Tag Archives: Experiential learning

From the Horse’s Mouth: Kolb on ELT

284007ab16c6d4b4982db55c8da01c9eBut even if I’ve read a couple of articles about experiential learning, how can I say I know Kolb’s theories unless I’ve read his words?  It would be like knowing Paris from photos rather than going there!

So, time for another e-resource:-

‘Experiential Learning Theory and Learning Styles’ / David A. Kolb

In: Encyclopedia of Management Theory  / Ed. Eric H. Kessler (Sage publications, 2013)

DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.4135/9781452276090.n84

This is just a five-page pdf of the encyclopedia entry (print pp.277-9), so it’s enough to give me a quick overview.  First, the fundamentals – learning is a process, continuous, involving re-learning and adapting as we create knowledge.  There are a couple more propositions that confuse me a bit: ‘Learning requires the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world’, and ‘Learning results from synergetic transactions between the person and the environment.’  The second of these seems to concern learning by doing.  But the first?!

All becomes clear when we next read about the cycle of experiential learning. There are two ‘dialectically related modes of grasping experience’ and two ‘dialectically related modes of transforming experience’, which boils down to doing versus thinking in the abstract, and observing versus actively trying something out: –

  • Grasping experience: CE (concrete experience) versus AC (abstract conceptualization)
  • Transforming experience: RO (reflecting observation) versus AE (active experimentation)

And experiential learning involves all four modes cyclically. As we reflect, we conceptualize and can apply this to the next stage of our learning.

The Kolb Learning Style Inventory (KLSI) describes how we each prefer to learn, everyone having preference for one of the four ‘learning modes’ described above, and how we move between them.  Learning style is said to be a ‘dynamic state’ rather than part of our psychological make-up, and how we choose to learn affects our personal development.  The four learning modes are combined to result in nine distinct learning styles, and it seems logical that these may make people suited to different career paths, whether entrepreneurial, strategic or whatever.

a8c99e958f2df0b7e481ea0a740d6aa1Although this is interesting, and is a good justification for ensuring that learning activities are sufficiently varied to appeal to different ‘types’ (particularly since I’m catapulted into one-off classes to deliver teaching on a variety of topics, and have no knowledge of individual learners and their styles) – it doesn’t inform me about the learning cycle as Korb sees it, so I next need to look for it elsewhere.

Chris Jeffs, ‘Reflective Learning’ (print pp.135-139) in Strategic Management

(London: SAGE Publications Ltd, 2008)

Print ISBN: 9781412947695
Online ISBN: 9781446216446


The article seems to be aimed at university students, but since my main concern is to check out Kolb’s learning cycle, that is the section I’ll look at.  Kolb seems to have first outlined his theory ca. 1984.  The order of the different learning modes is first, Active Experimentation (AE), followed by Concrete Experiences (CE).  This means that the experiences have led to feelings about them, which will help future learning.  Reflective observation (RO) comes next, and then Abstract Conceptualisation (AC), where we create new concepts and try out new theories – and that’s where the loop begins again.

These four learning modes, then, aren’t quite the same as the three stages as described by Clawson and Haskins, although you can see how they reduced Kolb’s theories to something a little simpler and easier to put into practice.  Kolb’s original theory is thought-provoking, but I think I find Clawson and Haskins of more practical use to the teacher.

Conducting a Teaching and Learning Session using Experiential Methods

PGCert blog books 2I decided that James Clawson’s other chapter on experiential learning merited a blogpost of its own.  The first was primarily about the theory.  This one reminds us of the theory but is more about putting it into practice.  The book is accessible online for staff and students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, by visiting our library and IT e-books page.  (I blogged about this on our Whittaker Live blog earlier today.)

With Chapter 13 of Clawson and Haskins’ book, Teaching Management, Clawson turns our focus to Experiential Methods.  In other words, the learning takes place by experience (on the students’ part) – in distinct contrast to the average lecture when the material has all been prepared in advance. This enables the students to “generate their own information and then to analyze and use it.” (p.212)  It’s a teaching method that can be used alongside others, of course.  We are introduced to the concept of “logically unspecifiable” as opposed to “specifiable” skills – some skills simply can’t be taught other than by doing (swimming, riding a bike), whilst others need explanation and significant data as well as practice (highly skilled, technical tasks such as surgery – or, maybe, playing an instrument at professional level?

