Experience and Adult Learning

Learning Objectives

  • [1]Compare and contrast the principles of major theories of learning and cognition and explain how they relate to adult learners
  • [3]Provide a rationale for instructional strategies based on specific cognitive and/or learning principles
  • [6]Explore, experience and analyze various instructional strategies and their relationship to individual differences and experiential learning

Key Takeaways

  • How experience plays a role in learning
  • Experiential learning theories and their applications

Whether it is through our own experiences or through learning from others’, experience plays a major role in teaching and learning in adulthood.  Julius Caesar once said, “Experience is the teacher of all things”. He was onto something so long ago.

What do our experiences provide us? Our experiences can provide us with knowledge, empathy, compassion, faith, discovery, motivation, and so on. Our experiences can also cause pain, anger, disruption, and other negative emotions. The good and the bad give us the opportunity to become inquisitive and embrace the lessons we learn. Furthermore, this extraordinary happening within us can even occur through reflection on another person’s experience.

In the TED Talk by Mary Helen Immordino-Yang (below), you will learn about a young woman from Sudan who had an experience which no person should have to experience. This painful experience fueled her desire to learn and give back so that no other person would have to experience what she experienced. Watch the video and think about the feelings that come to mind when hearing the story. Were you inspired? Did it make you want to fulfill some untouched dream of your own? Did you start believing you could accomplish anything because this young woman was able to accomplish what she did?

Sociocultural environment is powerful. We are moved by stories because our social and biological systems are interconnected through the neurosystems in our brains.

Do our emotions drive us to learn? The young girl from Sudan was driven to learn because of her traumatic experience of seeing her mother and baby sister die. Her emotions fueled her desire to learn so much so that she had to find a creative way to gain her education in an environment in which it was not easily accessible.

What happens to your brain when you think about stories such as Mary Helen’s?  One finding, according to Ms. Immordino-Yang, is found in the brain activity of an inspired person.  Portions of a person’s brain light up where a person experiences most feeling/emotion.  The brain stem, the “very essence of your survival” (Immordino-Yang, 2011) also lights up during inspiration, showing that “your biology and sociology are completely intertwined” (Immordino-Yang, 2011).

John Dewey and Experiential Learning

John Dewey (1859-1952) Bio:

  • Born October 20, 1859 – Died 1952
  • Credentials – Ph.D.
  • Alma Mater – John Hopkins University
  • Last Occupation – Head of Philosophy and faculty at University of Michigan
Dewey's Experiential Model
Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) by John Dewey


The Experiential Learning Theory provides “a holistic model of the learning process and a multi-linear model of adult development” (Baker, Jensen, & Kolb, 2002 as cited in Zhou and Brown 2015, p. 49). The theory is not linear as in traditional primary education, and has many levels of learning that fits better for adult learners.  Experience plays a significant role in the learning process of adults.

In Dewey’s model, adults apply their experience (apprehension) and abstract conceptualization (comprehension) to learning. In order for the learning to be achieved, reflective observation (intention) and active experimentation (extension) must occur to gain desired knowledge (Zhou and Brown, 2015). With the four aspects combined, a cycle of learning can be acquired.


David Kolb (1939-1997) Bio:

  • Born 1939
  • Credentials – Ph.D.
  • Alta mater – Harvard University

Experiential learning theory[2] is a cycle learning theory introduced by American educational theorist David Kolb1) in 19712) and was inspired by earlier works of Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget3) and John Dewey.  Developed within humanist paradigm, experiential learning offers a holistic perspective on learning and is centered mostly on adult learning.  The name of this theory was intended to emphasize the importance of experience in the learning process.

Experiential learning theory defines learning as

  • the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience.4)

What is experiential learning?

The experiential learning theory is based on six propositions5) described with the following three statements:

  1. Learning is best described as a holistic process of creating knowledge and adapting to the world.
  2. Learning is actually relearning, since it is greatly dependent on already learned material.
  3. Learning is driven by conflict, differences, and disagreement and results in assimilation and accommodation.
Kolb's original four learning styles and stages. Image borrowed from: http://www.businessballs.com/... Click on the picture to follow the link.

Kolb6) suggests two opposite modes of acquiring experience:

  • concrete experience or CE (feeling through practical experiencing),
  • abstract conceptualization or AC (concluding and thinking about the experience),

and two opposite modes of transforming that experience into knowledge:

  • reflective observation or RO (actively observing experience and its outcomes),
  • active experimentation or AE (planing on how to test something and finally doing).

All of these components follow one another in a circle of learning: CE→RO→AC→AE→CE→… The very process of learning can begin in any of them. Still, every learner develops strengths in some modes more than others, or learn better under those conditions, which results in four different learning styles identified also by Kolb7)8):

  • Assimilator – Strong in AC and RO components. Prefers abstract conceptualizations and theoretical models. Requires time to think. Values logical validity more than practical applications.
  • Converger – Strong in AC and AE components. Prefers practical applications of concepts and theories and enjoys experimenting. Good problem solvers and likes dealing with technical issues.
  • Accommodator – Strong in CE and AE components. Prefers practical experiences and acting more according to feelings versus logical analysis or theoretical aspects.
  • Diverger – Strong in CE and RO modes. Prefers learning through observing and collecting information.  Good at viewing concrete situations from different points of view. Imaginative and emotional and often specialize in arts.9)

In order to identify a preferred learning style in Kolb’s model, “learn­ing style inven­tory” method has been developed. This method for determining an individual’s optimal learn­ing style and learning strengths and weaknesses, includes a survey which explores one’s perceiving (how one prefers to acquire information) and processing (how one makes sense of new things). Variants of this method can be found in simplified, free, online tests.  Newer methods like the adaptive style inventory or the learning skills profile have also been introduced 1414).

What is the practical meaning of experiential learning?

Experiential learning is a model suggested for adult learners. General implications of this model are that the teaching/learning process should consist of all four stages of Kolb’s model, but it also suggests that  individual changes should be applied, depending on learners’ learning styles.

  • Assimilators – prefer watching and thinking.  An assimilator appreciates good explanations of theories and ideas as they relate to practical experiences. These learners usually enjoy lectures and readings as well as having enough time to think about new ideas.
  • Convergers – prefer doing and thinking and enjoy finding practical solutions to problems. These learners usually like new ideas and their practical applications.
  • Accomodators – prefer practical experiences and intuitive approaches versus reading instructions. These learners usually prefer teamwork.
  • Divergers – prefer watching, collecting information, and working in groups.  These learners would prefer to brainstorm versus practical experience.

Kolb’s theory was applied in a number of studies on topics that include (online) education, computer and information science, psychology, management, medicine, nursing, accounting and law.18)19)20)


Some of the criticisms referring to Kolb’s theory suggest:

  • his learning cycle is oversimplified and ignores non-experiential ways of learning21),
  • his learning cycle pays insufficient attention to goals, purpose, intentions,  and choice & decision-making, which are also a part of learning22)
  • the results of the learning style inventory are based solely on the way learners rate themselves causing questionable results23)



  1. Contributions to https://wildernessmedicine.wikispaces.com/ are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 License. Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 3.0 License
  2. https://www.learning-theories.org/doku.php?id=learning_theories:experiential_learning used under CC BY SA 4.0


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Teaching and Learning in Adulthood by Tracy Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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