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The Learning Cycle

Originally published on November 16, 2016

This is the FINAL post of the Executive Leadership Blog series.

Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow.

— Anthony J. D’Angelo

Kolb’s experiential learning theory works on two levels: a four-stage cycle of learning and four separate learning styles.  Much of Kolb’s theory is concerned with the learner’s internal cognitive processes.

Kolb stated that learning involves the acquisition of abstract concepts that can be applied flexibly in a range of situations.  In Kolb’s theory, the impetus for the development of new concepts is provided by new experiences—his concept of the experiential learning cycle.

The Experiential Learning Cycle

Kolb’s experiential learning style theory is typically represented by a four stage learning cycle in which the learner 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 (Figure below).

Figure: Kolb’s model of experiential learning.

Concrete Experience. Doing or having an experience (a new experience or situation is encountered, or a reinterpretation of existing experience).

Reflective Observation. Reviewing and reflecting on the experience (of particular importance are any inconsistencies between experience and understanding).

Abstract Conceptualization. Concluding or learning from the experience (reflection gives rise to a new idea or modification of an existing abstract concept).

Active Experimentation. Planning or trying out what you learned (the learner applies them to the world around them to see what results).

Styles and the Learning Cycle

Kolb’s learning theory sets out four distinct learning styles, which are based on a four-stage learning cycle.

Kolb explains that different people naturally prefer a certain single different learning style. Various factors influence a person’s preferred style.  For example, social environment, educational experiences, or the basic cognitive structure of the individual. Whatever influences the choice of style, the learning style preference itself is actually the product of two pairs of variables, or two separate ‘choices’ that we make, which Kolb presented as lines of axis, each with ‘conflicting’ modes at either end:

A typical presentation of Kolb’s two continuums is that the east-west axis is called the Processing Continuum (how we approach a task), and the north-south axis is called the Perception Continuum (our emotional response, or how we think or feel about it). Kolb believed that we cannot perform both variables on a single axis at the same time (e.g. think and feel). Our learning style is a product of these two-choice decisions. Where these fit in the learning cycle is illustrated in the figure below.

Figure: Kolb’s processing and perception continuums.

Each learning style represents a combination of two preferred styles. The table highlights Kolb’s terminology for the four learning styles.

Table: Matrix of Kolb’s learning styles.

Learning Style Descriptions

Knowing a person’s (and your own) learning style enables learning to be orientated according to the preferred method. That said, everyone responds to and needs the stimulus of all types of learning styles to one extent or another – it’s a matter of using emphasis that fits best with the given situation and a person’s learning style preferences. The following segments describe in detail the synthesized types of learning styles. (Kolb, 1984)

Diverging (feeling and watching – CE/RO). These people are able to look at things from different perspectives. They are sensitive. They prefer to watch rather than do, tending to gather information and use imagination to solve problems. They are best at viewing concrete situations at several different viewpoints.

Kolb called this style ‘diverging’ because these people perform better in situations that require ideas-generation, for example, brainstorming. People with a diverging learning style have broad cultural interests and like to gather information. They are interested in people, tend to be imaginative and emotional, and tend to be strong in the arts. People with the diverging style prefer to work in groups, to listen with an open mind and to receive personal feedback.

Assimilating (watching and thinking – AC/RO). The Assimilating learning preference is for a concise, logical approach. Ideas and concepts are more important than people. These people require good clear explanation rather than a practical opportunity. They excel at understanding wide-ranging information and organizing it in a clear logical format.

People with an assimilating learning style are less focused on people and more interested in ideas and abstract concepts.  People with this style are more attracted to logically sound theories than approaches based on practical value. This learning style is important for effectiveness in information and science careers. In formal learning situations, people with this style prefer readings, lectures, exploring analytical models, and having time to think things through.

Converging (doing and thinking – AC/AE). People with a converging learning style can solve problems and will use their learning to find solutions to practical issues. They prefer technical tasks and are less concerned with people and interpersonal aspects.

People with a converging learning style are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. They can solve problems and make decisions by finding solutions to questions and problems. People with a converging learning style are more attracted to technical tasks and problems than social or interpersonal issues. A converging learning style enables specialist and technology abilities. People with a converging style like to experiment with new ideas, to simulate, and to work with practical applications.

Accommodating (doing and feeling – CE/AE). The Accommodating learning style is ‘hands-on’ and relies on intuition rather than logic. These people use other people’s analysis, and prefer to take a practical, experiential approach. They are attracted to new challenges and experiences, and to carrying out plans.

They commonly act on ‘gut’ instinct rather than logical analysis. People with an accommodating learning style will tend to rely on others for information than carry out their own analysis. This learning style is prevalent within the general population.


During this Blog series on Executive Leadership, critical competencies that define characteristics of executive and senior leadership have been discussed. Throughout the series, you have had the opportunity to examine these principles as they relate to you and your organization.

In his book Servant Leadership  (1977), Greenleaf accentuated the importance of viewing leadership as serving your managers, your employees, and the greater good—the organization that encompasses them all. A meme that was recently shared by an unknown writer on Linkedin sums up the philosophy expressed in Greenleaf’s writings:

Figure: A final thought…


Thanks for reading this Blog series on Executive Leadership.


Greenleaf, R. (1977). Servant leadership: A journey into the nature of legitimate power & greatness. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

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