In Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development (1984)Kolb defined learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (p. 38). This learning experience consists of four stages:

  • Concrete Experience (CE): feeling
  • Reflective Observation (RO): watching
  • Abstract Conceptualization (AC): thinking
  • Active Experimentation (AE): doing

These four stages, or steps, of learning typically move through a cycle that begins with a student having a concrete experience and ends with them actively experimenting with the knowledge they gained.

Kolb’s Four Stages of Learning

Active Experimentation ConcreteExperience ReflectiveObservation AbstractConceptualization

Kolb identified four different learning preferences, or learning styles, after observing the cycle of learning.  He identified learning styles as “habitual ways of responding to a learning environment.” How students react to specific stages in the learning cycle helps identify their learning style.

Below is a grid that identifies the various types of learners and which stage of learning they lean toward. The stages of learning reflect how learners process and assimilate information:

Stage 1: Concrete Experience (CE)
assimilating information

Stage 2: Reflective Observation (RO)
processing information

Stage 3: Abstract Conceptualization (AC)
assimilating information

Stage 4: Active Experimentation (AE)
processing information

(CE and AE)

  • Adaptable to change
  • Problem-solvers

(CE and RO)

  • Finds meaning and value
  • Analytical

(AC and RO)

  • Interested in ideas and concepts
  • Observers

(AC and AE)

  • Technical learners
  • Independent
  • Practical

Continue exploring this page, or request assistance from the Center for Instructional Technology and Training.


Student learning preferences are observed in a traditional classroom setting by engaging with students in classroom discussions, or observing students during lectures, group projects, presentations, or other activities. In the online environment, it is important to find ways to engage students through the entire cycle of learning and incorporate activities or prompts that will help reveal student learning preferences present in your course. Remember: it is best practice to create a variety of learning experiences that reach all learning preferences. Exposing students to a variety of learning experiences will also help them become a more adaptable, versatile learner.

Kolb recognizes that all learning stages are part of the experiential learning experience. For instance, “a classroom lecture may be an abstract experience, but it is also a concrete one, when, for example, a learner admires and imitates the lecturer. Likewise a learner may work hard to create an abstract model in order to make sense of an internship experience or experiential exercise. From the learner’s perspective, solitary reflection can be an intensely emotional concrete experience, and the action of programming a computer can be a highly abstract experience.”[1]

References and Additional Resources