David Kolb’s Cycle of Experiential Learning

(The Four Stages of Learning & The Four Learner Types)

In his book, “Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development,” David Kolb proposed the ELT or Experiential Learning Theory, which says that experiences are the source of all learning. Kolb presents four learning stages (compiled as the ELM or the Experiential Learning Model) as follows:

  1. Concrete Experience
  2. Reflective Observation
  3. Abstract Conceptualization
  4. Active Experimentation

Before we look at each stage in detail, let us look at Kolb's Cycle with a fresh pair of round and curious eyes - those that belong to Cupcake.

For a learner, this learning experience may be:

  • Entirely New (Novice Learner)
  • A new interpretation of an existing experience (Experienced Learner)

Let us understand Kolb's Cycle through the example of two learners - one novice and the other expert.

Sonia and Monica are going through the same training program on the 4 Ps of marketing.

Here are their short profiles.

Sonia is a History grad who has never gone through Phillip Kotler’s 4 Ps of Marketing. She is 28 years old and has about 5 years of work experience.


Monika is a Business Management Post-grad who has learned about the 4 Ps during her MBA. She is 45 and has been working on and off for the last 20 years.


Stage 1: Concrete Experience (Feel)

Learning begins in the Concrete Experience stage, where the learner goes through a new learning experience. At this stage, the learner is experiencing the learning through visual, audio, or kinesthetic means. In the ADDIE cycle, you’d find this stage of Kolb’s cycle present in the Implementation Phase.


Sonia would create a fresh new schema for the 4 Ps (which may be only loosely connected with other schemas, but she has nothing to anchor the new concept strongly to.)
Monica shall activate the prior schema remember the understanding she had development from it, and then add the new knowledge about 4 Ps to it. In this manner, she is already moving into the next stage proposed by David Kolb (The Reflective Observation stage.)

Stage 2: Reflective Observation (Watch):

Next comes the Reflective Observation stage, in which the learner reflects upon the learning experience. This could acquire different forms. For instance, if it is a fresh learning experience for the learner (i.e. the learner is a novice learner) he may reflect upon the new learning in view of his past experiences, whereas if she is going through another interpretation of an existing learning, she won’t just reflect upon the new learning by viewing it through the lens of her past-experiences, but also by comparing it with her earlier learning.

Let us review the cases of Sonia and Monika for this stage.

When Sonia enters the Reflective Observation stage, she will reflect upon the four Ps – Product, Price, Place, Promotion in view of her own shopping experience - a Titan Raga watch that she purchased a couple of days ago. She may have purchased the watch online – so her reflection may primarily include online market places, credit card payments, and Facebook ads.
However, Monica’s Reflective Observation will not just include her personal marketing/shopping experiences, but also her prior learning of the 4Ps. If her prior learning happened at a time when Digital Marketing was not an option, her reflection on the P of Promotion would include a comparison between the traditional channels and the digital channels. Her reflection on the P of Place will now compare online market places (such as Amazon, Flip-cart) etc., with the traditional markets of the past.


Stage 3: Abstract Conceptualization (Think):

After Reflective Observation, the learner moves into the Abstract Conceptualization stage. Now the learner comes to a conclusion after filtering and adjusting the new learning, and thus forms a new schema. So the novice learner now constructs his own understanding of the 4 Ps of Marketing, while the experienced learner modifies (if needed) her past understanding to correct/improve/strengthen it further.

In the Abstract Conceptualization stage, Sonia will form a schema for the 4Ps of marketing that will be focused on her current shopping experiences. Thus, if she is an avid reader of eBooks, the first P for Product for her would be a digital product. We see constructivism playing an important part in this stage, where the learner will formulate her generalizations based on her personal experiences.
Monica, our experienced learner, will revise her existing schema of the 4 Ps and will broaden it to include digital products, online market places, modern pricing techniques, and digital advertising into the 4 Ps. Thus, her generalizations will include both the new and the old ways of doing things.

Stage 4: Active Experimentation (Do):

Finally, the learner applies the new construct of the learning and moves into the Active Experimentation stage. Thus, the novice learner now uses the 4Ps of marketing to make a marketing plan by deciding what shall be done for each of the four key factors in any marketing mix – Product, Price, Place, and Promotion. Similarly, the experienced learner uses her enhanced understanding of the concept to achieve the same goal.

Once again, our first-time learner, due to her exposure and preferences may be more tilted toward a digital marketing plan. She may come up with a plan for selling a product (say Happy Puppy Cereals) from a website, market it only online, and accept digital payments for it. She may have a more focused but a somewhat narrow marketing plan that could ignore a lot of traditional buyers.
Monica on the other hand, could come up with a marketing plan that includes the positives of both the digital and the traditional marketing. The underside of it is that she may not have enough faith in the online medium, which could results in a more conservative outlay for online marketing.


The Four Types of Learners

Depending on a learner’s inclination (what he/she prefers to do,) Kolb identifies four types of learners:

  1. The Diverger
  2. The Assimilator
  3. The Converger
  4. The Accomodator

If you are interested in reading more about the 4 types and how they are identified, download the pdf of this article from the Downloads section.

About David Kolb and his Works

David A. Kolb was born in 1939 and is known for his work on Experiential Learning. In 1984, David Kolb wrote “Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.” This book became the basis for the following important concepts:

  1. 4 Stages of Experiential Learning (The Experiential Learning Model – ELM)
  2. 4 Learning Styles (The Learning Styles Inventory – LSI)
  3. 2 Learning Continuums (Processing Continuum & Perception Continuum)



- Author: Shafali R. Anand


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