Workplace learning has continued to be a struggle for many organizations. Some who have been successful have turned to Kolb’s learning cycle. In 1984, David Kolb published his work on learning styles and the learning cycle. His theories on experiential learning led to two main ideas: a four-stage learning cycle and four learning styles.
The basis of these theories was Kolb’s thought that learning was based on how abstract concepts could be applied to a wide variety of situations. He felt that these concepts were developed by new experiences.
Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.
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The Experiential Learning Cycle
Kolb felt that all learning was the product of experience. He created four steps in the learning cycle, that all learners need to go through in order to internalize a new concept: Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation.
Concrete Experience - In this stage of the cycle, the learner experiences a new situation or they experience a similar situation in a new way. Because it is a cycle, a new experience can arise again, but learning can still take place if the old experience is understood in a new way.
Reflective Observation - The learner reflects on the experience and develops questions and thoughts about the experience, what they understand about it, and what they do not understand about it.
Abstract Conceptualization - After reflection, the learner will develop some abstract concepts and ideas related to their interpretation of the experience. If this is another occurrence of a prior experience they may modify their existing concepts or ideas about the experience.
Active Experimentation - The learner then tests their ideas in the real world to see what kind of results they get.
To continue the cycle, these tests and experiments lead to new experiences which then may lead to new observations and ideas. The cycle continues on with new ideas leading to new experiences and ultimately learning.
Kolb stated that learners can enter the cycle at any stage but that effective learning requires the learner to go through all 4 stages.
Kolb’s Learning Styles
Through his work on the learning cycle, he found that learners usually fall into one of four learning styles: Accommodating, Diverging, Assimilating, Converging. Kolb felt that a person’s social environment, educational experiences, and cognitive structure all combined in a way to influence their learning preferences on two axes: perception and processing.
Kolb called the horizontal axis the processing continuum. He stated that this represented how people approach a task. They can either approach a task from the angle of doing or from watching.
He called the vertical axis the perception continuum. This axis represents how people think or feel about a task. It is their emotional response. Kolb stated that people can perceive the task from a feeling angle or from a thinking angle.
When a person approaches a new task, they approach it with a certain style based on how they fall on the axes.
Feeling + Watching = Diverging
Feeling + Doing = Accommodating
Thinking + Watching = Assimilating
Thinking + Doing = Converging
When people know their own learning styles and when leaders know the learning styles of their employees, learning can be adapted to each learner so they can understand and internalize new information quicker.
People with this learning style are able to look at things from different viewpoints. They collect information and think about solutions. They often work best in groups and in brainstorming sessions as they like to generate and share ideas.
People who use this approach enjoy hands-on activities. They use intuition to solve problems and rely on the analysis of others when they are testing solutions.
People with this approach are more logical. They enjoy ideas and concepts with clear explanations and are less concerned about how they apply to the real world.
People with this style enjoy solving problems and finding solutions to real-world problems. They may want to do technical tasks where they can experiment with new ideas and how they connect to real problems.
These learning styles relate to how people enter the learning cycle and how they progress through the cycle. Many people may start the learning process at the stage where their learning style fits best and will need specific interventions to progress through all 4 stages.
Implications for Organizational Learning
When leaders are looking to create a learning organization, they should keep the learning cycle and learning styles in mind. This will help them develop activities that fit every learner.
Learners can also discover the style they use most often, as well as their weakest style. With this information, they can strengthen weaker skills while progressing through the learning cycle. The most effective learning and development programs incorporate activities that take the learner through each of the 4 stages.
For example, in order to use Kolb’s learning cycle in the business environment, leaders need to create activities that incorporate 4 tasks: Experience, Reflect, Think, and Apply. Let’s say that employees need to learn a new compliance skill related to documentation. This could be a sample process for learning this type of skill.
Experience: Leaders can give employees examples of this documentation and give them time to read through it and see how it is structured.
Reflect: Employees can then discuss the document, talking about what makes it effective and how they could improve it.
Think: Employees can read other examples of the documentation and start to think about they could use their own words to create something within the guidelines.
Apply: After some processing time, employees can write their own version of the compliance document and get feedback from the trainer and other employees.
With the knowledge of learning styles and the learning cycle, leaders can create more effective learning experiences in both face-to-face and technology-based learning systems.
As learners know more about their learning styles, they can adapt to the learning cycle more easily so they can complete the cycle in a more effective manner.
Knowledge about learning and about how it progresses are great tools for both employees and leaders when trying to create effective learning programs.