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

  • 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.

Kolb Reflective CycleThe Kolb Reflective Cycle, also known as the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle, is a theoretical framework that describes how individuals learn from their experiences. It was developed by David A. Kolb, an American educational theorist and psychologist. This cycle outlines a four-stage process of learning and reflection.
Four StagesThe cycle consists of four stages:
1. Concrete Experience: This is the stage where individuals have a direct experience or encounter a new situation.
2. Reflective Observation: After the experience, individuals reflect on what they’ve observed or learned.
3. Abstract Conceptualization: In this stage, individuals analyze and draw conclusions from their reflections.
4. Active Experimentation: After analysis, individuals apply what they’ve learned in new situations.
Learning StylesKolb’s framework also identifies four distinct learning styles based on individuals’ preferences for specific stages of the cycle:
1. Diverging (Feeling and Watching): These learners excel in the “Reflective Observation” and “Concrete Experience” stages.
2. Assimilating (Thinking and Watching): These learners prefer the “Abstract Conceptualization” and “Reflective Observation” stages.
3. Converging (Thinking and Doing): These learners are inclined toward the “Abstract Conceptualization” and “Active Experimentation” stages.
4. Accommodating (Feeling and Doing): These learners thrive in the “Concrete Experience” and “Active Experimentation” stages.
Continuous LearningThe Kolb Reflective Cycle emphasizes the importance of continuous learning and personal growth. It suggests that individuals can enhance their learning abilities by moving through all four stages, thereby gaining a deeper understanding of their experiences and increasing their adaptability in various contexts.
Application in EducationKolb’s model is frequently used in educational settings to design experiential learning programs and promote critical thinking skills. Educators can tailor their teaching methods to accommodate different learning styles, allowing students to engage more effectively with the learning process.
Problem-Solving ToolBeyond education, the Kolb Reflective Cycle is also employed as a problem-solving tool in various professional fields. It encourages individuals and teams to reflect on their experiences, identify strengths and weaknesses, and develop strategies for improvement.
Integration with PracticeProfessionals often use this framework to improve their performance in the workplace. By actively applying lessons learned from reflection and experimentation, individuals can enhance their decision-making abilities and problem-solving skills.
Enhancing Self-AwarenessThe cycle promotes self-awareness by encouraging individuals to assess their learning preferences and tendencies. This self-awareness can be beneficial in career development and personal growth, enabling individuals to make informed choices about their learning and development paths.
LimitationsWhile the Kolb Reflective Cycle is widely used, it’s essential to recognize that not all individuals fit neatly into one of the four learning style categories. Human learning is complex and influenced by various factors. Additionally, some critics argue that the cycle oversimplifies the learning process.
AdaptabilityOne of the strengths of the Kolb Reflective Cycle is its adaptability. It can be applied to a wide range of learning situations, from academic settings to professional development and personal growth initiatives. Organizations also use it to enhance training and development programs.
Practical ReflectionKolb’s model emphasizes the importance of practical reflection, which means not only thinking about experiences but actively applying insights in future actions. This practical application of knowledge is central to the cycle’s effectiveness in promoting learning and growth.

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:

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.

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?

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.

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)

Divergent thinking is a thought process or method used to generate creative ideas by exploring multiple possible solutions to a problem. Divergent thinking is an unstructured problem-solving method where participants are encouraged to develop many innovative ideas or solutions to a given problem. These ideas are generated and explored in a relatively short space of time. 

The diverging learning style (through divergent thinking) 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)

Convergent thinking occurs when the solution to a problem can be found by applying established rules and logical reasoning. The term convergent thinking was first described by American psychologist Joy Paul Guilford in 1950. The process of convergent thinking involves finding the single best solution to a problem or question amongst many possibilities. 

Converging learners (through convergent thinking)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 (through vertical thinking), readings, lectures, and the time and space to think deeply.

Vertical thinking, on the other hand, is a problem-solving approach that favors a selective, analytical, structured, and sequential mindset. The focus of vertical thinking is to arrive at a reasoned, defined solution.

Advantages of Kolb’s reflective cycle

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 of Kolb’s reflective cycle

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 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.

