The Kolb and Jarvis Experiential Learning Theory

Kolb theorized that “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (1984; 38). Feedback and experience have played an important role in fostering learning and changing practices and theories as well as changing ideas respectively. Learning is a very important process in everyday life. It involves encounter of new information, storage and retrieval of this information. Learning takes place over indefinite period of time but must include the assimilation of new knowledge into existing knowledge. There are so many factors influencing and affecting the learning and the process. Different theories of learning have been put forward, and among them are the adult learning theories. This paper will focus on an adult learning theory and criticism of the same theory.

The paper discus experiential learning theory in general-the two types of experiential learning; namely the one based on life experience and that which is based in institution involvement in development of knowledge, skills, and ideas and experience in their application. The paper will discuss the Kolb and Jarvis experiential learning theory and their limitations or shortcomings. Motivation is very essential to the learning process, and this paper will focus on the motivation to adult learning as well as the barriers to it, and the patterns of learning adopted by adult learners.

The patterns of adult learning, Self-directed learning, critical reflection, experiential learning and learning to learn, as well as their role in adult learning; and the related research, have received little attention. The persistent myths etched into the minds of adult educators have for a long time weakened theory development in adult learning. The consideration of adult learning as a separate entity from the generally known learning theory has been described as a ‘grave error’ (Brookfield, 2005). Self-directed learning process describes a process where adults are able to take control of their learning process. It is characterized by setting own learning goals and their locating of appropriate resources to be utilized in learning. The adults in this respect are able to choose what methods they will use to learn, as well as to evaluate their own progress. Self-directed learning has played an important role in the advancement of career at the workplace. Challenges towards the exploitation or understanding of self-directed learning include the limited reflection on the cross-cultural dimension of self-directed learning and limited research. Critical reflection model of adult learning has been evidenced by the ability of individuals to think contextually and critically through constructs like reflective judgment, intelligence application at the workplace, dialect thinking among others; that have been evidenced by developmental psychology. Learning to learn is a model which focuses on how adult learners learn to acquire skills in different situations and through different styles (Brookfield, 2005).

Experiential learning is of great importance to understanding adult learning because these individuals have gone through diverse experiences. Experiential learning is a research area that has attracted interest from various scholars, who have come up with new and different ideas and theories. The importance of the Kolb David’s work and that of his associate Roger Fry, have played a significant role in the establishment of the basis to such arguments. Of interest to Kolb were the processes of making sense of concrete experiences which also involves utilization of different styles. However, the works of Piaget, Dewey and Lewin played an important role in the formulation of Kolb’s ideas. There have been two major elements of experiential learning that have been widely discussed. These include the concept that learning occurs through direct participation of life events (Houle, 1980; 221) and the second concept that type of learning experience sponsored by institutions and involves a chance to a learner to “acquire and apply knowledge, skills and feelings in an immediate and relevant environment” (Smith, 2001). A learner in the first instance of learning is not sponsored by any institution but themselves. For example, evidence of application of experiential learning has focused on the application of training programs in social work and teaching. Individuals are able to acquire knowledge after going through particular events in life, and then reflecting on these experiences. Most of the people or all at least learn through life experiences. Kolb theorized the experiential learning circle which comprised of four elements.

The four elements in this model are:

  • Concrete experience
  • Observation and reflection
  • Formation of abstract and
  • testing in new situations

There has been a contention over where the process of learning begins. While Kolb and Fry posited that learning could begin from anywhere in the above theorized four elements of the learning cycle, others have posited that learning begins through a particular action and seeing the effects of the action in the situation in which the action was carried out. Thus it was possible to learn what would be expected from the action, if it was repeated at those particular situations, and this generalizing may allow the grouping of similar events that have similar learning experiences. However, a range of circumstances would be involved to figure out a connection between the actions and the associated effects. Individuals would understand the general principle that underlies the particular instance. The above model focuses on primary experience in experiential learning. Current literature has been accused of mainly focusing on primary experience in experiential learning theory and neglecting secondary experience. Weil and McGill categorized experiential learning in four ‘villages’ (1989). These include; the focus on life and work experience to assess and accredit learning, realizing change in structures through experiential learning, focus on raising group consciousness through experiential learning, and personal growth and self awareness. These four ‘villages’ concern primary experience. Linguistic communication is a channel through which indirect or secondary experience can be attained.

