kolb-reflective-cycle

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.

Advantages and disadvantages of Kolb’s reflective cycle

Advantages

Kolb’s model is an experiential learning framework skewed toward real-world experiences to form learning.

This makes it extremely useful in business, where having an iterative approach to learning through experience can help speed up the process while retaining more in the long term.

Kolb’s model is also straightforward as it enables learning through four simple phases:

Concrete experience.
Reflective observation.
Abstract conceptualization.
And active experimentation.

The active experimentation phase is extremely valuable as it enables to development of business skills quickly.

The main advantage of Kolb’s model is its ability to follow an iterative learning process.

While enabling professionals to do it still deliberately.

Thus, iteration based on experience and deliberate learning can be extremely powerful in mastering new business skills quickly.

Disadvantages

While Kolb’s model proves extremely effective for individual learning.

It can be more challenging to execute group learning.

In short, the iterative and deliberate approach to learning, if used correctly by the individual, can prove very effective.

Yet, for group learning, it might be less appropriate, as it needs to consider the various ways individuals within the group learn.

Thus, Kolb’s model proves effective for individual professional learning, less so for group learning.

Kolb vs. Gibbs’ reflective cycle

gibbs-reflective-cycle
Gibbs’ reflective cycle was developed by Dr. Graham Gibbs in 1988 – a research leader in the Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences at the University of Huddersfield. Gibbs’ reflective cycle is a framework giving structure to the process of learning from experience through six stages: description, feelings, evaluation, analysis, conclusions, and action plan.

Whereas Kolb’s reflective cycle comprises four simple phases. The Gybbs’ reflective cycle consists of six stages:

  • description,
  • feelings,
  • evaluation,
  • analysis,
  • conclusions,
  • and action plan.

In short, Gibbs’ reflective cycle adds an action plan to the mix, which makes it effective to execute the learnings.

Thus, Gibbs’ cycle might be a bit more suited for group learning, as it helps individuals execute on their experience, by following an action plan.

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.

Other Problem Solving Frameworks

Feynman Technique

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The Feynman Technique is a mental model and strategy for learning something new and committing it to memory. It is often used in exam preparation and for understanding difficult concepts. Physicist Richard Feynman elaborated this method, and it’s a powerful technique to explain anything.

5 Whys Method

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The 5 Whys method is an interrogative problem-solving technique that seeks to understand cause-and-effect relationships. At its core, the technique is used to identify the root cause of a problem by asking the question of why five times. This might unlock new ways to think about a problem and therefore devise a creative solution to solve it.

Second-Order Thinking

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Second-order thinking is a means of assessing the implications of our decisions by considering future consequences. Second-order thinking is a mental model that considers all future possibilities. It encourages individuals to think outside of the box so that they can prepare for every and any eventuality. It also discourages the tendency for individuals to default to the most obvious choice.

Lateral Thinking

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Lateral thinking is a business strategy that involves approaching a problem from a different direction. The strategy attempts to remove traditionally formulaic and routine approaches to problem-solving by advocating creative thinking, therefore finding unconventional ways to solve a known problem. This sort of non-linear approach to problem-solving, can at times, create a big impact.

Value Stream Mapping

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Value stream mapping uses flowcharts to analyze and then improve on the delivery of products and services. Value stream mapping (VSM) is based on the concept of value streams – which are a series of sequential steps that explain how a product or service is delivered to consumers.

Fishbone Diagram

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The Fishbone Diagram is a diagram-based technique used in brainstorming to identify potential causes for a problem, thus it is a visual representation of cause and effect. The problem or effect serves as the head of the fish. Possible causes of the problem are listed on the individual “bones” of the fish. This encourages problem-solving teams to consider a wide range of alternatives.

RFM Analysis

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The RFM analysis is a marketing framework that seeks to understand and analyze customer behavior based on three factors: recency, frequency, and monetary. The RFM analysis allows businesses to segment their customer base into homogenous groups, understand the traits of each, and then engage each group with targeted marketing campaigns.

McKinsey’s Seven Degrees Of Freedom

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McKinsey’s Seven Degrees of Freedom for Growth is a strategy tool. Developed by partners at McKinsey and Company, the tool helps businesses understand which opportunities will contribute to expansion, and therefore it helps to prioritize those initiatives.

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