Experiential Learning Theory

Learning by doing is a key concept in our Signature Experience initiative, and has a long history in Experiential Learning. David Kolb is recognized as the creator of Experiential Learning Theory per se around 1975, although John Dewey laid significant groundwork for the theory in his book, Experience and Education (1938). Dewey stressed the importance of experience in education: “there is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education” (1938: 7). His ideas are a backlash against a passive, teacher-focused approach, including traditional classroom teaching methods such as rote memorization. For Dewey, knowledge is not information passed down to students for future use, but instead knowledge is understanding based on past and current experience, used constantly to test previous conceptions and inform new practices (Roberts 2003). According to Dewey, “Education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience… the process and goal of education are one and the same thing” (1897: 79).

Based on this work by Dewey, along with other notable theorists such as Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget, Carl Rogers, and William James, Experiential Learning Theory emerged (Kolb & Kolb, 2005). The central tenet is that “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from a combination of grasping and transforming experience” (Kolb, 1984: 41). As below, experiential learning can be conceptualized as a process with several components: students have an experience (Concrete Experience), reflect on observations about that experience (Reflective Observation), analyze responses and formulate new ideas (Abstract Conceptualization), and then actively test these new ideas in new situations (Active Experimentation). This process is a continual cycle, with increasing complexity (Kolb & Kolb, 2005).

Kolb suggests that previous experiences, hereditary characteristics, and current environment together drive development of a preferred way of grasping and processing experiences. The combination of these preferred methods contributes to specific learning styles, such as initiating, experiencing, imagining, reflecting, analyzing, thinking, deciding, acting and balancing. Students’ learning styles have been assessed by using the Learning Style Inventory (LSI; Kolb & Kolb, 2005). These concepts provide just one example of frameworks that can promote the development of innovative approaches to teaching critical concepts in majors and programs at Georgia State University and beyond.

Signature Experience courses are intended to provide students the opportunity to be actively engaged in the process of learning, i.e. they promote a student-centered approach to learning. Students move through the experiential learning cycle or similar processes as they participate in a signature experience, reflect on the experience throughout the course, and prepare a final culminating project that demonstrates how the experience altered or reinforced previous notions. Given their active engagement in learning, students may be more likely to take what they have learned and move forward into future courses or jobs with new ideas and motivation to explore.

Figure 1. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle