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A Natural and Experiential Cycle of Learning

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Given this era of learning where information is abundant and easily accessible, it is even more important than ever to help learners understand the learning process. As such, one of the major responsibilities of an educator in this era of education is to make the learning process overt and intentional so learners develop skills for becoming more effective learners. To do so, though, educators need to explore and deeply understand the processes and cycles of learning. Real life learning or learning outside of school usually doesn’t entail studying textbook materials and then taking tests to assess learning.

I’ve discussed the learning cycle in The Flipped Classroom: The Full Picture, the need to provide context to learning, being intentional with students about the metacognitive process, and the importance of reflection in the learning process. These ideas and the works of John Dewey, Carl Rogers, and David Kolb provide the foundation for a natural and experiential cycle of learning presented in this post:

An educative experience, according to Dewey, is an experience in which we make a connection between what we do to things and what happens to them or us in consequence; the value of an experience lies in the perception of relationships or continuities among events. Before we are formally instructed, we learn much about the world, ourselves, and others. It is this natural form of learning from experience, by doing and then reflecting on what happened, which Dewey made central in his approach to schooling. (

The famous psychologist and a founder of humanism, Carl Rogers, also emphasizes the importance of experiential learning:

Rogers distinguished two types of learning: cognitive (meaningless) and experiential (significant). The former corresponds to academic knowledge such as learning vocabulary or multiplication tables and the latter refers to applied knowledge such as learning about engines in order to repair a car. The key to the distinction is that experiential learning addresses the needs and wants of the learner. Rogers lists these qualities of experiential learning: personal involvement, self-initiated, evaluated by learner, and pervasive effects on learner. To Rogers, experiential learning is equivalent to personal change and growth. Rogers feels that all human beings have a natural propensity to learn. According to Rogers, learning is facilitated when: (1) the student participates completely in the learning process and has control over its nature and direction, (2) it is primarily based upon direct confrontation with practical, social, personal or research problems, and (3) self-evaluation is the principal method of assessing progress or success. Rogers also emphasizes the importance of learning to learn and an openness to change. (

David Kolb proposes that experiential learning has six main characteristics:

  • Learning is best conceived as a process, not in terms of outcomes.
  • Learning is a continuous process grounded in experience.
  • Learning requires the resolution of conflicts between dialectically opposed modes of adaptation to the world (learning is by its very nature full of tension).
  • Learning is a holistic process of adaptation to the world.
  • Learning involves transactions between the person and the environment.
  • Learning is the process of creating knowledge that is the result of the transaction between social knowledge and personal knowledge. (

Too often in way too many school settings of all grades and levels; concepts, ideas, and skills are presented as abstract concepts. Students can learn these concepts theoretically but not with deep understanding. Deep understanding often requires learners to intimately interact with the material and for them to interact intimately with material, they need to learn about and know the material experientially.

Kolb conceptualized learning as a cyclical model.

Effective learning is seen when a person progresses through a cycle of four stages: of (1) having a concrete experience followed by (2) observation of and reflection on that experience which leads to (3) the formation of abstract concepts (analysis) and generalizations (conclusions) which are then (4) used to test hypothesis in future situations, resulting in new experiences. (

[I am referring to and discussing Kolb’s ideas re: the natural cycle of learning not his ideas re: learning styles].

An Experiential and Natural Cycle of Learning

What follows is my version and explanation of the Experiential Learning Cycle:


The Stimulus; Gaining Interest

Gaining interest through some form of stimulus is a precursor to and a necessary component of engagement and entering into the experiential learning cycle. Gaining attention or interest is actually the first event of Gagne’s 9 events. According to Gagne’s nine events of instruction, gaining attention is the first key step taken into account when designing instruction. The basic idea is to grab the learners’ attention by presenting an interest device or a teaser. (

Both in real life and in the classroom, the learners’ attention and interest occurs when some stimulus is found to be interesting, novel, engaging, and/or exciting by the learner. It can be a demonstration, video, something someone has said, something a friend explained, a magazine article, a game. But again, it is something that the learners, themselves, find inherently interesting; something they want to learn more about due to some characteristics they find intrinsically motivating.

