How to Use Kolb’s Learning Cycle to Improve Your Studies

learning cycle feature imageDavid Kolb’s learning cycle is based on a simple idea:

We cannot learn effectively or efficiently if we tackle a subject from just one angle.

According to the science of learning?

Kolb is right.

The question is: why do people pick up a book and fantasize that they’re going to master the topic just by reading it?

According to Kolb himself, there are a few reasons.

One of which is that the cycle of learning is not just a process that you clunk through mechanically.

Learning any topic or skill using study cycles is also an art and a craft.

And if you haven’t been taught to think of learning that way by your teachers, then it’s good that you’re here.

Because we’re diving deep into exactly what Kolb suggests. I think he’s right, and I’ll give you some examples and steps you can follow to make learning much easier.


Let’s dive in!

What Is Kolb’s Learning Cycle?

David Kolb taught at Stanford University and wrote extensively on the topic of experiential learning.

However, his research quickly found that merely having experiences was not enough. Reflective thinking about those experiences was required in order for proper learning to take place.

He proposed four stages of learning:

  • Concrete experience
  • Observation and reflection
  • Engaging in abstract thinking as you reflect
  • Testing your ideas and conclusions

He called this approach a “learning cycle” because once you reach the final stage, you’re supposed to return to the top of the list. You can do that either with the same topic or another subject you want to learn.

However, in a chapter he co-wrote in Student Learning Abroad, he said that “the learning cycle is actually a learning spiral.”

He changed the term because:

“When a concrete experience is enriched by reflection, given meaning by thinking and transformed by action, the new experience created becomes richer, broader and deeper.”

Long story short:

If you want to use Kolb’s learning style, just follow the steps. Start by finding opportunities for concrete experiences, observe what’s happening, then reflect on the experience. Finally, abstract some principles and use these to create new experiments that lead to more concrete experiments.

Do You Have To Use Kolb’s 4 Learning Styles (Or Can You Use Your Own)?

You do not have to use Kobl’s approach to learning.

In fact, it has been heavily criticized and for good reason.

For one thing, what isn’t an experience? If I think abstractly about something, how is that not also an experience of concrete thinking at the same time?

That question might puzzle you, but if you consider how I define and use abstract thinking myself, it’s totally possible to start with abstractions. Or you can start with a hypothesis based on either a deduction or induction. Or you can start with an observation.


Kolb was a theorist of how we learn. He was addressing teachers much more than students He wanted to help teachers create better learning environments for students so they could engage in what he called “holistic learning.”

He thought of the student as both the receiver and actor based on the environment and processes provided by their teachers.

The Kolb Learning Cycle adapted for teachers
The Kolb Learning Cycle adapted for teachers in Student Learning Abroad.

You can adapt a lot from this simple diagram. But you don’t have to follow it exactly.

And as I’ve just suggested, there probably aren’t many circumstances where it makes sense to do so. Everything is an experience, including sitting still to perform a concentration meditation where your goal is to try and experience nothing.

How To Craft The Perfect Learning Cycle For Your Goals

Now, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t adapt from Kolb’s learning styles and turn them into either a cycle or a spiral.

I’m only saying that personally, I’ve got a PhD, two MAs and many other certificates. I’ve also written many books and created nearly 1000 videos for this website. I’ve never used it.

Instead, I learn using the following steps. Although I offer them to you openly, they’re not meant to be a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all model.

I don’t always follow these steps in the same order, for example. But generally, they reflect my process and I think you’ll do well to adapt from them with knowledge and inspiration from Kolb.

Step One: Write A Vision Statement

Recently, I decided I was going to learn as much as possible about physics.

It’s a tough topic and in many ways, I don’t have the prerequisite math for it. Still, I’m interested, so I wrote using my journaling process to try and figure out why.

This is kind of like starting with the final step of Kolb’s cycle first: testing.

After that, I wrote out a vision statement. It was very simple:

I will read three of the most important books on physics over the next six months.

I started with two books at the same time using interleaving. And I was pleasantly surprised to find in Sir Roger Penrose’s The Road to Reality that he think the math isn’t that difficult for most people.

If you need more information on crafting a vision statement before you start your next learning cycle, check out this free masterclass:

Step Two: Gather The Best Possible Materials

One reason people get stuck is failing to research the topics they want to learn. That, or they rely on their teachers.

Remember, Kolb was working hard to help teachers stop failing their students. But you don’t have to suffer if you’ve got a teacher that isn’t exciting you.

Just do some research.

The internet is amazing for that. You can use search phrases like I did: “syllabus physics textbook”.

That’s how I found out about The Road to Reality. It has so many references, it’s easy to just keep building based on the books Penrose mentions once I’m done with his.

I did something similar when I was learning about computer programming. I shared more of this selection and building process in my detailed blog on how to read faster.

Step Three: Take Notes In A Sophisticated Manner

Do you know the opposite of a learning cycle or learning spiral?

It’s a learning nightmare. That’s what you call a situation in which, even if you’ve identified the best time to study, you’re completely scattered and cannot remember the main points, or what books you found them in.

To avoid this problem, I suggest using either flashcards, Anki or a notebook in the highly optimized manner I teach. To this day, my preferred method is taught on this blog about how to memorize a textbook.

index cards in shoe boxer

I love index cards because they can be stored easily in shoe boxes and alphabetized. It’s also a great learning routine that helps fend off digital amnesia.

Four: Use Memory Techniques

Memory techniques are the alternative to rote learning.

There are quite a few types, and the strongest of the bunch is the Memory Palace. It’s an ancient memory technique that helps you deal with large volumes of information.

If you’d like to learn how to master the approach to learning, grab my free course:

Free Memory Improvement Course

It will help you through four free videos and worksheets that help you master your memory.

That way, no matter where you are in a learning cycle, or which adult learning style you have, you’ll be able to recall the information you need to succeed.

This technique also helps you fulfil your cognitive needs while filling the many gaps left by many teachers.

Remember, teachers are only human too.

And that’s why it’s wonderful to be able to discuss different ways of thinking about learning models like Kolb’s learning cycle.

So what do you say?

Are you ready to go out there, experiment with the steps I’ve suggested today or create your own cycle of learning?

No matter what, remember that Kolb stressed one point I agree with above all:

Learning is not just about science. It’s also an art and a craft.

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Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, names, music, poetry and more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.

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