Kolb theorized that individuals would act in new circumstances to apply the general principle and this application of the action was supposed to be within the range of generalization. According to Kolb, feedback from the experiences would be used to change practices and theories whereas ideas would be tested by concrete experiences gained from time to time (Kolb 1984: 21-22). The importance of feedback in the learning process is important to ensure that learning has taken place. Therefore, the theory by Kolb has a link with Piaget’s cognitive development. Kolb and Fry identified four basic learning styles after developing a learning style inventory (Kolb, 1976). The inventory would categorize people in either concrete experience and abstract conceptualization, or active experimentation and reflective observation.

The Characteristics of Adult Learners

The learning styles formulized by the above theorists are; converger, diverger, assimilator and accommodator. The converger would carry the characteristics of abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. Convergers would be persons of narrow interests, strong to apply the ideas practically, unemotional, and would have a hypo-deductive reasoning on specific problems. The diverger would assume the characteristics of concrete experience and reflective observation, and would be able to have a strong imagination. In addition to having broad cultural interests, these individuals have the ability to see things at different perspectives, and are interested in people. The assimilator would be defined by the two characteristics, namely abstract conceptualization and reflective observation. The individual would perform best in inductive reasoning in addition to being interested more in abstract concepts than people. Kolb and Fry also described these individuals as having a great ability to create theoretical models. The fourth group theorized by Kolb and Fry was the accommodator who would carry the characteristics of concrete experience and active experimentation. These have been described as individuals will be able to intuitively solve problems, and when required to react to immediate circumstances, these individuals would do well. The individuals have also been termed as risk takers and have greatest strength in doing things. Kolb and Fry in there development of the learning styles challenged the concept that learning could be reduced to one dimension such as intelligence.

Experiential learning can be utilized to planning of adult learning and the evaluation of the same. Although the model has been applauded in the important role it plays in the planning of learning activities and helping to check that learners are engaged, there has been criticism of the Kolb’s model of learning with the feeling that it does not foster the idea of reflection in learning. The theory has also been criticized in that experiential learning does not apply to all situations theorized in the model. Instead, there was a possibility for alternatives, such as information assimilation and memorization.  It is known that cultural experiences/conditions have a place in the learning process. The Kolb model is not does not feature or gives a little focus on cultural experiences/conditions. The model does not focus on the importance of differences in cognitive and communication styles that are culturally-based. There has been thought that the presentation of the ideas in the model is rather too neat and simplistic (and to extent unreal) because some processes may occur once and stages can be jumped. The degree of integration of the learning styles cannot be measured by the learning style inventory because the latter lacks that capacity (Tennant, 1997). In addition, because a broad and wide research base is important in exploring and testing the model, the model is therefore limited in its dimensions.

Although the concept of Kolb can give a linkage between knowledge and learning, it has been criticized on the basis of limited exploration of knowledge. Kolb has only explored the issue of knowledge on a social psychology perspective and doesn’t therefore explore it in depth. The theory has been criticized for leaving out the debates about knowledge theorized in the philosophic and social theory. His conceptualization of the idea that learning is concerned with producing knowledge has been faulted on the consideration of the idea of informed, committed action.

A further understanding of experiential learning may be indicated in the theory generated by Jarvis (1987, 1995) and theorizes the different responses to the potential learning situation. The theory development involved exploration of the Kolb’s model by a number of adults who would utilize their own experience of learning in the analysis. Non-learning, non-reflective learning, and some reflective learning were the different routes that were possible in the model theorized by Jarvis. In non-learning, people were able to interact through patterned behaviors. Individuals may fail to respond to a situation of potential learning and therefore fail to be engaged in the experiential learning process. In addition, it was possible to undergo rejection in the process and fail to achieve or advance experiential learning. Non-reflective trends included the daily encounters of pre-conscious behavior as everyone is exposed to experiences on a daily basis that he does not think about. Practice is also a stage in non-reflective trend and focuses on acquiring physical skills and training for a manual occupation. Non-reflective trend also is characterized by memorization. In this model, reflective learning involved contemplation which entails giving a consideration and making an intellectual decision about it. Individuals would also be able to go thorough reflective learning by having a reflective practice in and on action. The conceptualization by Jarvis also falls short in the consideration of stage wise flow of things, yet it is crucial to note that different things may happen together at once.