For example, I started playing Pickleball a few months ago. The stimulus came from several friends who began to play it at a local community college and told me repeatedly how much fun it is. This combined with my desire to add some fun sports-related work-outs to my routines acted as motivator for me to try it out for myself.

The Experience: The Doing and Redoing

The idea of experience as part of the learning process is central to John Dewey’s beliefs about powerful education.

The underlying philosophy of experiential learning cycle (ELC) models is Deweyian.  By Deweyian is meant that Experiential Learning Cycle models emphasize that the nature of experience as of fundamental importance and concern in education and training.  A further, Deweyian assumption underlying ELCs is that people learn experientially and that some experiences are educative whilst other experiences are miseducative.  All experiences are understood to be continuous, that is, each experience influences each future experience.  It is the teacher’s responsibility to structure and organize a series of experiences which positively influence each individual’s potential future experiences (Dewey, 1938/1997).  In other words, “good experiences” motivate, encourage, and enable students to go on to have more valuable learning experiences, whereas, “poor experiences” tend to lead towards a student closing off from potential positive experiences in the future.  (

Once attention and interest are sparked, learners typically have a desire to try that thing out. There are lots of ways the learners to have an experience including sensory-rich and kinesthetic experiences; hands-on use of and experimentation with materials and objects; and well designed virtual experiences and simulations. For my Pickleball example, it simply meant joining the group who play at the local community college.

The Reflection: Self-Assessing

We do not learn from experience… we learn from reflecting on experience. – John Dewey

I believe as John Dewey does that deep, meaningful, long-lasting learning is left to chance if it is not a strategic, integrated part of the learning process.

Critical reflection is an important part of any learning process. Without reflection, learning becomes only an activity — like viewing a reality TV show — which was never meant to have meaning, but was only meant to occupy time. Critical reflection is not meditation, rather it is mediation — an active, conversive, dialectical exercise that requires as much intellectual work as does every other aspect of the learning process, from analysis to synthesis to evaluation. But in reflection, all the learned material can be gathered about, sorted and resorted, and searched through for greater understanding and inspiration (

In terms of this learning cycle, it becomes reflecting deeply on what worked, what didn’t work during the doing phase and exploring reasons why. For my own Pickleball example, I spend time after each play day assessing which individual plays went well and which did not along with coming up with my own reasons why for each.

The Conceptualization: Researching

Once learners have the experience and have reflected on the experience, they are ready to research ways to improve and increase their learning. The research is designed to hone skills and improve future performance. Since learners have had the experience of doing and reflecting on what worked and didn’t work in the implementation of the doing, they can research specific and personalized ways to improve. This research can come in many forms based on learner preferences. It can include doing online research, watching videos, talking to friends, colleagues and experts, and/or watching experts in action.

In my example of learning Pickleball, I went online and read blogs as well as viewed Youtube videos on how to play pickleball. I learn more about how and where to stand in the court, how to hold the racket, and how to read my opponents. None of these ideas or tips would have made any sense to me had I done the research prior to playing Pickleball.

Return to Doing and Redoing

Once the learner completes the cycle of experience, reflect, and research, they return to the doing phase to try it, reflect on it, and research it again.

For Pickleball, I return to the court to try out my new skills.

Going back through the cycle repeatedly reinforces that learning process is iterative. Iteration is the act of repeating a process with the aim of approaching a desired goal, target or result. Each repetition of the process is also called an “iteration”, and the results of one iteration are used as the starting point for the next iteration. (  This cycle of learning reinforces that learning any new skill – making something, writing something, learning new technology, developing skills in physical movement, music, the arts – is an iterative process.


Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

January 13, 2016 at 11:12 pm

One Response

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  1. […] I always like her work and her way of clearly explaining theories, tools and methods for educators and researchers. Here a link to the very nice Jackie Gerstein’s article on the cycle of experiential learning:… […]

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