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Experiential Learning cycle

Aim of the tool
To help participants reflect on experience and identify how a situation or future actions could be improved and using the knowledge to actually make improvements.

When to use it?
This tool can be used when designing an MSP, as well as when reviewing an established MSP.

Experiential Learning is the process of consciously learning from experience in order to improve future practice. The learning cycle developed by Kolb (1984) and successfully used since then in a myriad of adult learning processes gives the base for bringing together the three dimensions of social learning and change (individual, organizational and societal/institutional) in a full spiral of action and reflection. Learning according to this theory involves a four-stage cyclical process. An individual or group must engage in each stage of the cycle in order to effectively learn from their experience.

The four stages are:

  • learning from concrete experiences;
  • learning from reflective observation;
  • learning from abstract conceptualization;
  • learning from active experimentation.

The cycle starts with individual or group experiences of events (or things). But these experiences alone do not lead to learning. First it is necessary to reflect on this experience. This means exploring what happened, noting observations, paying attention to the feelings of yourself and others. It means building up a multidimensional picture of the experience.

The second stage of the cycle involves analysing all this information to arrive at theories, models or concepts that explain the experience in terms of why things happened the way they did. This theorising or conceptualising about experience is very important to learning. It is where solutions to problems, innovative ideas and lateral thinking come from. Drawing on existing theories is a crucial part of this stage. 

Armed with this understanding of past experience, the next stage involves deciding what is most important and generating ideas about how to improve future actions. It is working out how to put what has been learned into practice.

Finally, in the fourth stage, putting these new ideas or solutions into practice by taking action will result in a new experience. And so the cycle continues. 

According to Kolb’s model, the ideal learning process engages all four of these modes in response to situational demands. In order for learning to be effective, all four of these approaches must be incorporated. David Kolb has extended his original work to explore the different ways in which we all learn. What is both interesting and important for group work is that different people tend to have different styles of learning and, therefore, place more emphasis, or feel more comfortable, in some stages of the learning cycle than others. The resulting learning styles are combinations of the individual’s preferred approaches. These learning styles are as follows:

  • Reflector
  • Theorist
  • Pragmatist
  • Activist


How to use the Experiential learning cycle?

When reviewing or reflecting on an MSP the following questions can be asked:


1. What happened? What has succeeded or failed?

a.     What significant things happened? Describe the events. Who was involved, what did they do? What picture emerges? How did I/we feel?

2. Why did it happen? Why have we had successes or failure?

a.     Why did it happen, what caused it? What helped, what hindered? What did we expect? What assumptions did we make? What really struck us? Do we know of any other experiences or thinking that might help us look at this experience differently?

    3. So what? So what are the implications for the process?

    a. What would we have done differently? What did we learn, what new insights? What was confirmed? What new questions have emerged? What other theories help us to deepen these learnings?

    4. Now what? What action will we now take to make improvements?

    Now what does this mean for practice? What do we want? What do we want to do, to happen? How? What are we going to do differently? How will we not repeat the same mistake? What do we have to let go of or stop doing? What steps will we use to build these new insights into our practice?