Clawson reminds us that experiential learning touches students emotionally and physically, not just intellectually, at all three levels, but also says that the lecturer needs to highlight the fact that learning has occurred – in other words, it needs to be identified and labelled so that the students are reminded what is important about what they have learned.

I certainly did take care to summarise the learning at the end of each of my two Scottish music sessions last December, so I was correctly using experiential learning principles in this regard. Additionally, when I asked for feedback, the students themselves identified what they had learned and would take from the sessions.  It’s hard to say if the learning touched the students emotionally, although it possibly did in the instances where students said they were keen to explore the historic Scottish tune repertoire more.  As for physically?  Hands-on exploration of historic publications can be thrilling – indeed, eighteenth century materials can even smell different! – but I suspect this doesn’t apply to everyone.  It’s more likely to happen if one is examining something that might potentially containing new performance repertoire for one’s own instrument or voice, of course.

Experiential learning is more immersive, and the more so when all the students share what they’ve gained from the experience, and when the instructor takes the debriefing seriously.  Clawson speaks of a “sort of positive cheerfulness [that] goes along with these experiences”. (p.214) 

It makes sense that this kind of active learning will be more engaging.  I found that it was exciting when a student responded positively with a score because they had found something they could relate to.  However, I have already noted elsewhere in my e-portfolio that I could have found out each student’s principal study (voice, or an instrument), and ensured there would be something that would be of potential interest to each one.  That’s an improvement I would make for another time.

Experiential learning also engages the instructor, Clawson notes.  It’s flexible, forges “strong links between theory and action”, and if carefully set up, will motivate the students to learn. (p.215)  This article appears in a book of chapters about management theory, so we should not be surprised that the author goes on to claim success in improving leadership, management skills, communication skills and self-awareness. In two hour-long sessions, I can’t say I noticed these results!  However, my Scottish book sessions certainly did encourage the more enthusiastic students to communicate what they found.

The author now turns to disadvantages of experiential teaching methods.  Does this kind of hands-on learning require careful, time-consuming planning as Clawson reports?  Yes, I think it does.  I had to source and gather together the materials I needed for those Scottish music sessions, and make sure I personally knew enough about each one to be able to encourage and guide discovery.

Preparation isn’t just assembling teaching materials, either.  In another, different session that I led later on for Masters students, I learned the hard way that it was not enough to ask someone else to ensure that students read the reflective reports that I had been briefed to talk about.  Even if no-one can actually ensure that they do it, I should have asked if I could make direct contact with them myself.  Additionally, I did exactly what I had been asked to do, but was unaware that my brief had possibly been more accurate than the brief given to the students at the start of the year.  I couldn’t have known this, but it has taught me to ask more questions before undertaking a teaching session.

Clawson also anticipates what happened with my internet access! ‘What happens if a computer crashes …? … What if the expected interactions don’t occur? What if the students don’t find the exercise relevant or engaging?’ (p.216)  He goes on to comment that sessions can get out of hand.  The tutor needs to know when to intervene, he comments. 

I suspect that this kind of situation is more likely in an active game, or something where emotions and opinions run high, than the kind of sessions I tend to run!   Clawson has no suggested answers for crashing computers, I note.

Clawson underlines the importance of the debriefing, and of the need to draw generalisations from the experiential learning that has taken place, so that the students are left with general principles that can be applied in other situations.  He comments that some educationalists think that experiential learning should be applied in all situations, whereas his view is that it should be used at the right time and in the right place, as ‘an excellent way of augmenting or introducing conceptual material’.  (p.218) 

I skipped the next section about sources of experiential learning games for teaching management techniques.  But after this, Clawson moves on to practicalities, which is certainly worth reading – more detail about preparation, conducting and debriefing learning sessions.

Preparation.  Prepare the materials, be familiar with the exercise and what you hope the outcomes will be.  Clawson suggests staging a run-through.  (In my situation, this was not an option.)  Check the facilities. (Ah, here’s where I should have got the websites up in advance – at least for the first of the two sessions!)  Ask for help.  (Applicable if we’re doing a presentation/demo, or even a practical session, and even in a Scottish music session, if it means getting students to perform from the books.)  ‘Experience the exercise’. (p.223) The author urges the facilitator to be present in the moment, and try to be conscious of how the session is going.

