. Maybe the new approaches to learning will be as laughable as some of the learning styles models of the 1980s seem today. Or maybe we keep coming back to simple models like the Kolb Learning Cycle because, despite the fact we can’t ‘prove’ that they work, they offer learners powerful new insights into their day to day experience and the door to better understanding of their own actions and responses.

What do you think?

Related Articles
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  2. Revisiting a definition of Experiential Learning in a world of restricted delivery Revisiting a definition of Experiential Learning in a world of restricted delivery
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