Kolb’s theory in action

The story of an experiment I conducted, to apply Kolb’s theory to a practical context.

For over 3 decades now, David Kolb’s experiential learning theory has been well known. What he said is this: “Immediate or concrete experiences are the basis for observations and reflections. These reflections are assimilated and distilled into abstract concepts from which new implications for action can be drawn. These implications can be actively tested and serve as guides in creating new experiences”

An experiment

A few years ago, a couple of us got together and thought “Why not apply the Kolb’s learning cycle to help trainers de-bottleneck stubborn issues in their training style?” When we asked people we knew, several agreed to be subjects for our experiment. Here’s how a typical engagement went.

We met the trainer and asked him (they all just happened to be male), “Which area of your training work do you struggle with the most?” The answers were all different, but let me pick one for the sake of this blog post: “I get very good feedback for my knowledge, but my sessions end up being very dull. I’d like to engage my audience better”. Then over the next hour, we worked with him to identify what he would do differently, in order to solve the problem. This particular trainer chose:

Behavior 1 (B1): I will engage learners individually rather than treat them as a homogeneous group. For example, asking a question to someone in particular rather than throwing it at the entire audience.
Behavior 2 (B2): I will vary my style very frequently during the session, to reduce the monotony. For example, I may stand still in front of the group for a while and then start moving about, interrogate for a while and then switch to answering readily, be directive sometimes and then accommodative after a while.

A week later, as this trainer went about his usual work (conducting a daylong workshop for a roomful of people), we unobtrusively took up our places at the back of the room. For the next 90 minutes, as the trainer immersed himself in the “concrete experience” of conducting that session, we (the observers) wrote down everything that the trainer did, paying close attention to the 2 behaviors which the trainer wanted to implement. We had about 25 observations in 90 minutes.

As the group took a coffee break, we had a 5-minute chat with the trainer. We summarised our observations, letting him know how often and in what way he stuck to his promised behavior. We discussed the effect this had had on the engagement level of the audience. That was the “observation and reflection”. The trainer developed a sense of what was working and what wasn’t (forming “abstract concepts”) and said something like “Okay, during the next session, I’m going to concentrate more on B2. Watch me do that, and then let’s speak again during the next break” (which was the intent to “actively test”)

This cycle was done a total of 4 times during the day, each time taking about 90 minutes. And we can’t rule out that the trainer was conducting his own “mini cycles” every few minutes… trying out something, watching it succeed or fail, drawing lessons from it and trying it again: all on the fly.

To summarise, the Kolb’s cycle was implemented as follows:
Concrete Experience: 90-minutes of conducting a workshop
Reflective Observation: 5-minute chat with observers, looking at data
Abstract Conceptualisation: Articulating lessons about what worked or didn’t
Active Experimentation: Next 90-minutes of trying out ‘tweaked’ behaviors to see if they worked


We ran a total of 8 such experiments. In 6 of them, by the end of a single day positive behaviors were being consistently repeated. To us, this was the making of new habits… the start of unconscious competence. (In the balance 2 cases, the trainer displayed the desired behaviors right from the start, and we didn’t have much to report during the feedback chats. It was unclear to us whether there really was any bottleneck to start with!)

Why did this work?

Based on what the trainers told us, we think there are 3 reasons:

1. Focus on very few things
Human capacity to learn several things at a time is limited. That’s why complex skills, which consists of several simpler skills, take time to learn. For example, the complex skill of driving a car comprises skills of judging distance, calibrating the responses of the steering, brakes and accelerator, coordinating gear shift and clutch pedal movements etc. So, in a training context, if the time available to us is limited, we must curtail the number of things to be learnt. In our experiment, our learner was focussing on building only 2 “new” habits throughout the entire day.

2. Continuous and Conscious effort
The learner in this case was constantly aware of our presence at the back of the room. He knew that he was part of an experiment. That kept reminding him to try out stuff repeatedly. It is common experience that without such constant reminders we tend to lose ourselves in whatever is happening around us, and our change agendas frequently go nowhere. Think of the trouble you had when you decided to start exercising regularly or to take a deep breath when anger strikes.

3. Support
Our contribution was to be unbiased observers. We kept our “opinions” to ourselves, and stuck to feedback about the trainer’s behavior and its impact on the audience. This enabled him to reflect objectively upon his recent experience, and plan course corrections. Without our support, it would have been hard for him to collect this data. (We typically had about a 100 observations during a 1-day workshop).

We might add that the experiment was conducted NOT under laboratory conditions, but in a real workshop. That adds to the credibility of results in the learners’ mind. It makes redundant, the question “Will I be able to do this in a real situation?”

Is such success common?

Sure it is. Everywhere.

The application of the Kolb’s learning cycle is very common in sport. Sprinters will regularly sprint, check what went right or wrong, decide to make adjustments and again sprint. The sharp focus on just one measure (clock time), conscious effort (“Today is practice day, so I will practice”) and the coach’s support deliver results. The same occurs in countless other situations: learning to cook, swim, sing, operate on a patient, paint, weld, play the flute, give a speech, soothe a child, argue a case in court…

In organisations

In an organisational development setting, how can these enablers be used?
– Maintain focus by deciding NOT to cover too much content during training programs.
– To enable continuous and conscious effort, have some mechanism for regular reminders or followup.
– Support during implementation can be given through feedback from key stakeholders who interact with the program participant.

A recognition of how people actually learn and supporting them enough in their change journey will pay dividends. And the Kolb’s learning cycle shows us exactly how to do that.


Photo credit: Hermes Rivera via Unsplash