Kolb’s Reflective Learning Cycle

This is part of a series of articles exploring reflective practice.


In this article, we’re going to cover who David Kolb was, before diving into a detailed explanation of how Kolb’s Reflective Cycle works. We will also cover the various pros and cons of Kolb’s Reflective Learning Cycle before briefly looking into some of the alternatives models of reflection, closely followed by an example of Kolb’s Reflective Learning Cycle in action.

Please feel free to scroll ahead to any section that jumps out at you. Here goes.


About David Kolb

Born in Illinois, America in December 1939, David Allen Kolb went on to become a well known educational theorist. He earned his BA at Knox College in 1961, before moving on to complete both an MA and a PhD in Social Psychology at Harvard University in 1964 and 1967.

His interests and publications focused on such areas as experiential learning, and executive and professional development. He went on to become the founder of Experience Based Learning Systems Inc (EBLS), and also Emeritus Professor of Organisational Behaviour in Case Western Reserve University, of Cleveland, Ohio.


In the early 1970s, Kolb worked with Ron Fry to develop the Experiential Learning Model (ELM). But Kolb is particularly renowned in education circles for his Learning Style Inventory.

Both of these models feature leading roles in the learning method that combines concrete experience, and reflective observation.


Now, let us take a look at Kolb’s Model of Reflection.

Kolb’s Model of Reflection

David Kolb developed a model of reflection, which he calls “Reflective Practice”. This model is a cycle of four interlinking stages, which can be applied to many different types of activities. It is not restricted to only one type of learning experience.


The four distinct stages are; concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. Let’s look at each of these stages individually.

Concrete Experience

This stage involves experiencing something new or unusual. It can be anything from taking part in a sport, to visiting a foreign country, to listening to music in a different language. The point here is that it should be something that is new and/or unfamiliar.


This stage is where the learner first experiences something, and begins to understand what they are doing. At this stage, learners do not yet have much understanding of the subject, but their knowledge base is growing. They may even begin to make mistakes, as they are still trying to figure things out.

Reflective Observation

In order to progress past the concrete experience stage, the learner must be able to reflect upon their experience. This means being able to observe themselves, and think about what they did, why they did it, and what was the result.


Abstract Conceptualisation

As they reflect on their experience, they are beginning to build up a mental picture of what they experienced. This is called ‘abstract conceptualisation’ because it allows them to see the bigger picture.

At this stage, learners start to draw conclusions based on their observations. For example, if they were playing basketball, they might conclude that they need to improve their technique. Or if they were learning French, they might notice that they had trouble pronouncing certain words.


Active Experimentation

Once learners have reached this stage, they will want to test their ideas by actively experimenting. This could mean putting their theories into practice, or testing out how effective their methods really are.

The critical thing about this stage is that learners are now ready to put their theories into action. If they are going to learn any further, they will need to experiment with their ideas.


Each of their experiments counts as a new concrete experience, which takes us back to the initial stage of the cycle. As the cycle goes round again, the learner grows in skill and knowledge.

In some instances, a teacher may begin with abstract conceptualisation, explaining a theory before testing it out to prove it. This is closely followed by active experimentation, and the cycle goes round again, and the learner will consolidate their learning during their reflective practice following on from the concrete experience.


Kolb’s Model of Reflection in Practice

This cycle is often used to teach people new skills or train people in a particular field. For example, suppose someone were to learn how to play golf. In that case, they could first prepare themselves by reading up on the game, then engage in the actual game, exploring what happens during the game, and finally integrating what they have learned, reflecting on how things went for them so that they can make any necessary changes for their next game.

However, this cycle does not just apply to formal learning situations. It can also be used in informal settings, like playing sports or even socialising. If you are having fun with your friends but want to improve your social skills, you can use Kolb’s model of reflection to help you grow.


You can ask yourself questions such as: What am I doing? Why am I doing it? How am I feeling? And what would happen if I stopped doing it? And when you allow your findings to inform your future behaviour, you are consolidating your learning as you complete and/or renew the cycle.

Advantages & Disadvantages of Kolb’s Reflective Cycle

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle is a simple process that be easily grasped and put into practice. Therefore, it can be a useful introduction to structured self-reflection. It is flexible and can be applied to many different scenarios. Not to mention the fact that it really helps individuals to develop better self-awareness. This in and of itself is of tremendous value and is something that can be applied in all areas of life.


However, critics of the model may argue that it is oversimplified because it does not consider the perspectives of others or any other type of feedback. In addition, it does not take into consideration other methods of non-reflective learning or reflection during an action.

Alternatives to Kolb’s Reflective Cycle

Schön’s Model of Reflection explores the importance of reflection during an experience (Reflection in Action) as well as reflection following an experience (Reflection on Action).


Gibb’s Reflective Cycle builds on the work of Kolb to create a more detailed experiential learning cycle that has more focus on feelings, feedback from others and structured action plans moving forwards.

Similarly, John’s model of reflection uses sets of questions at each stage to facilitate deeper thinking and analysis and encourages the participation of another person to prevent drawing conclusions that may be too one-sided.


A list of other models of reflective practice can be found here.

An Example of Kolb’s Reflective Cycle

And now to give you an in-depth example of Kolb’s reflective cycle in practice.


You work as a domiciliary care worker and your employer introduces a new proprietary record-keeping application for documenting the care visits that you carry out. You undergo training on the software and then come to use it during a client visit. However, you can not remember how to clock in and clock out of the visit and so do not log your visit. The next day, your manager is unhappy because you have not been logging your visits. This is a concrete experience of using the new system.

Following the visit, you reflect upon what you did. You carried out your daily care tasks with your usual professionalism but could not make the necessary records as you could not remember how to do so. This resulted in legal records not being maintained, which could potentially have resulted in wrong decisions being made (e.g. another carer visits a client and gives an overdose because medical records were not up-to-date) or disciplinary action. This is your reflective observation of the situation.


Using this information, you begin to build up a picture of what went wrong. You admit that you were overconfident during the training and so did not make notes that would have helped you in the field. In addition, when you realised that you didn’t know how to use the system, you didn’t seek support from your manager. This process of drawing conclusions from an experience is abstract conceptualisation.

Moving forward, you commit to taking all training seriously and make meticulous notes that you can refer back to if needed. In addition, you make the decision that whenever you are unsure about something, you will contact your manager for guidance and support straight away. Putting these ideas into practice is the active experimentation stage of the cycle.


Because reflective practice is cyclical, you should continuously reflect on the actions that you have put in place. For example, a few weeks later you may reflect on the times that you have asked for support as soon as you are not sure how to do something, and this behaviour has served you well and averted potential difficulties. You may also reflect on your commitment to making detailed notes during training, but found that by constantly writing, you were always behind and sometimes missed part of the training. So, you change you decide to change the behaviour to taking rough notes of only the most important information.


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