Conducting experiential sessions.  These fall into three parts – introduction, exercise and debriefing.  I’m conscious that in one of my Scottish music sessions, a student asked for coverage of a related topic that was actually going to be taught by the course-tutor in the subsequent lesson.  Did I spell that out?  I thought I did, but one individual missed the point somewhere, so either I wasn’t clear enough, or they weren’t listening. 

The author reminds us that different people have different learning styles, so having a range of activities is a way of keeping as many people engaged as possible.  Walking around between groups makes the instructor ‘available’ and helps you see what’s going on.  I did do this in my Scottish music session, and in one I did on referencing and citation for doctoral students, the year before.


My three-question survey to the Scottish music students was actually quite similar to the questions Clawson suggests we should be asking.  I asked what they enjoyed, didn’t enjoy, and what they’d have liked more of.  Clawson suggests the following:- (p.225)

  • What did you learn?
  • What were the main themes?
  • What would you do differently?
  • Describe how your team worked together. (A management question, not for an hour of Scottish music!)
  • What connections does does this exercise have to business situations? (This looks odd, from our point of view, but could easily be reworded: How could this material be used in your performance practice? How could this approach inform the way you look at unfamiliar repertoire?)
  • How were you able to use concepts we’ve used in the course previously?
  • What was frustrating to you?
  • What lessons or principles should we takeaway?

Ethics.  Although the points raised are very interesting, they’re more applicable to role-play or management training than to the kind of teaching that I do.

Taking Stock: Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

PGCert blog books 1At this stage in the year, it’s time to take stock.  I need to reflect on the materials in my bibliography – I’ve read all of them at some stage, and commented on some of them, albeit quite a long time ago.  I need to think again about challenges that arose in my assessed lessons; then, in the light of those challenges, I shall see if particular books in the current  Teaching Artist Reading List might help me work out where I might have done things differently.  Essentially, I’m trying to show critical understanding of my reading, to pick out what it is that is relevant in these sources; and to ensure I’m embedding appropriate teaching and learning theories when I provide instruction to our students.  This will also enable me to justify my own practice in the particular context of library, bibliographic and research/study skills, and a historic approach to Scottish song and other tune-books.

First of all, there are three particular areas that I’d like to remind myself of: Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle; the Constructivist theoretical approach; and the ‘flipped classroom’ as outlined in the One World Schoolhouse by Salman Khan.


I found a useful e-book which has chapters on experiential learning:-

Clawson, James G. S. and Mark E. Haskins, Teaching Management (Cambridge University Press,2006) ;  Online Publication Date: February 2010

Online ISBN-13: 9780511617850
Hardback ISBN-13: 9780521869751
Book DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511617850

I’m going to focus on two particular chapters, and look at another one in a different context later:-

  • 2. Levels of Learning – one, two and three (Re Experiential Learning) /James G. S. Clawson and Mark E. Haskins, pp.26-33
  • 13. Experiential methods / By Clawson, pp.212-227
  • 14. Enhancing the conversation: audiovisual tools and techniques / Clawson and Haskins, pp.228-241

In Chapter 2, we’re introduced to three different levels of learning:- Visible Behaviour, Conscious Thought (“the things that people are aware they’re thinking but that they do not choose to reveal at Level One”); and “the Values, Assumptions, Beliefs, and Expectations (VABEs) that people hold about the way the world should be. VABEs are often “preconscious” or “semiconscious,” yet they often reveal themselves at Level One.” (p.26)

Teachers need to decide which level to aim at.  If they’re trying to effect learning at the level of conscious thought, are they also expecting the learning to evidence itself as visible behaviour, or as changes to the “VABES” their students hold? 

This reminds me of discussions held many years ago at job evaluation training, when it was asserted that lecturers influence “hearts and minds”, whereas instructors impart practical skills. I find this a rather fine distinction.  I do understand that teaching a student to interpret a Mozart piano concerto cadenza, or analyse a playscript, is a more complex process than showing them how to find a book in a catalogue or access and electronic journal.  There’s much more discernment and choice involved in the former than the latter activities.  However, if I’ve taught a student how to access and cite information, and convinced them that this is the best, most effective way and a good way to go about research in the future, then I have arguably also changed their minds.  Values?  Yes, if they understand the value of doing a good information search.  Assumptions and beliefs?  Yes, if they can appreciate that whilst Wikipedia is good, all the quality resources offered by the library represent a far wider array from which to choose, and the certainty that the authors are experts in their fields.  In other words, they no longer believe that Wikipedia and Google can meet all their study requirements.  I would argue that I’ve therefore influenced the students’ VABES albeit in a different way.

