How To Learn Effectively From Experience

Conventional ways of learning like lectures, textbooks, and homework assignments teach facts and concepts, but not necessarily how to apply them in real world situations. The best way to learn is to learn by doing.

How To Learn Effectively From Experience

Here's the truth. Medical school didn't teach me how to be a doctor. I attended lectures, went on hospital placements and sat exams but it wasn't until I graduated and started my first job as a newly qualified doctor on the surgical wards that I really learned what medicine was all about.

But what is the best way to learn from our experiences?

Well today I wanted to dive into one of the most influential psychological models of learning out there, experiential learning theory, and look at how the principles behind different experience-based learning theories have helped me to learn faster and more effectively.

Kolb's Learning Theory

Let me ask you a question: have you ever had a really great learning experience? I'm talking about a time when you were so engaged and excited by what you were learning that you couldn't wait to apply it to your own life. For me this was often seeing a really interesting clinical case in medicine or figuring out a way to overcome a challenge in my business.

Well, this is exactly what something called Kolb's Learning Theory is all about. It's a psychological model of learning that was developed by American educational psychologist David Kolb in the 1970s. And it's all about that emphasis on experience. Kolb believed that the best way to learn is by actively experiencing something, and then reflecting on that experience in order to understand it more deeply.

Kolb's Learning Theory is made up of two parts. The first part covers a four-stage cycle that the learning experience follows. According to Kolb, by going through the different stages, learners can convert their experiences into knowledge.

The second part then focuses on learning styles and the cognitive processes that occur for learners to acquire knowledge. The theory highlights how people  demonstrate their understanding of a topics when they are able to apply abstract concepts to new situations.

So let’s start by exploring the four stages of learning, referred to as the Experiential Learning Cycle.

The Experiential Learning Cycle

Active, experiential learning is at the heart of Kolb's Learning Theory. The idea is that you need to transform abstract concepts into something meaningful in order to learn. For example Gleason Scoring in medicine is fairly abstract when learned from a textbook but becomes much more meaningful when you need to use it to explain a management plan to a patient newly diagnosed with prostate cancer.

As such, memorisation doesn't equal learning, because memorization doesn't improve our understanding. And as a result, we've not gained any additional value.

The four-stage experiential learning cycle views learning as an integrated process. All four stages are mutually supportive because Kolb believes that effective learning is a cyclic process that involves experiencing, reflecting, thinking and acting.

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle highlights how learners change as a result of experience, reflection, conceptualisation and experimentation. According to the cycle, learning occurs when an individual comes across an experience and reflects upon it. This leads to analysis and formulation of abstract concepts. Learners can then experiment with their hypotheses in various situations. Let's look at each step a little closer.

Kolb's Learning Cycle

Concrete Experience

The first stage of Kolb's Learning Theory is concrete experience. This is where you actually experience something for yourself. This could be anything from reading a book to performing part of an operation in surgery.

The key here is to immerse yourself in the experience and take in as much as you can paying close attention to what you're doing.

It sounds obvious but the key step here is actually putting yourself into the learning opportunity in the first place. Most people won't push themselves as it's more comfortable learning theory or sitting things out. The times when I've learned the most is when I've challenged myself to do something that's outside of my comfort zone. For example I didn't really want to start this YouTube Channel but by jumping in and committing to posting a video every Sunday I've learned a huge amount in a short space of time. I could have put things off by reading the best way to film or do tonnes of research but I knew that executing quickly and jumping into a learning experience is the best way to learn.

Reflective Observation

The second stage of Kolb's Learning Theory is then reflective observation. This is where you take some time to think about what you just experienced. You might ask yourself questions like, "What did I learn from this experience?" or "How did this experience make me feel?"

This is a crucial step in the learning process, because it helps you to make connections and understand what you've experienced on a deeper level. By taking the time to reflect on your experiences, you're able to see them from different angles and gain a more well-rounded understanding of what you've learned.

When I trained as a surgeon I would routinely reflect on every operation and, when writing the operation note, I would also jot down some reflective learning points and play things back over in my mind. I'd also discuss things with the supervising surgeon to maximise the learning opportunity. Whatever you are learning whether studying for a written exam or learning something practical committing to regular self-reflection and coaching will help you to learn faster.

Abstract Conceptualization

The third stage of Kolb's Learning Theory is abstract conceptualization. This is where you start to put what you've learned into more general terms. You might create a concept or theory to explain what you've learned. This is where you start to see the big picture and make connections between different ideas.

