Nutshell: How do we learn? The case for learning from experience

Written by
Future Talent Learning

04 Nov 2019

04 Nov 2019 • by Future Talent Learning

Can models of experiential learning help us think about how we learn? 

The question “How do we learn?” has no one, simple answer. The literature is vast and complex, with even the most popular theories about learning or individual learning styles being called into question. 

The issue of ‘styles’ is especially thorny, with plenty of research finding little or no evidence that aligning learners’ professed learning styles with the means used to teach them significantly improves outcomes. It seems that knowing – and even applying – learning style preferences using evaluative systems like the oft-quoted and much-used VARK (visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic) model is something of a red herring. 

We may be instinctively drawn to personality typing and learning styles diagnostics like Myers-Briggs and VARK, but it seems that simply finding out what type of learner we are doesn’t really help us to learn better. In fact, focusing on a range of other, more proven, techniques, like spaced learning or supported practice would undoubtedly be a more productive option. 

There remains, too, the question of whether we learn by thinking first, then acting – or the other way around. Whatever kind of learning style we may or may not have, we might we be well-advised to heed the German philosopher Immanuel Kant, who observed: “It is beyond a doubt that all our knowledge begins with experience.” Might learning through experience, and especially how we reflect on, interpret and use that experience, offer one answer to the “How do we learn” conundrum?  

The case for experiential learning

The word ‘experience’ comes from the Latin expereri, which – strictly speaking – means to experiment, test or risk. When we think back to our formative years at school or college, we’re probably all (horribly) familiar with the idea of testing; but experiment and risk? Perhaps less so. 

But this original – and broad – definition of experience is at the heart of a model for learning that underpins the modern theory of experiential learning, pioneered since the 1970s by David A Kolb. 

For Kolb, knowledge is continuously gained through both personal and environmental experiences.

“Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it.” (Kolb, 1984)

He is clear, however, that while experiences provide the impetus for learning and development, they are not, on their own, enough. Here’s where that broader definition of ‘experience’ comes into play. Each experience has to be ‘grasped’ and ‘transformed’ via a four-stage, continuous process, where that experience translates into effective learning through a cycle of reflection, conceptualisation and testing.

According to Kolb, effective learning can only take place when we are:

  • actively involved in the experience
  • able to reflect on the experience
  • able to conceptualise the experience, and
  • able to create a plan to use the new ideas gained from the experience.

The four stages of Kolb’s model are typically represented by an integrated learning cycle in which the learner moves through these four stages:

Effective learning takes place when we move through all four stages. The cycle can be entered at any point but all stages must be followed in sequence for successful learning to take place; no one stage is effective on its own. Each stage is mutually supportive of, and feeds into, the next. 

Kolb revisited: Honey and Mumford

More controversially, Kolb also used his four-stage cycle to identify four separate learning styles. He suggested that different people naturally prefer a single learning style, although the preference is the product of two pairs of variables or ‘choices’, based on how we approach a task along the processing continuum (feeling-thinking) and our emotional response along the perception continuum (doing-watching). Each of the four resulting styles – accommodating, diverging, assimilating and converging – represents a combination of two preferred styles.

Kolb’s four learning styles

Kolb’s work on learning styles – and his Learning Styles Index (LSI) – was built on and developed by Peter Honey and Alan Mumford. The Honey and Mumford Learning Styles Questionnaire (LSQ) focuses less on identified preferences and more on general behavioural tendencies that anticipate four distinct styles that we use while learning new information. 

Honey and Mumford acknowledge the debt their work owes to Kolb; there is certainly a strong similarity between the Honey and Mumford styles/stages and the corresponding Kolb learning styles:

  • Activist = Accommodating = (to feel\to do)
  • Reflector = Diverging = (to feel\to watch)
  • Theorist = Assimilating = (to think\to watch)
  • Pragmatist = Converging = (to think\to do)

Some of the key characteristics assigned to each learning style are as follows: 

Activists learn by doing and participating. 

Reflectors learn by observing and thinking about experiences from various perspectives. 

Theorists like to think things through, to understand the theory behind actions. 

Pragmatists are keen to try out new ideas, theories and techniques to see if they work in practice. 

We use all four at different times, but most of us tend to have one or two dominant styles. 

While being aware of our default style/s can provide a guide to how best we might learn, Honey and Mumford’s version of Kolb’s learning cycle shows how our learning preferences can and do change over time, perhaps because we need them to, or we’re operating in a new context (a different job, perhaps). As with the original Kolb cycle, there are four stages which are equally weighted. The relationship between the cycle and the four learning styles is clear. 