Case Studies

Leadership Training

Imagine a leadership development program aimed at enhancing the skills of mid-level managers within a corporation. The program identifies the need for managers to improve their decision-making abilities.

  1. Concrete Experience: Managers are presented with challenging, real-life scenarios where they must make critical decisions. These scenarios could simulate high-pressure situations in the corporate world.
  2. Reflective Observation: After facing the scenarios, managers engage in reflective discussions and journaling. They analyze their decision-making processes, emotions, and the outcomes of their choices.
  3. Abstract Conceptualization: Through guided sessions and group discussions, managers explore decision-making theories and models. They delve into topics like ethical decision-making, risk assessment, and cognitive biases.
  4. Active Experimentation: Managers are encouraged to apply the decision-making theories and strategies they’ve learned in their real work situations. They actively experiment with different approaches to decision-making.

This process allows managers to reflect on their experiences, understand various decision-making models, and apply these concepts in their leadership roles.

Medical Education

In a medical education setting, students need to develop effective communication skills to interact with patients and colleagues. The program focuses on enhancing these skills.

  1. Concrete Experience: Medical students engage in simulated patient interactions, where they take on the role of a healthcare provider. They interact with actors portraying patients with various medical conditions.
  2. Reflective Observation: Following each interaction, students participate in debriefing sessions. They discuss their communication styles, empathy levels, and the effectiveness of their patient interactions.
  3. Abstract Conceptualization: Students attend lectures and workshops on communication theories, patient-centered care, and active listening. They learn about the psychological aspects of doctor-patient communication.
  4. Active Experimentation: Students apply their newfound knowledge and skills during clinical rotations. They actively experiment with different communication techniques to build rapport with patients and provide compassionate care.

Through this cycle, medical students develop strong communication skills essential for their future careers.

Technology Workshops

A technology company conducts workshops to train its software developers in a new programming language. The goal is to ensure developers can effectively use the language in their projects.

  1. Concrete Experience: Developers participate in hands-on coding sessions where they work on real projects using the new programming language. They encounter challenges and complexities during the coding process.
  2. Reflective Observation: After coding sessions, developers engage in peer code reviews and discussions. They reflect on the challenges faced, identify errors, and consider alternative coding approaches.
  3. Abstract Conceptualization: The company provides access to online resources and tutorials about the new programming language. Developers study advanced coding concepts, best practices, and optimization techniques.
  4. Active Experimentation: Developers apply their knowledge in ongoing projects. They actively experiment with the new language, incorporating advanced coding techniques and ensuring code quality.

This iterative process allows developers to gradually master the new programming language and apply it effectively in their projects.

Language Learning

A language school offers language courses to students aiming to become proficient in a foreign language. The school focuses on immersive language learning.

  1. Concrete Experience: Students participate in immersive language experiences, such as conversational classes, cultural events, and interactions with native speakers.
  2. Reflective Observation: Students journal their language learning experiences and interactions. They reflect on language barriers, communication difficulties, and cultural insights gained during immersion.
  3. Abstract Conceptualization: Language instructors provide structured lessons on grammar, vocabulary, and language structure. Students study language theory and analyze common language patterns.
  4. Active Experimentation: Students actively use the language in real-life situations, such as ordering food, navigating a new city, or conducting interviews in the target language. They experiment with different language strategies.

Through this cycle, students gradually become proficient in the foreign language and gain cultural competence.

