What Is The Kolb Reflective Cycle? The Kolb Reflective Cycle In A Nutshell

The Kolb reflective cycle was created by American educational theorist David Kolb. In 1984, Kolb created the Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) based on the premise that learning is facilitated by direct experience. In other words, the individual learns through action. The Kolb reflective cycle is a holistic learning and development process based on the reflection of active experiences.

Understanding the Kolb reflective cycle

Experiential learning is common during internships and other forms of on-the-job training designed to complement conventional educational programs. With the rise of massive open online courses (MOOCs) and competency-based degrees, however, educators are also turning to experiential learning to help students develop skills based on real-world experiences.

The Kolb reflective cycle is based on two components of experiential learning theory: a four-stage cycle together with four resultant learning styles. For the rest of this article, we will discuss these components in more detail.

The four stages of the Kolb reflective cycle

Kolb sees learning as a cyclical, four-stage process where the student acquires knowledge from each new experience. As a result, learning is a holistic process where the student applies new insights and ideas toward continuous improvement.

Following is a look at each stage:

  1. Concrete experience – during the first stage, the student has an experience representing a learning opportunity. During the experience, the student should take notes on what they see, how they feel, and what they think. Critically, the individual must actively participate in the experience to learn. There are no advantages to observing or reading, for example.
  2. Reflective observation – then, the student reflects on their experience without judgment by noting any contradictions between the experience and their notes. What worked? What failed? How did the individual act? Why did the situation arise?
  3. Abstract conceptualization – here, the student must analyze and create meaning from the experience. The goal here is to develop theories from recurring themes, problems, or situations that can be used for similar situations in the future. Colleagues and relevant literature are good sources of support and inspiration.
  4. Active experimentation – describing the application of the newly acquired theories in a practical setting. Some theories will succeed, while others will inevitably fail. However, failure should be seen as the impetus to run through the cycle once more.

The four distinct learning styles of the Kolb reflective cycle

Kolb also defined four distinct learning styles based on each stage of the cycle. Most individuals embody one style, with their choice determined by the social environment, previous educational experiences, and their unique personalities. 

For the sake of simplicity, the four learning styles can be displayed in a 2×2 matrix. Each style represents a combination of two of the stages mentioned in the previous section:

  • Accommodating (Concrete experience/Active experimentation) – this learning style relies on intuition over logic, with individuals preferring a practical, experiential approach. Using gut instinct, they are frequently attracted to new challenges and experiences with a reliance on others to provide detailed analysis.
  • Diverging (Concrete experience/Reflective observation) – the diverging learning style encompasses those who can look at a topic from multiple perspectives. As a result, they perform well in situations requiring idea generation such as brainstorming. Divergent learners are people and group-oriented, have broad cultural interests and tend to be imaginative and emotional. 
  • Converging (Abstract conceptualization/Active experimentation) – converging learners prefer technical tasks where they can solve problems using their knowledge. They are much less concerned with working collaboratively and are most effective where specialist or technological ability is required. Finally, this style loves to experiment and stimulate new ideas and theories.
  • Assimilating (Abstract conceptualization/Reflective observation) – a preference for assimilating learning involves a logical and concise approach. Concepts and ideas are more important than people. These learners excel at organizing diverse information into a clear and logical format and are enthused by ideas and abstract concepts. They have a preference for analytical models, readings, lectures, and the time and space to think deeply.

Key takeaways:

  • The Kolb reflective cycle is a holistic learning and development process based on the reflection of active experiences. It was created by educational theorist David Kolb.
  • The Kolb reflective cycle is based on four cyclical stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experiment.
  • From each stage of the Kolb reflective cycle, four learning styles can be derived: accommodating, diverging, converging, and assimilating. Each style is influenced by the social environment, educational experience, or the basic cognitive structure of the learner.

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