  • Experiencing – doing something (activist);
  • Reviewing – thinking about what has happened (reflector);
  • Concluding – drawing some conclusions (theorist);
  • Planning – deciding what to do in the future (pragmatist).

By engaging with all four stages, we can develop new approaches to learning that may feel less natural for us – but will extend our learning range. And, as leaders, it should also help us to appreciate the skills and qualities of people with different styles and approaches from our own. One size very definitely does not fit all. 

Boud, Keogh and Walker: structured reflection

However expressed – and Honey and Mumford’s LSQ may be a more finessed example – the debate over the validity of pre-determined learning styles will doubtless continue. The idea, though, that we can and do learn through and from experience, as suggested by the experiential learning cycle, seems intuitively right. 

It’s a view shared by David Boud, Rosemary Keogh and David Walker. In their book, Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning, they contribute to the debate by placing reflection at the centre of a model designed to help learners transform their experiences into useful learning. 

The model reinforces Kolb’s point that we only learn from our experiences when we make sense of them through reflection. By strengthening the link between the experience and the reflective activity that follows, learning is enhanced. By subjecting experiences to rigorous questioning – what happened, why, how – learners are better able to evaluate and use those experiences, learn from their mistakes, repeat successes and clarify how they think and feel about what took place. For Boud et al, more active, deliberate, reflection can turn unplanned, impulsive action into self-aware, intelligent action. 

Their model comprises three stages, summarised as follows:

In the experience(s) phase is the experience itself, but the simple act of experiencing does not, in itself, result in learning. That relies on the second phase: the reflective process. 

We may all instinctively reflect on what we experience, but the model assumes more intent, a structured three-step reflective process which encourages us to: 

  • Replay the experience, possibly through a written journal or describing the event to someone else, like a mentor or coach. 
  • Attending to feelings, focusing first on positive feelings about the experience, and then acknowledging any negative feelings that may form a barrier to our learning from it. 
  • Re-evaluating the experience through:
    • association (making connections with other experiences)
    • integration (identifying patterns and relationships between the new experience and previous experience);
    • validation (determining the validity of new ideas, and 
    • appropriation (adopting this new learning in real life).

The purpose of this reflective process is to generate outcomes, which might include new perspectives, changed behaviours, an openness to applying new ideas and skills and, crucially, a commitment to action. The reflective process only really ends when we do something as a result, when our experiences are transformed into outcomes.  

This process may seem like overkill; in fact, the authors are keen to point out not all reflection needs to follow every step. But the key takeaway from their model is that a more structured, intentional approach to reflecting on our experiences is more effective and valuable than leaving things to chance when it comes to making sense – and learning from – what we experience. 

Does experiential learning work in practice?

Experiential learning has often been contrasted with academic learning, which looks to instil knowledge through more abstract, classroom-based, ‘broadcast’ techniques. Proponents of such approaches point out that we can – and often do – learn without direct experience. 

Indeed, we often learn most from observing the experiences of others. As Eleanor Roosevelt sagely noted, we often must learn from the mistakes of others given that we can’t live long enough to make them all ourselves.

Clearly, learning from direct personal experience is not the only way we can acquire knowledge. This is perhaps a little unfair to Kolb though, as learning here still involves reflecting on an experience, even if it’s not our own. 

Kolb’s model – and its variants – perhaps comes into their own where learning is informed by real-world or on-the-job, vocational contexts, such as in medicine or engineering, or in the world of apprenticeships, where learning happens while – and through – working. Seen through the prism of vocational study, a focus on experience makes more obvious sense. In these cases, it seems that, as the economist Ernst F Schumacher noted, “an ounce of practice is worth more than a ton of theory”.

Whatever the context, and despite the naysayers – there have been many – the experiential learning model remains interesting because of the more general approaches to learning it espouses. To learn experientially, we must be active participants – not passive receivers. We need to develop the skills to reflect critically on our experiences and we need the courage to experiment and make mistakes in the first place. As has been observed many times, good judgement often stems from experience but much experience tends to stem, initially at least, from bad judgement. 

The focus on immersion, reflection, critical thinking and creative problem-solving is increasingly being recognised as valuable beyond vocational subjects and contexts. Many schools and universities are embracing experiential learning and changing the balance between traditional classroom teaching and more collaborative projects and applied learning techniques. A 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index Report found that several key experiential factors – such as extended project work or opportunities for students to apply learning outside the classroom – contributed to postgraduate success and workplace engagement.  

Experiential learning is certainly a helpful counterbalance to the idea that we can learn everything we need from the safety of our armchairs. Especially when it comes to leadership, most of us have a tendency to prefer leaders with a healthy dose of experience under their belt rather than simply a lustrous academic certificate. Perhaps Yogi Berra summarised it best when he noted that, “in theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is”.


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