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Experiential Learning Theory

Ali Asiri


Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) emphasizes the importance of experience and its role in the learning process (Kolb, 1984). Moreover, it uses experience to describe its vital difference from cognitive learning theory, which focuses on cognition and behavioral learning theory. These theories “ignore[s] the possible role of subjective experience in the learning process” (Cherry, 2019), while, as Kolb (1984) attests, “learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (p. 38).

Previous Studies

ELT has served a central role in various studies that use the theory as a theoretical framework to investigate its effectiveness in the learning process. For example, Lai et al. (2007) used ELT as a framework to investigate the contribution of technology in experiential learning. They considered the possibility of using technology to provide and support experiential learning. Their results indicate that using technology while going through the four-stage process (explained below) helped students to improve their knowledge; emphasizing the importance of experience gives students a chance to act and reflect on their actions.

Further, Alkan investigated experiential learning’s effects on student teachers’ achievement in chemistry and their scientific process skills. As Alkan (2016) stated, the experiential learning stages/process can “enable students to be aware of their professional identities, question their actions and note the importance of their suspicions” (Alkan, 20016, p. 22). Alkan concluded that experiential learning can positively impact learners’ academic achievement and learning outcomes because it promotes going through a process of experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting upon their own experiences.

In addition, Arnold and Paulus (2010) used ELT as a theoretical framework for their study with pre-service teachers. In their study, the future teachers learned how their future students might use technology in their classroom by experiencing and using technology themselves first. By doing so, they learned how their future students might use that technology. The ELT process also allowed them to reflect and think about any potential challenges that their students might face.

Model of ELT

The model of ELT (see Figure 1) shows the process and sequence of experiential learning with its concepts, constructs, and proposition. These components are briefly explained below.

Model of Experiential Learning Theory

Concepts and Construct

The theory’s four main concepts are experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting upon an experience. These concepts address the stages of ELT, which starts with learners having a new experience. After having a “real” experience, learners can reflect on the experience and then move to the next stage, thinking of possible ways to accommodate the experience. After having the chance to reflect and think, learners can transfer their thoughts into actions that result in the construct of learning and / or create new experiences, leading them to go through the process again.


ELT proposes that any experience may be transformed into a reliable source of knowledge. To make an experience a more meaningful and reliable source of knowledge, learners should go through the four-stage process (i.e., experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting). By doing so, learners can learn more meaningfully.

Using the Model

The model of ELT could be used for both teaching and research purposes. In teaching contexts, the key to using ELT is for teachers to “take the students through the whole process in sequence” (McLeod, 2017). For example, before asking English language students to conduct interviews outside of the classroom, the teacher may direct students to develop questions and practice with their classmates to build experience. After practicing this experience, the learners, with the teacher’s guidance, may reflect on their experience, thinking of what went well and what needed more work. After reflecting and thinking, the learners can move to the next stage. In this stage, they act based on their thoughts and reflections to conduct interviews outside of the classroom. By acting, learners develop new experiences that they may subject to another round of the process.

For research purposes, researchers may follow the same stages and sequence in a study to either gain more understanding or to reach concrete conclusions regarding their area of interest. For example, a researcher who wants to identify the best practices to improve international students’ writing skills might follow the same stages in the model to explore concrete practices that may help these students. In action, in order to identify the best practices for these international students, the researcher may plan for a pilot study that obtains a fundamental understanding of the participants, context, and any other relevant information that may impact or support the research. After the pilot study, the researcher may start reflecting on the pilot and think of any modifications to improve the practices. As the last stage of the model suggests, the researcher may take action based on their reflections and accommodations by adding, removing, or changing the actions that they used in the pilot study. Following the process of the model, the researcher will better understand following each iteration and may reach a valid conclusion from going through the process.


Human beings, whether explicitly or implicitly, usually follow the same process of reflecting, thinking, and acting upon daily challenges that ELT suggests. It could be used, highlighted, and emphasized in teaching and learning contexts as a way of thinking and approaching new experiences. By following these four stages, students can transform their experiences and daily challenges into more meaningful sources of knowledge. Ultimately, ELT promotes the idea that learning comes through experiencing and could be supported by following the four-stage model of this theory, as explained in this chapter.


Alkan, F. (2016). Experiential learning: Its effects on achievement and scientific process skills. Journal of Turkish Science Education, 13(2). http://search.proquest.com/docview/1824858137/

Arnold, N., & Paulus, T. (2010). Using a social networking site for experiential learning: Appropriating, lurking, modeling, and community building. The Internet and Higher Education13(4), 188–196.

Cherry, K. (2019, September 24). The David Kolb theory of how experience influences learning. https://www.verywellmind.com/experiential-learning-2795154

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development.  Prentice-Hall.

Lai, C-H, Yang, J-C, Chen, F-C, Ho, C-W, & Chan, T-W. (2007). Affordances of mobile technologies for experiential learning: the interplay of technology and pedagogical practices. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning., 23(4), 326–337. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2729.2007.00237.x

McLeod, S. A. (2017, Oct 24).  Kolb – learning styles. Simply Psychologyhttps://www.simplypsychology.org/le


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Experiential Learning Theory by Joy Egbert and Mary Roe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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