Kolb’s Experiential Learning revisited

I’ve been a supporter, yet a critical one, of David A. Kolb‘s theory of Experiential Learning for many years, and almost like a recursive cycle I seem to return to Kolb’s ideas, whenever I’m looking for a theoretical framework to illustrate pedagogical activities. As I’ve recently started to process and reflect upon the many different teaching and learning activities in the MIL course (my 2. MIL research cycle), I’ve found it interesting to revisit Kolb’s ideas to study their “applicability” with my current project.

Teaching and learning environment
In order to better understand the different activities it’s necessary to get an overview of the teaching and learning environment, which is depicted below.


Home – given that MIL is a distance education with only four 2 1/2 day f2f-seminar pr. year the majority of the teaching and learning activities took place in the participants’ homes/workplaces.  All synchronous teacher initiated activities took place in the evenings/afternoons on weekends.

f2f seminar – the MIL course started on November 1st and ended on December 15th 2008. Mid November we had a f2f seminar, where the students were introduced to the general theme of the module (ICT and Didactic Design). I had 3 hours to lecture on “Remediation and redidactization in SL” combined with a hands-on workshop on some basic features of SL.

SL – was used for all the synchronous activities, both teacher and learner initiated.

FC (FirstClass) – was used for general information (incl. literature and other resources)/communication regarding the course, and more importantly as setting for the students’ asynchronous discussions/reflections. See this post for reflections on the quantitative outcome of the course.

Web 2.0 – various tools/technologies  supported the information provided in FC. Interestingly, and quite unusual for MIL students in other courses, the blogshpere and video and presentation repositories (like YouTube and Slideshare) were intensely explored in order to find additional information to support the students’ own findings and reflections.

A different perspective on Kolb’s model
Together with colleague Roger Fry, David A. Kolb started exploring the potentials of experiential learning in the 1970’ies, and Kolb further developed their ideas in his 1984 book “Experiential Learning: Experience as Source of Learning and development”. Besides exploring foundations (Dewey, Lewin and Piaget in particular) for experiential learning Kolb presented a model of 4 particular elements, which together constitute an optimal learning process. The elements are:

  • Active experimentation
  • Concrete experience
  • Reflective observation
  • Abstract conceptualization

The model is widely known (and depicted) as a learning cycle and Kolb also used its elements to identify 4 learning styles, each corresponding to the spectrum between 2 elements – e.g. The Diverger, who supposedly prefers to learn through concrete experience and reflective observation. In this post I don’t want to address the otherwise relevant epistemological question of a) the probability of (universal) learning styles (incl. the number issue) or b) the question of how the learning process best can be understood (cycle, spiral, steps, continuum etc.).  Instead I want to return to the 4 core elements and use them to illustrate and discuss activities in different contexts of the MIL course’s teaching and learning environment.


Active experimentation and concrete experiences were mainly conducted synchronously at the f2f hands-on workshop and in SL. There was a total of 25 teacher initiated in-world activities that included:

  • Get-off-to-a-good-start – meetings where I as the main teacher instructed the newcomers in using different features and took them on tours to designated educational locations.
  • Building Class – 3 1 ½ hrs. sessions where guest teachers, Dr. Asp & Heidi Ballinger, showed the students the in-world building craft and assisted the students in their own building experiments.
  • Didactic Design Discussions – four 2 hrs. sessions, where I lectured on mandatory topics based on the course literature, but also on topics raised by the students in their asynchronous discussions. Due to the use of simultane voice and text communication, these sessions engaged the students more actively, when compared to traditional f2f lectures.
  • Visits – typically 1-2 hrs. sessions where the students and I visited both Danish and International colleagues involved in either in-world education and/or business.
  • Your Tour – 2 1 ½ hrs. sessions where 2 students showed the rest of us two locations of choice (one location of professional interest build by others, one location of professional interest build by the student’s employer).
  • X-Mas celebration – the last in-world meeting with focus on social activity. The students had asynchronously rewritten a well known Christmas song, so that it fit the class’ experiences from the course.
  • Friday Bar – a phenomenon well known from Danish on-campus life. In-world located as part of MIL’s Holodeck classroom. None of the students showed up for these events.

Reflective observation and abstract conceptualization were mainly conducted asynchronously in SL, FC and by the use of different web 2.0 technologies. In-world note cards and pictures were stored and utilized to support the students’ reflections that were expressed in the FC discussions. These reflections were also supported by course literature, and additional information found on the Internet.

The above distinction between synchronous and asynchronous activities is particular to this specific course design, should not be regarded too rigidly and could have been designed otherwise. If Kolb’s model is taken literally reflection happens at a certain stage in the process, whereas other theorists (incl. Kolb’s own inspiration Dewey. 1933) argue for reflection as an ongoing activity and especially Schön. 1983 has contributed with his concepts reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action.  The MIL students were clearly able to reflect-in-action, which became evident in many of the synchronous activities, especially in the didactic design discussions and during the visits. Another interesting comment could be made regarding the abstract conceptualization, which usually is associated with the ability to understand, evaluate and conclude on general principles derived from the previous experiences. The MIL students did this outside SL (mainly in written and graphic formats), but it could possibly have been done in-world as either processes (e.g. teach each other xx) and/or as products (e.g. build a model of xx). This is something I need to consider when planning the next MIL research cycle (Fall 2009) .

The 4 different activities also correspond to 4 different types of knowing/knowledge, which I’ll try to exemplify with empirical data in future studies.


Teaching-Learning relations in the environment
Staying within the framework of Kolb the 4 activities were dominant in the MIL course, and in reviewing these the role/influence of the teacher may be illustrated as below.


In general MIL students are tech-savvy, used to learning on their own and in their study groups, but SL proved to be an atypical experience, and my impression (also based on the 1. MIL research cycle) was that the students needed much more instruction/facilitation than usual.  Several reasons such as SL’s infamous steep learning curve, the course design, the length of the course period and the rather abstract nature of the subject matter may have contributed to this, but it’s certainly something I need to investigate further. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the students needed more teacher guidance that usual, but coming from an education that has learner-independence as a goal (as part of a life-long learning perspective) it does bring about some reflections.

Anyways, in reviewing the “applicability” of Kolb’s ideas to my PhD project this preliminary inquiry shows some potential  that need further exploration …



Kolb, D. A. (1984): Experiential Learning: Experience as Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice Hall

Dewey, J. (1933): How We Think, New York: Heath.

Schön, D. A. (1983): The Reflective Practitioner. How professionals think in action, London: Temple Smith.

4 thoughts on “Kolb’s Experiential Learning revisited

  1. Harald Nygaard February 18, 2009 / 10:51 am

    I was really excited to see what you have done with Kolbs model. I have been working with Kolbs theory/model for some years and have establsihed a good relation with David and Alice Kolb directly the last couple of years.
    Please share more …

  2. Mariis Mills February 19, 2009 / 8:03 am

    Hi Harald,
    I’ve just returned from a research meeting in Poland where we discussed the use of Kolb’s thoughts in another course, so for sure I’ll return this work in future posts :-)

    I also would like to learn more about your work on this and will contact you directly on regular email ..

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