Experiential learning is also affected by factors such as the adult motivation to learning. In fact learning is not only a constituent of experiences but also motivation to learning. Motivation of adult learners is an important aspect to achieving successful adult education. Motivation of the adult learner may be explored in consideration of the characteristics of the adult learner. Adult learners are self-directed and autonomous and therefore the processes with which learning is to be achieved need to foster these principles. In this respect, they are more responsible and need guidance to learn and find knowledge on their own (Lieb, 1991). The adult learner has gone through and accumulated a lot of experiences and knowledge and may require that the learning environment and learning process accommodate these things. Adults will enroll for pursuing academics and courses while knowing clearly what they want, and thus they need to be guided on what to achieve at the end of certain courses before they enroll. Adults are likely to engage in activities and processes which they see relevance and therefore the learning process must accomplish this. They are practical and need to be shown respect.

Consideration of the reasons why individual adults engage in the learning process is important so as to foster motivation and learning. In order to motivate the adult learner, there is need to consider some factors including need to accommodate their cognitive interests such as facilitating search of knowledge on their own. Adult learners sometimes need to be considered in their quest to attain relieve of boredom at work and home. The adult learner must be shown the connection of the job towards advancement of the self at the workplace (e.g. achieve promotion) and be able to link the two. In addition, their interests in making new friends and social network can play a significant role in motivating them (Lieb, 1991).

Adult learning is complicated by the fact that motivating factors can turn out to be barriers for learning. Adult learners must comply to certain requirements at the workplace and these requirements are somewhat connected to their motivation such as need to have certain qualification so as to be promoted, adopting to job changes, need for competence and licensing, among others (Lieb, 1991). These put pressure on the adult learner. In addition, there are other factors that may discourage the adult learner such as the attached responsibilities at home, the challenge of time availability and many other expenses. The best way to motivate the adult learner is to advance their reason of enrolment to the courses they want.


Theory of adult learning is limited and needs exploration so as to understand. There are many perspectives of adult learning in theory, including self-directed learning; critical reflection, experiential learning and learning to learn have been neglected in theory exploration. The consideration of adult learning as separate from the normal learning theory is wrong and undeserved. This paper mainly covered the aspects of experiential learning, and also considers the Kolb and Jarvis theory of experiential learning. Experiential learning involves the individual learning through experiences of real life situation or the learning that is fostered by the institutions. The theory of provides important components on how adult learning may be well accomplished and planned but has some shortcomings. These include limitation in its coverage of issue of knowledge and limited research base for the theory.

Kolb’s model of experiential learning has also been criticized for lack of consideration of reflection in learning. Both the Kolb’s and Jarvis’ contributions have also been found to fall short of expectations in that they involve stage-wise development of processes of learning yet it would be expected that sometimes more than one process happens at the same time and others are skipped. Although the consideration of the adult learning process as being separate from the normal learning process has been criticized, it is important to figure out ways in which adult learning differs or the characteristics of the process or learners that make it diverge from the normal known learning process. In order to foster learning process by the individual, it is important to consider the characteristics of the adult learner.

The adult learner is a self-directed individual who has already determined what they want from the course they have enrolled into. Again, they are likely to engage into activities they see as relevant. Adult learners have an advanced motive of learning such as requiring achieving certain qualifications that will make them be promoted at the workplace, among others, and therefore these needs must be understood and incorporated in the learning process and education curriculum. Learning process does not only constitute experiences, but that factors like motivation play an important role in the achievement or participation in learning. Motivation plays an important role in the learning of an adult. Understanding of the factors that influence motivation and its place in learning may foster adult education. Although there are various ways through which an adult learner may be motivated, other barriers including responsibilities at home, time limits among others act as barriers to motivation. The best way to motivate an adult learner is to advance the reason for enrolment into the particular course. Experiential learning plays an important role in adult learning.

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