Learning theories for eLearning: Kolb’s Cycle

I am a firm believer in learning theory, and how it should always be applied to eLearning. Online delivery should never be an excuse to just present information to the learner, and then expect them to know it well enough to undertake an assessment.  If they have read the information, how do you know they’ve processed it? How long will they retain it if they processed it at all? What happens if they don’t understand it?  These are all unanswered questions for eLearning developers who don’t use learning theory as the backbone for their projects.

The first theory I wanted to introduce is Kolb’s theory of learning (1984).  It is a 4 stage process in the form of a cycle.  Kolb firmly believed that in order for a person to fully ‘learn’ something, they must experience it.


But where to start within the cycle? From the top!

Concrete Experience

Having a concrete experience is where the learning begins for Kolb.  The learner should be having an experience in order to learn. In terms of eLearning, this can include information being given to them and activities based on this information.  A good variety of information and activity should take place at this stage.  This could be within the eLearning itself, or even an activity for them to do outside of the computer. They could come back to the eLearning to reflect on it. A good example of this is when eLearning refers to a practical qualification, such as a Hair and Beauty course. You can give the learner diagrams and activities, but one of the requirements might be that they actually go and perform a beauty treatment.

Reflective Observation

This is where the learner reviews their experience. And remember, in order to do this, they must have had an experienceSimply reading pages and pages of text with some interspersed graphics is not an experience. And if it is, it’s a very boring one. You must make sure that the learner has experienced something, or the reflective observation stage is impossible.  In order to reflect, the learner could write a short paragraph on their thoughts, or review the information in a summary activity.


Concluding the experience places the information in the learner’s long term memory. Make sure that your learners are going to remember the information that you wanted them to process outside of the eLearning. Try to think about whether they would remember the information if they were tested on it next week, or the week after. If you don’t think they would, you need to go back to the concrete experience phase and make the experience more engaging.

Conceptualisation can include some kind of summarising of the information, or even an informal assessment. Perhaps give them a slightly different scenario, and ask them to apply their knowledge to this new scenario.

Active Experimentation 

The learner needs to take what they have learnt and apply it.  The best learning is easily forgotten or dropped when a learner doesn’t use any of the information for anything constructive.

I distinctly remember doing a day’s training on a piece of software which everyone in our department needed to be trained on. Except, in reality, I would be using this software perhaps once every 6 months, and in a very limited way. I did the day’s training, which was practical and informative, and then in the next couple of weeks, promptly forgot everything I’d learnt. I knew I had forgotten it, and I knew why too. I wasn’t using any of the information that I had learnt. You must make sure that your learners have opportunities to put their learning into practice.

Practical tasks could include setting tasks for the learner to tick off a virtual to-do list, or suggested activities for them to test their learning. Whatever the task, this stage of the cycle solidifies the information and makes it much more likely to enter their long term memory, rather than fading away in their short term memory.

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