How to Use Experiential Learning in the Inquiry Classroom


The way we learn is the way we approach life; our learning styles are also responsible for the way we tackle challenges and make decisions. Students also learn and experiment in a variety of ways; some are comfortable observing and thinking, while others prefer to use active experimentation. In 1984, an educational theorist named David Kolb developed his theory of experiential learning, building on the contributions of foundational scholars in the 1970s. It is a four-stage learning cycle based on a student’s internal cognitive processes. Utilizing the experiential learning cycle in the classroom helps students be more involved in their learning and is very simple to utilize in your classroom or at home.


What is the Model of Experiential Learning?

The experiential learning model (also referred to as a cycle) describes the ideal process of learning. According to Kolb, there are two goals in the process:

1) Learn the specifics of a particular subject

2) Learn about one’s own learning process

Basically, it is a four-step process that acts as a cycle for learning and retaining new knowledge. It begins with an experience, which requires reflection and review. After that, the learner moves into abstract thinking, where they understand the meaning of their experience and make conclusions about it. Finally, learners make decisions and engage in experiments to test what they’ve learned.


Four Stages of Experiential Learning:

1) Concrete Experience

To start, students try out a new experience or situation. Whether they have any previous understanding of that situation is irrelevant; they simply need to try it out and see what happens. This is sometimes referred to as the “action” phase. During this part of the cycle, students engage in a concrete experience, as the name suggests.

2) Reflective Observation

During this phase, students review their experience and reflect on what they just experienced and what they can extrapolate from the experience. This is sometimes referred to as the “observation” phase. During this part of the cycle, students think about what they just did and reflect on the experience from multiple perspectives.

3) Abstract Conceptualization

This is the integration phase. By this point, students integrate the experience into their existing knowledge base. To them, this simply means that they are thinking about their new learning and making generalizations about it. These generalizations (or conclusions) are then used for the final stage of learning.

4) Active Experimentation

At this point, students are hypothesizing and experimenting to test their new knowledge. Students are encouraged to plan an experiment or new experience so they can apply what they’ve learned with their conclusions in mind. By this point, students have probably learned a few new things about their experience and can apply new or improved ideas.


Benefits of Experiential Learning

Research has continually shown that engaging in the experiential learning cycle contributes to student engagement, deeper learning, and enhanced work skills. In particular, the experiential learning cycle:

  • Makes learning relatable to students: Students utilize comparison and prior knowledge to make sense of new learning. Experiential learning offers students opportunities to make connections between old concepts and new ideas. When students can relate to their learning, they find more value in it.
  • Builds on soft-skills: When students engage in the experiential learning cycle, they subconsciously improve their critical thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and their ability to make informed decisions. These skills are vital as students progress through school and navigate early adult life.
  • Links theory to practice: Students have the ability to engage in experiences that allow them to see the application of a concept in practice. Seeing application in action helps students make generalizations about their new learning. For some students, it provides that “a-ha!” moment and helps everything make sense to them.
  • Increases engagement: Students are more engaged when learning is relevant to them. Encouraging teamwork and active listening can help increase engagement, as well as traditional scaffolding. Giving students relevant work means they are more likely to engage with it and remember it.

Navigating the Experiential Learning Cycle

The experiential learning cycle seems complex but it is actually quite natural and organic. In fact, most students (and adults) engage in it all the time. It is a cycle that we utilize so often to help us make sense of new experiences and situations. Because it occurs so effortlessly, most people are unaware that they are learning. However, most people have preferences for the way they navigate this cycle and the stages they choose to focus on.

Many factors contribute to the preferences people have for how they engage with the learning cycle. For example, some people spend more time analyzing the problem and observing it. A child learning how to ride a bike might spend a long time looking at it and trying to figure out how it works. On the other hand, another child might prefer to just hop on and go for a ride, learning along the way. 

These are learning styles, which are habits of steady states of learning that involve a preference. They provide a framework for understanding why other people learn differently than you. It is beneficial to understand your own learning style and those of the people you interact with, teach with, and work with.

Different Learning Styles

Although the Kolb Learning Style Inventory (KLSI) breaks down learning styles into 9 categories, most people are familiar with the “VARK” learning styles described in a 1992 study by Neil Fleming and Coleen Mills: 

  • Visual: Students who internalize and synthesize information when it is presented in a graphic way. This method utilizes charts, graphs, photos, diagrams, and symbols.
  • Auditory: Students who are most successful when they can hear the information being given to them. These students don’t typically utilize notes, and benefit from reading their written work aloud.
  • Reading/Writing: Students who work best in this style show a preference for handouts, presentations, and writing to demonstrate understanding.
  • Kinaesthetic: Students who are hands-on, participatory learners. They need to take an active role in their learning and are sometimes referred to as “tactile learners”.

However, many students learn in multiple ways (“multimodal”). Luckily, education today has made multimodal learning very easy and accessible, with the inclusion of video, gamification, hands-on creative tasks, and participatory learning. The more we understand about learning styles, the more equipped we can be to deliver learning that meets the needs to all students.


KOLB’s 9 Learning Styles

Many of KOLB’s 9 learning styles can fit within the scope of the VARK learning styles. Here are some of the qualities of each:

Experiencing: Learners are engaged, connected, and intuitive. They excel in teamwork and are comfortable being around others.

Imagining: Learners are empathetic, creative, and self-aware. They enjoy creating a vision for the future and helping others.

Reflecting: Learners are reserved, observant, and patient. They listen with an open mind and identify underlying problems and issues.

Analyzing: Learners are methodical, analytical, and precise. They prefer using structure and critical thinking skills to understand the whole picture.

Thinking: Learners are controlled, linear, and structured. They rely on logic to understand problems and communicate ideas.

Deciding: Learners are realistic and direct. They prefer finding practical solutions and setting goals; they are good at committing to one focused idea.

Acting: Learners are courageous, bold, and assertive. They are achievement-oriented and committed to reaching their goals under a deadline.

Initiating: Learners are outgoing, spontaneous, and handle failure well. In addition, they initiate opportunities and participate actively.

Balancing: Learners are bridge-builders. They are resourceful and can balance priorities and shift their attention if needed.

Regardless of your students’ learning styles, all students should be reminded of the value of their contributions. Sometimes students are mislabeled as “lazy” or “unproductive” in a group setting if they are working alongside a student who initiates and acts on ideas as opposed to thinking and reflecting on them. In these cases, it’s important to remind students that everyone has something to bring to the table. Moreover, all ideas and learning styles are welcome.


Incorporating Experiential Learning in the Classroom

Utilizing experiential learning doesn’t need to be a difficult task; most of us do it anyway without thinking about it. It is helpful to discuss the experiential learning process with students simply, and in a way that makes sense to them. Using a practical example is useful in this instance. Take a look at the example below, illustrating how to ride a bike using the process:

Learning how to ride a bike:

Image courtesy of GradeSaver

Other projects that utilize Kolb’s experiential learning cycle:

Ideally, activities, projects, and experiences should offer students the chance to engage in the experience in a way that suits them. Evaluating what types of activities and experiences are available to students helps teachers develop more appropriate learning opportunities. These activities, materials, and experiences should draw on abilities from each stage of the experiential learning cycle. In addition, they should also take students through the whole process so they understand how it works.


Final Thoughts

Experiential learning can be a great way to get students thinking about their learning process and what works for them. It can also be a fun way to immerse students in experiences as opposed to traditional in-class learning; providing them with opportunities to experience challenges and develop their resilience and problem-solving skills are also huge benefits to this type of teaching.

If you have experience with experiential learning, leave a comment below to share your thoughts! Or, join the conversation on Instagram!


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