The authors argue that level 1 involves “doing” something, whilst at level 2 people may – but not necessarily – be conscious of doing it.  Sometimes they’re not conscious of doing something until level 3, and the authors also make the point that habit-forming occurs at all three levels. 

The distinction between levels does seem a little blurred, to me. However,  I do see that insight can’t come into the equation until at least level 2.

At this point, the authors refer to Kolb’s cycle.  There’s a diagram, but unfortunately the text is obscured on screen. Still, the narrative explains all. (p.28)   Kolb argues that daily life involves going through the learning cycle many times, in this order:- “Concrete Experience, Reflective Observation, Abstract Conceptualization, and Active Experimentation.” In other words, until someone has absorbed the general principles, they can’t apply it to other situations.  The authors say that some teachers argue it’s not their place to influence their students’ values and beliefs, but they (the authors) think this final level of learning is what we should be aiming at.

I agree with this.  If I’m showing students different electronic resources, for example, then at the end of the session, I want them to leave thinking, “hey, that gave me some ideas for information-finding skills for my next assignment.”  I would be less happy if they left just with the vague impression that I had shown them some cool websites.

The authors say that to engage with people’s core beliefs, ie level 3, we should ask them directly what they believe about {whatever the subject is we’re teaching them}.  This could go up on the board as the basis for discussion.

Well, what a surprise! That is exactly what I did in my two teaching sessions where I asked students to write their little “dictionary definitions” of traditional music and nationalism in music.  It’s good to see I did something theoretically right, though my reason for doing this was (in my mind) a constructivist approach, by establishing what the students knew before I started leading the session forward. 

If you’re targeting level 1 learning, then you’re targeting behaviours, say the authors. Although they say that sometimes “cognitive analytical skills” are needed before the behavioural skills can be learned. 

Trying to relate this to teaching information skills, I imagine this would apply to showing students how to decide on the best search terms, the ones most likely to be fruitful, before they start searching for materials.  It is harder to separate out distinct steps in classes like the ones I taught about historic Scottish music.  (“How to” is different from “Let’s explore and synthesise our findings”.)

The authors say that experiential programmes (they cite active, outward-bound, team-building exercises, or in a classroom situation, learning to “listen actively”) are generally aimed at level 1, but if the experience affects students on a deeper level by, eg, confidence-building, then level 2 or 3 learning may have taken place. This fits in with my understanding that “how to” instruction is not the same as learning about the history of a genre and how to interpret scores of different eras.

In terms of the Scottish music classes, I think the students who most engaged with the exercises, probably did get the most out of them.  The minority that were restless or impatient, are unlikely to have had their “values, assumptions, beliefs and expectations” changed very much and they would only have learned at the middle level, if they were paying sufficient attention.  Or should that be, if I had managed to engage their attention sufficiently?

“Targeting L2 means attempting to change the way people think. Indeed, that seems to be where most educational effort is expended. Vast lecture halls, textbooks, problem sets, and presentation preparation are largely about augmenting or refining the students’ thought processes”, say the authors (p.31).  To me, this seems fairly obvious.  And then they go on to say that lecturers who influence their students’ VABEs (Level 3) will have the most long-lasting effect, because this will change the way students see a subject, possibly for a lifetime.  Clawson and Haskins also cite McGill and Slocum (1993) who flagged up that an individual’s openness to new ideas is an important factor. 

The paper concludes by expressing the hope that if teachers understand the different levels of learning and what is going on, unseen, in students’ minds, this should help us plan more effective teaching.  I think I can agree with this.  My only slight objection is not with the theory of different levels of learning, but that I have noticed some students are more difficult to “engage” with than others. I’m not sure this is always connected with the experiential learning cycle, but might be for totally different reasons that make the student disinclined to learn at a particular class – whether for physical reasons (health, tiredness, uncomfortable surroundings) or disinterest in the subject.  It is incumbent on the teacher to try to engage the student, but the student is not just a passive empty vessel, so must accept some responsibility.  The student who does not want to learn, is not going to learn at the higher conceptual levels.