Using Experiential Learning Theory for Personal Growth

If you are not yet familiar with Alice and David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory, understanding it can help you make a desired behavioral change. Within the Experiential Learning Theory, the Kolbs have created a four-part Learning Cycle as well as a Learning Style Inventory. These two tools are most often used to better understand how we and others learn and identify our preferred style of learning. Having used the Kolb’s work more times than I can remember, I can attest that this learning style method, if applied deliberately for behavior change, is quite impactful. Using this method, you can be your very own executive coach.


The Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle is a four-part process consisting of:

      • Concrete Experience (CE),
      • Reflective Observation (RO),
      • Abstract Conceptualization (AC), and
      • Active Experimentation (AE).

Concrete Experience

If you have a behavior that you would like to change, notice when the behavior shows up and write about it. Document everything you can about the situation including who was there, how you felt, what were the outcomes, etc. Include in your document what others were doing and saying and the impact they made on the situation. This is your CE. For illustrative purposes let’s pretend that when you’re in meetings at work you notice that you are quick to form and express your opinions and you would like to be better at letting others talk first and thinking a little more before sharing your thoughts. The next time you are the first to comment in a meeting and advocate for your position, write down exactly what happened.

Reflective Observation

Next, reflect back on the CE and document the reflection. This is your Reflective Observation. In your reflection think in multiple perspectives and multiple point of views. Your documented reflection is a list of questions. Your RO should include what questions you have about the CE, what happened, how it happened and why. The questions must also include the potential perspective of those involved in the situation with you. Example questions might be: “I wonder why Jane used a tense tone of voice?” “I wonder why I jumped in with my thoughts and interrupted Kevin when he was trying to share.” “Was James not feeling well during the meeting or was that look on his face because he was unhappy with me?” The RO should include a list of questions for everything that happened in the situation from as many perspectives and points of view possible.

Abstract Conceptualization

In the AC you learn about the experience. Themes from the RO emerge naturally from the questioning. Study and re-read the RO to identify the two to five main themes that emerge. Use these themes as the basis for your learning and growth. Research the themes to understand more about them so your behavior can change. Using our example, possible themes that emerge could be: gender or age related, advocacy vs. inquiry issues, extroverted and introverted personalities, or the degree to which you are boss-focused. Ensure your AC is research and learning based. After writing your AC you should be drawing conclusions about how to help yourself change your behavior.

Active Experimentation

Active Experimentation occurs when you document your plan, written in the present tense, to change your behavior. Writing in the present tense is essential here. When we write about how we do something versus how we will do something there is less of an opportunity for us to put it off in the future because we are already telling ourselves that we do it now. In our example we might say, “In meetings with my colleagues I am careful to balance my advocacy with my inquiry. I do this because I find that listening to my colleagues provides other information that I may not have considered and it may make me change my mind. It’s important for me to ask questions before I state my opinion.”

If you follow the Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle, you can absolutely help yourself make a desired behavior change.

For more information on organizational design and experiential learning, contact us.

By Contributing Writer – Erica Tetuan, Senior Associate, Changeis, Inc.  

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