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Overview of Experiential Learning

Learning from experience is a natural process that engages all students' learning styles and aligns well with Wentworth's EPIC practices. You can help students transform experience into knowledge by applying the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle. At Wentworth, experiential learning is pervasive throughout our curricula in the classroom, labs, studios, and coop experiences.

  1. The process starts with an experience and examining what happened.
  2. The experience is reflected upon to examine what was experienced and the results that occurred.
  3. The experience is conceptualized to understand why this happened and what the results imply.
  4. The new thinking is applied through active experimentation or plans are made for what will be done differently next time.

Curious about learning more about the Kolb Experiential Learning Cycle?

Learning from experience can be depicted as a spiral continually moving upward through multiple iterations of continuous improvement.

Learning Styles and Engagement

Learning styles are a habit of learning based on individual preference, choice, life experience, education, culture, and the current situation or context. Kolb offers a Learning Style Inventory that provides an interesting self-examination of an individual's approach to learning based on four learning styles: Diverging, Assimilating, Converging, and Accommodating. Remember, you use more than one learning style and they can shift based on the situation Curious about which learning styles you prefer?

How can you engage students to increase learning retention? Include a variety of instructional activities aligned with Kolb (Svinicki & Dixon, 1987):

  • Experience: lab, observation, primary text reading, simulations/games, fieldwork, trigger films, readings, problem sets, examples
  • Reflection: log, discussion, journal, brainstorming, through self-reflection, dialogue, feedback, critiques
  • Thinking/Conceptualization: lecture, model building, analogies, papers, projects, mapping, analytical diagrams
  • Action/Active Experimentation: simulation, lab, project, case study, fieldwork, homework, iteration, presentation

Reflect on how your teaching style looks in each of Kolb's learnings styles:

  • Diverging learners appreciate a facilitator who is affirming, draws out motivation and self-knowledge, creates personal relationships, and fosters dialogue
  • Assimilating learners appreciate a subject expert who has a reflective authoritative style, systematically analyzes and organizes subject matter, and delivers knowledge by lectures and texts
  • Converging learners appreciate a standard setter and evaluator who has an objective results-oriented style, sets performance objectives, and structures performance activities to evaluate learning
  • Accommodating learners appreciate a coach who has an applied collaborative style, works one-on-one with learners to apply and refine their ongoing learning in context, and uses feedback mechanisms and development plans

Remember, as educators, we tend to educate from our own preferred style so it is helpful to cycle around each of these teaching styles to reach all learners in your class.

Creating a Climate for Experiential Learning

Learning spaces are shaped by the physical aspects of the space (in-person or virtual), cultural norms, institutional practices, social interactions and psychological expectations of the people in that space such that a person's position in the learning space defines their experience or 'reality' (Strange & Banning, 2001). There are certain characteristics of learning spaces that maximize learning and principles for creating them (Kolb & Kolb, 2005a): 

  • Engage students in all four modes of learning: experience, reflection, thinking, and action
  • Foster a space that is welcoming and respectful to all perspectives
  • Balance support and challenge to help students push out of their comfort zone
  • Create choice so learners are in charge of their own learning
  • Allow time for low or no-stakes repetitive practice that develops expertise

How can you engage students in creating a learning climate? Try negotiating learning expectations at the beginning of the course and revisit them to check in.

Applying Experiential Learning at Wentworth

Associate Professor Lora Kim in Architecture

  • Experience: fieldwork, sketch, photographic documentation, writing
  • Reflection: self-reflection, feedback, critiques, pin-ups
  • Thinking/Conceptualization: abstract models, mappings, analytical diagrams
  • Action/Active Experimentation: iterations, narrative, process, presentations

Professor Gary Simundza in Applied Math

  • Experience: experiential demonstration of mathematical concept in class
  • Reflection: how the concept demonstration applies to their discipline
  • Thinking/Conceptualization: graphically, analytically, numerically, and verbally depicting the concept that was demonstrated
  • Action/Active Experimentation: how an adjustment in the demonstration changes the application and depiction of the concept

Assistant Professor Erik Simon in Construction Management

  • Experience: planning for and executing a building activity in class to build the tallest structure possible in 10 minutes with marshmallows and spaghetti (without talking)
  • Reflection: dialogue about what groups would have done differently in planning if they know all of the rules up front (build without talking)
  • Thinking/Conceptualization: Erik shares what he observed and ties it back to the construction process
  • Action/Active Experimentation: could do another iteration

Do you have an experiential learning application to share? Tell us and we'll spotlight you!

Educator Perspective - Summative Assessment

The summative assessment process naturally flows around Kolb's experiential learning cycle:

  1. The process starts with an examining what happened in the course.
  2. The experience is reflected upon to examine what happened with student learning.
  3. The experience is synthesized to understand how the actual learning compared with objectives and outcomes, assess learning across multiple sections, the impact of peer feedback, the impact of instructor feedback.
  4. The new thinking is applied through course critical assessment process articulating what you'll change next time, what worked well, how to relate the course better to subsequent courses in the curriculum, how to better engage students.

Summative assessment can be depicted as a spiral continually moving upward through multiple iterations of continuous improvement. 


  • Kolb, A. Y. and Kolb, D. A. (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4(2), 193-212.

  • Kolb, A. Y. and Kolb, D. A. (2008). Experiential Learning Theory: A dynamic, holistic approach to management learning, education, and development. In Armstrong, S. J. & Funkami, C. (Eds.) Handbook of Management Learning Education and Development. London: Sage Publications.

  • Kolb, D. A. (1984).Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

  • Kolb, D. A., Boyatzis, R. E., Charalampos, M. (1999).  Experiential Learning Theory: Previous research and new directions. In Sternberg, R. J. and Zhang, L. F. (Eds.), Perspectives on cognitive, learning, and thinking styles. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2000.

  • Passarelli, A. and Kolb, D. (2012). Using Experiential Learning Theory to Promote Student Learning and Development in Programs of Education Abroad. 

  • Svinicki, M. D. and Dixon, N. M. (1987). The Kolb model modified for classroom activities. College Teaching, 35(4), 141-146.