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What is Kolb’s Learning Cycle and How Does it Work?

David A. Kolb, an influential American educational theorist, is best known for his work on experiential learning theory. Central to this theory is Kolb’s learning cycle, which comprises four stages: Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation. This cycle explains how individuals learn through a continuous process of experiencing, reflecting, conceptualizing, and experimenting. 

By integrating these stages, Kolb’s theory emphasizes the importance of active engagement with experiences for effective learning outcomes, making it a valuable framework for educators and learners.

Exploring Kolb’s Learning Cycle

Kolb’s learning cycle is a powerful tool for understanding how we learn best. It breaks down the learning process into four key stages:

Kolb's learning cycle

Concrete Experience (CE)

This is where the action happens. You dive into real-life situations, whether a lab experiment, a group project, or a volunteer opportunity. This hands-on experience is the starting point for your learning journey.

Reflective Observation (RO)

After the action comes the reflection. You take a step back and think about what happened. What worked? What didn’t? What did you learn from the experience? This stage is all about introspection and analysis.

Abstract Conceptualization (AC)

Now, it’s time to make sense of it all. You start connecting the dots, identifying patterns, and developing theories or concepts based on your experiences. This is where you turn real-life situations into abstract ideas.

Active Experimentation (AE)

The final stage is all about putting your ideas to the test. You take what you’ve learned and apply it in new situations. Whether it’s trying out a new study technique or tackling a problem in a different way, this stage is about hands-on learning and refining your skills.

Understanding Learning Styles

Kolb’s theory also delves into different learning styles, which are the unique ways individuals prefer to approach learning. Here are the four main learning styles according to Kolb:


People with this style are imaginative and prefer to observe and gather information. They excel in brainstorming sessions and creative activities.


Those with an assimilating style are more interested in creating theories and models. They thrive in situations where they can analyze and organize information logically.


Converging learners are practical and prefer to solve problems in a hands-on manner. They excel in technical tasks and enjoy experimenting with new ideas.


Accommodating individuals are action-oriented and thrive in situations that require quick decision-making and adaptation. They learn best through trial and error.

While Kolb identified four main styles of learning, research has observed nine distinct styles: experiencing, diverging, reflecting, assimilating, thinking, converging, acting, accommodating, and balancing.

Understanding your preferred learning style can help you tailor your approach to learning and maximize your potential. Whether you’re a visual learner who benefits from diagrams and charts or a hands-on learner who learns best through experimentation, recognizing your learning style can empower you to take control of your learning journey.

Applications of Kolb’s Learning Cycle

Kolb’s learning cycle isn’t just a theoretical framework; it’s a practical tool that can be applied in various contexts to enhance learning and development. Here are some key areas where Kolb’s learning cycle finds application:


In classrooms and educational settings, teachers can design lesson plans and activities that align with each stage of the learning cycle. From hands-on experiments to reflective discussions and group projects, incorporating diverse learning experiences can cater to different learning styles and foster deeper understanding.

Professional Development

Employers and trainers can use Kolb’s learning cycle to design training programs that engage employees in active learning. By incorporating real-world challenges, opportunities for reflection, and hands-on practice, organizations can support employee skill development and promote a culture of continuous learning.

Leadership Development

Kolb’s learning cycle can also be applied in leadership development programs to cultivate effective leaders. By encouraging leaders to reflect on their experiences, experiment with different leadership styles, and continuously learn and adapt, organizations can nurture leadership capabilities that drive success.

Personal Growth

On an individual level, understanding Kolb’s learning cycle can empower learners to take ownership of their learning journey. By actively seeking out diverse experiences, reflecting on their learning process, and experimenting with new ideas and skills, individuals can accelerate their personal growth and development.

Whether you’re a teacher designing a lesson plan, a manager organizing a training session, or an individual looking to enhance your learning skills, Kolb’s learning cycle offers a versatile framework that can be tailored to meet diverse learning needs and objectives.

Criticisms and Limitations of Kolb’s Learning Cycle

While Kolb’s learning cycle has been widely embraced, it is not without its criticisms and limitations. Here are some common critiques of the theory:

Oversimplifies the Learning Process

Some critics argue that Kolb’s learning cycle oversimplifies the complexity of the learning process. The linear progression through four stages may not accurately capture the nonlinear and iterative nature of learning, which often involves revisiting and revising previous stages.

Cultural Limitations

Critics also highlight the cultural and contextual limitations of Kolb’s theory. The model may not fully account for cultural differences in learning styles and preferences, leading to a one-size-fits-all approach that may not be applicable across diverse cultural contexts.

Measurement and Validation

Another criticism concerns the lack of empirical evidence supporting the validity and reliability of Kolb’s learning styles inventory, which is often used to assess individuals’ learning preferences. Critics argue that the inventory may not accurately capture the complexity of learning styles and may yield inconsistent results.

Overemphasis on Experience

Some scholars caution against the theory’s overemphasis on experiential learning, arguing that it neglects the role of other factors, such as social interaction, instruction, and motivation, in the learning process. This narrow focus may limit the theory’s applicability in certain educational and professional contexts.

While acknowledging these criticisms, it’s essential to recognize that Kolb’s learning cycle still offers valuable insights into the learning process. By addressing these limitations and integrating complementary theories and perspectives, educators and researchers can continue to refine and enhance the theory’s applicability and effectiveness in diverse learning contexts.

Key Points to Remember

  • Kolb’s learning cycle outlines a dynamic learning process through four stages: Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation.
  • Understanding your preferred learning style, whether diverging, assimilating, converging, or accommodating, can help tailor your approach to learning and maximize your potential.
  • Kolb’s learning cycle has applications in education, professional development, leadership training, and personal growth, offering a versatile framework for enhancing learning outcomes.
  • While criticisms exist, Kolb’s learning cycle remains a valuable tool for educators, trainers, and learners. It provides insights into the iterative nature of learning and offers practical strategies for fostering deep understanding and skill development.


Kolb, A., Kolb, D.A. (2012). Kolb’s learning styles. In: Seel, N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA.

Lee, M. M., & Kumar, S. I. (2023). Kolb meets quality: Applying learning theory to a process improvement and safety curriculumATS scholar4(4), 431–440.

Wijnen-Meijer, M., Brandhuber, T., Schneider, A., & Berberat, P. O. (2022). Implementing Kolb´s experiential learning cycle by linking real experience, case-based discussion and simulationJournal of Medical Education and Curricular Development9, 23821205221091511.