The 4 Components of the Experiential Learning Cycle


Exploring how individuals approach learning can assist leaders in comprehending the strategies needed to ensure that they, and their team members, continue to refine their skills and grow as professionals over time in the most efficient and effective manner. To help leaders with this process, David A. Kolb developed the experiential learning concept, which has proven useful for leaders who are tasked with the critical responsibility of cultivating and maintaining a successful and constructive learning environment. Kolb’s experiential learning cycle concept divides the learning process into a cycle of four basic theoretical components: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. In an attempt to establish practical application of the model, Kolb connects each of these four concepts to particular learning preferences. Understanding how an individual’s preferred learning style fits into Kolb’s model can help leaders fine-tune approaches to education, training, and professional development.

Concrete Experience

As the first component of the experiential learning cycle, concrete experience relates to our everyday experiences, whether they occur in professional, personal or educational settings. They can be completely novel experiences, such as a new leadership role at a new company, or they could involve familiar experiences under varying circumstances. For instance, a marketing manager might experience an analysis of industry competition quite differently after learning that his or her company was being bought out by a top competitor.

For professionals in leadership positions, concrete experiences on the job are directly related to overall expertise and critical on-the-job experience. Leaders should view such concrete experiences as learning opportunities that can be valuable for their organizations, as they can be seen as learning opportunities for themselves and their teams, and leaders should work to help their employees to see their own concrete experiences as valuable chances for growth and personal development.

Reflective Observation

The second component of the experiential learning cycle is reflective observation, which naturally occurs after having new experiences. While reflective observations can be impacted by preconceived notions and learned ideologies, it is vital for leaders to consistently reflect upon their experiences and adjust their approaches for solving new challenges and making critical organizational decisions. For example, if an employee fails to accomplish a certain task or meet a goal, a leader can reflect on previous approaches and develop a strategy to help the employee succeed the next time.

Abstract Conceptualization

While reflective observation focuses on contemplating previous experiences and developing observations about these experiences, abstract conceptualization takes the reflective process a step further by focusing on channeling those observations into a set game plan or theoretical approach. For instance, a leader who has a negative experience communicating with an employee may form the idea that the individual is unapproachable or unresponsive, yet through constant interaction, the leader may develop a different theory that the person simply responds better to different approaches. As leaders reflect upon their own learned assumptions and observe others, these ideas should be constantly reevaluated, revised and tested at this conceptualizing stage. By practicing new approaches and tactics, leaders can have more effective interactions with subordinates while also maximizing their learning potential.

Active Experimentation

This fourth component of experiential learning deals with the process of testing existing ideas by creating new experiences. For instance, in the abstract stage, a leader might develop theories based off of observations learned in the reflective stage, and in the active stage, the leader takes the time to then test their theories. This stage of experiential learning is related to the concept of scientific experimentation, in which an individual forms a hypothesis based on existing ideas and tests the validity of these ideas in a structured experiment. For those in leadership roles, this means using all available tools and resources to make effective decisions and carry forth action.

Active experimentation also allows leaders to connect strategic planning to practical implementation. Individuals in sales or customer service, for instance, receive training on effective strategies and must then apply these ideas in actual situations. Certain approaches are reevaluated, revised, or even reinvented through this experimentation process by both leaders and employees to improve strategy and maximize effectiveness. Leaders in organizations must be actively engaged throughout this critical stage of experiential learning, helping to track the impact of certain strategies in order to discover new approaches, improve training tools and develop best practices.

Types of Learners

As stated earlier, Kolb also theorizes that different individuals rely more heavily on some, not all, of the components of the experiential learning cycle in daily practice. One person might naturally prefer a combination of abstract and active learning, skipping over the reflective and concrete aspects of the cycle. Based on such preferences, Kolb and his colleague Roger Fry use the four components of experiential learning to differentiate all learners into one of four categories:

  • Converger (abstract conceptualization/active experimentation)
  • Diverger (concrete experience/reflective observation)
  • Assimilator (abstract conceptualization/reflective observation)
  • Accommodator (concrete experience/active experimentation)

As each learner type is based on a combination of the four experiential learning concepts, Kolb’s theory can be useful for leaders to gain a better understanding of their employees’ learning preferences within their organizations and help facilitate the overall learning process. Ultimately, this can inform how leaders approach customized training and education programs, how they utilize feedback and performance evaluations to maximize learning, and how they structure teams and delegate tasks more efficiently based on developmental strengths and learning preferences. For instance, convergers and accommodators might excel at hands-on, time sensitive projects that require strong initiative and the ability to think on one’s feet to make quick decisions and meet short-term goals. Divergers and assimilators, on the other hand, could be more suited for tasks requiring strong analytical and critical thinking skills, extensive planning and a focus on long-term goals.

To shape a strong organizational culture of learning, leaders should reflect critically on their experiences and existing ideas, constantly testing these ideas through active experimentation. Furthermore, by focusing on personal development, leaders can improve their own learning capacity and encourage this improvement in others. The experiential learning cycle can help with this as it provides a solid foundation for understanding different approaches and responses to learning and assists organizational leaders in building more effective learning strategies. 

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Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (2nd Edition), David A. Kolb

Learning Styles and Adaptive Flexibility: Testing Experiential Learning Theory, Management Learning

Can Experiential Learning Be Applied To eLearning? Part 2, eLearning Industry