Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory – the foundations

As the name indicates, experience lies at the core of experiential learning theory, but one of its main proponents, David Kolb, argues that experiential learning theory can put forward an integrative perspective on learning that combines experience, perception, cognition and behaviour (Kolb, 2015, p. 31). In fact, Kolb argued that this theory constitutes an approach to education and learning as a lifelong process, soundly based on intellectual traditions of social psychology, philosophy and cognitive psychology – bridging the gap between all arenas of life (Kolb, 2015).

Beard and Wilson (2006, p. 19) propose a definition of experiential learning as “the sense-making process of active engagement between the inner world of the person and the outer world of the environment”, which is not far from Kolb’s own definition of learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 2015: 49).

For Kolb, experiential learning has six main characteristics:

  • Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes. For Kolb, knowledge (concepts, approaches, thoughts) is formed and reformed through experience. So, the purpose of education and training is to stimulate inquiry and the ability to form knowledge, rather than memorization and repetition.
  • Learning is a continuous process grounded in experience. Knowledge is continuously derived from and tested out in the experiences of the learner, continually informing the individual’s ability to deal with new situations, which in turn feed this learning process.
  • Learning requires the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world (learning is by its very nature full of tension). Kolb argues that in the process of learning the person is constantly shifting from actor to observer, from specific involvement to an analytical, detached, position. To understand this better, you need to consider Kolb’s Learning Cycle and the two intersecting dimensions he proposes, which will be discussed in another item of this Unit.
  • Learning is a holistic process of adaptation to the world. For Kolb, “learning is the major process of human adaptation” (2015, p. 43, author’s emphasis), and it involves the individual completely – his/her ability to think, feel, perceive and behave. For this reason, it goes beyond the classroom and takes place in all human settings, encompasses all life stages, and is much, much more than data retention. It is a lifelong process of creating bridges and reformulating our perceptions and actions, involving problem solving, decision making, attitude change.
  • Learning involves transactions between the person and the environment. It does not concern only the learner and the contents to be learnt; it entails the impact of the environment on perception and behaviour, and how constantly changing perception and behaviour impact the environment. Kolb referred to the twofold meaning of the term experience (the individual’s feelings regarding an event, and the accumulated knowledge taken from life situations) as a symbol of this complex interaction between person and environment in a learning process, in which both parties are essentially changed.
  • Learning is the process of creating knowledge that is the result of the transaction between social knowledge and personal knowledge. And for learning to be effective, so Kolb argues, we need to consider the nature of knowledge itself, in order to choose or design the most effective strategies/tasks/activities to ensure learning.

On the basis of these principles, especially the dialectic tension between action/reflection and experience/abstraction, as well as his observation of how individuals address learning situations, Kolb developed a model of learning (again drawing on the works of John Dewey and Kurt Lewin, among others). For more information on Kolb’s Learning Cycle, please check out the video “Kolb’s Learning Cycle – structure and principles” in this unit.


Beard, C. & Wilson, J.P. (2006). Experiential Learning. A best practice handbook for educators and trainers. 2nd ed. London and Philadelphia: Kogan Page.

Kolb, D.A. (2014). Experiential Learning. Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Pearson Education Inc.


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