Key Highlights

  • Kolb Reflective Cycle: The Kolb reflective cycle is a framework for experiential learning created by David Kolb. It is based on the Experiential Learning Theory (ELT), which suggests that learning is facilitated by direct experiences and active reflection.
  • Components of the Cycle: The Kolb reflective cycle consists of four stages: Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation. These stages form a cyclical process where learners acquire knowledge and insights from their experiences.
  • Learning Styles: Based on the stages of the cycle, Kolb defined four distinct learning styles:
    • Accommodating (Concrete experience/Active experimentation)
    • Diverging (Concrete experience/Reflective observation)
    • Converging (Abstract conceptualization/Active experimentation)
    • Assimilating (Abstract conceptualization/Reflective observation)
  • Advantages of the Kolb Reflective Cycle:
    • Focused on real-world experiences and iterative learning.
    • Suitable for business contexts to accelerate skill development.
    • Offers a simple and straightforward framework.
  • Disadvantages of the Kolb Reflective Cycle:
    • May be more challenging to apply in group learning situations.
    • Group dynamics and various learning styles within a group can impact effectiveness.
  • Kolb vs. Gibbs Reflective Cycle:
    • Gibbs’ reflective cycle has six stages, adding an “action plan” step to the Kolb cycle.
    • Gibbs’ cycle is suited for executing and implementing learnings, making it effective for group learning scenarios.
  • Key Takeaways:
    • The Kolb reflective cycle is a valuable framework for experiential learning.
    • It involves active reflection on experiences through four stages.
    • Learning styles are determined by a combination of these stages and individual factors.
    • Gibbs’ reflective cycle includes an action plan step, making it useful for executing and implementing learnings.
    • Both cycles have their advantages and may be more suitable for different learning scenarios.

Connected Learning Frameworks

Feynman Technique

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Active Listening

Active listening is the process of listening attentively while someone speaks and displaying understanding through verbal and non-verbal techniques. Active listening is a fundamental part of good communication, fostering a positive connection and building trust between individuals.

Active Recall

Active recall enables the practitioner to remember information by moving it from short-term to long-term memory, where it can be easily retrieved. The technique is also known as active retrieval or practice testing. With active recall, the process is reversed since learning occurs when the student retrieves information from the brain.

Baptism by Fire

The phrase “baptism by fire” originates from the Bible in Matthew 3:11. In Christianity, the phrase was associated with personal trials and tribulations and was also used to describe the martyrdom of an individual. Many years later, it was associated with a soldier going to war for the first time. Here, the baptism was the battle itself.  “Baptism by fire” is a phrase used to describe the process of an employee learning something the hard way with great difficulty. 

Dreyfus Model

The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition was developed by brothers Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1980. The Dreyfus model of skill acquisition is a learning progression framework. It argues that as one learns a new skill via external instruction, they pass through five stages of development: novice, advanced beginner, competent, proficient, and expert.

Kolb Learning Cycle

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.

Method of Loci

The Method of Loci is a mnemonic strategy for memorizing information. The Method of Loci gets its name from the word “loci”, which is the plural of locus – meaning location or place. It is a form of memorization where an individual places information they want to remember along with points of an imaginary journey. By retracing the same route through the journey, the individual can recall the information in a specific order. For this reason, many consider this memory tool a location-based mnemonic.

Experience Curve

The Experience Curve argues that the more experience a business has in manufacturing a product, the more it can lower costs. As a company gains un know-how, it also gains in terms of labor efficiency, technology-driven learning, product efficiency, and shared experience, to reduce the cost per unit as the cumulative volume of production increases.

Learning Organization

Learning organizations are those that encourage adaptative and generative learning where employees are motivated to think outside the box to solve problems. While many definitions of a learning organization exist today, author Peter Senge first popularized the term in his book The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organisation during the 1990s.

Forgetting Curve

The forgetting curve was first proposed in 1885 by Hermann Ebbinghaus, a German psychologist and pioneer of experimental research into memory.  The forgetting curve illustrates the rate at which information is lost over time if the individual does not make effort to retain it.

Instructor-Led Training

Instructor-led training is a more traditional, top-down, teacher-oriented approach to learning that occurs in online or offline classroom environments. The approach connects instructors with students to encourage discussion and interaction in a group or individual context, with many enjoying ILT over other methods as they can seek direct clarification on a topic from the source.  Instructor-led training (ILT), therefore, encompasses any form of training provided by an instructor in an online or offline classroom setting.

Spaced Repetition

Spaced repetition is a technique where individuals review lessons at increasing intervals to memorize information. Spaced repetition is based on the premise that the brain learns more effectively when the individual “spaces out” the learning process. Thus, it can be used as a mnemonic technique to transform short-term memory into long-term memory.

Related Strategy Concepts: Read Next: Mental ModelsBiasesBounded RationalityMandela EffectDunning-Kruger EffectLindy EffectCrowding Out EffectBandwagon EffectDecision-Making Matrix.

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