David Kolb: The Founder of The Experiential Learning Theory

Experiential learning is an increasingly popular approach to education applied by learning institutions around Australia and worldwide. It helps students apply theoretical knowledge to real-life situations.

The theory was first proposed in 1984 by educational theorist David Kolb. This article will dive deeper into Kolb himself, his experiential learning model, and how the approach applies to learning today.

Who is David Kolb?

David Kolb is an American educational theorist and spearhead of the experiential learning movement. He is best known for his work with the Experiential Learning Model (ELM), which educational institutions have followed for more than 40 years.

Kolb was born on December 12, 1939, in Moline, Illinois. He earned his Bachelor of Arts (BA) from Knox College in 1961 and his PhD in social psychology from Harvard University in 1967.

In collaboration with Ron Fry, Kolb developed his Experiential Learning Model in the early 1970s. This model draws observations from another of his theories—the Learning Style Inventory (LSI)—which suggests every person falls under one of four learning style categories.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model

Kolb’s ELM is based on four stages: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualisation, and active experimentation. The model is typically represented as a circle or repeating cycle rather than a finite list.

Let’s go into detail about each stage now.

  1. Concrete Experience. The learner engages in a task or activity, usually with real-world consequences. 
  2. Reflective Observation. The learner reviews their experience under the lens of their existing knowledge. It is important for the learner to identify gaps between experience and understanding.
  3. Abstract Conceptualisation. The learner devises new ideas or concepts from their reflection.
  4. Active Experimentation. The learner applies these new concepts to the world around them.

Kolb also suggests identifying each student’s unique learning style to get the most out of experiential education. The four learning styles are:

  1. Accommodating (feeling & doing)
  2. Diverging (feeling & watching)
  3. Assimilating (thinking & watching)
  4. Converging (thinking & doing)

Kolb connects these learning styles with the ELM across two axes he calls the ‘Processing Continuum’ and the ‘Perception Continuum’. The horizontal axis includes Active Experimentation (doing) and Reflective Observation (watching), while the vertical axis includes Concrete Experience (feeling) and Abstract Conceptualisation (thinking).

Kolb argues that we cannot perform both actions on one axis simultaneously (i.e. do and watch or think and feel). A student’s learning style, then, is the product of choosing one variable from each axis.

Applications of Experiential Learning in Higher Education

Experiential learning is invaluable to learners in higher education, helping them develop skills necessary for success in work and life. We can apply the ELM to higher education through activities such as:

  • Field exercises
  • Cooperative education
  • Internships
  • Service learning
  • Practicums
  • Study abroad
  • Volunteering

These activities can help students connect theories learned in class with real-world scenarios, a key goal of experiential education.


David Kolb’s experiential learning theory changed the way educators, institutions, and students deliver and receive an education. Its ability to link theory and practice and provide learners with real-world skills ensures its popularity will continue for decades to come.

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