For example, let's say you've just learned about a new concept in math. You might take some time to reflect on what you've learned, and then come up with a general rule or formula that explains how the concept works. This is abstract conceptualization in action.

Active Experimentation

The final stage of Kolb's Learning Theory is active experimentation. This is where you take what you've learned and apply it to your own life. You might try out a new skill or approach, or even just think about a problem in a different way. This is where the real learning happens, because you're taking what you've learned and using it to make a difference in your own life.

For example, let's say you've just learned a new way to solve a math problem. In the active experimentation stage, you might try out that new approach on a few different problems to see how well it works. This is a great way to test your understanding of the concept and see how it applies in real-world situations.

If you're learning how to improve your confidence you might try maintaining eye contact for longer during a conversation to see how it feels and what happens.

Now even though concrete experiences are at the top of the cycle, you can enter it at any stage and follow it through. However, as each stage is dependent on the others, learners must complete them all to develop new knowledge. In fact, according to Kolb, no one stage of the cycle is effective on its own.

Instead, learners must complete all four stages of experiencing, reflecting, thinking and acting to develop new knowledge. And with each new experience, learners are able to integrate their new observations with their current understanding.

Learn Like A Hero

This cycle of learning from experience is very similar to the work of author Joseph Campbell and his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces which analyses how heroes in stories take the reader on their own journey of learning.

Learning Like A Hero

If we think about any hero from Harry Potter to Frodo or Luke Skywalker they start their journey by taking action, they encounter obstacles before reflecting and internalising the experience and then the journey changes them.

Now while this usually takes the hero a few hours in a film or book, for regular humans this is a continuous cycle over our lifetime. And experiential learning is a continuous journey where you encounter challenges which you learn from and gradually get better and better at whatever it is you're learning. Whether that's mastering the Force or Being a Wizard.

This Hero's Journey involves not just reflecting but also applying learning points into practise. And this is where having a Growth Mindset is so important. A lot of the concrete experiences that I've learned the most from have actually been failures. Whether it's getting an active recall question wrong when studying for an exam, losing a race or missing a business target by reflecting and then improving I've learned things way faster than when things have gone smoothly. Because we're more likely to dissect things when they go wrong right? We naturally want to improve but sometimes we need to get past that pain of failure and have that growth mindset where every failure is a learning experience.

Experiential Learning Styles

So what makes Experiential Learning Theory so effective? Why do so many people find it to be a valuable model of learning?

Well, one of the key strengths of Kolb's Learning Theory is that it recognizes that everyone learns differently. Kolb extended his original learning cycle in 1984 and introduced a model about different learning styles to explore learners’ inner cognitive processes based on the original four-stage learning cycle.

While the original four stages of the learning cycle work together to create a learning process, some people prefer certain stages over others. For example I probably spend more time on concrete experience and active experimentation.

According to Kolb, our learning style preference is actually the result of two pairs of variables. This can be seen as two separate ‘choices’ that we make. Kolb represents each stage of the learning cycle along two intersecting axes.

Kolb Learning Styles

The horizontal axis sits between active experimentation and reflective observation and is called the Processing Continuum and this is basically how we approach a task. The vertical axis sits between concrete experience and abstract conceptualization and is the Perception Continuum and is how we think or feel about the task.

Processing Continuum

The Processing Continuum focuses on how we approach a task. On this continuum, we choose how to grasp information. This can be through doing (active experimentation) or watching (reflective observation).

Perception Continuum

The Perception Continuum, on the other hand, describes our emotional response or how we make information meaningful. We choose a way to transform and process our experiences. This can be through feeling (concrete experience) or thinking (abstract conceptualisation).

Kolb believed that we cannot both think and feel about an experience at the same time and our learning style is a product of which we chose to focus on.

If we look at this as a two-by-two matrix we can see that each learning style represents a combination of two preferred styles.

The matrix also highlights Kolb's terminology for the four learning styles; diverging, assimilating, and converging, accommodating:

Active Experimentation (Doing)Reflective Observation (Watching)
Concrete Experience (Feeling)Accommodating (CE/AE)Diverging (CE/RO)
Abstract Conceptualization (Thinking)Converging (AC/AE)Assimilating (AC/RO)

What Learning Style Are You?

So let's now look at the four experiential learning styles and see which one you relate to. By figuring out your own experiential learning style you can get the most out of whatever experiences you have and learn faster and more effectively.

Diverging (feeling and watching - CE/RO)

Diverging is focused on exploring ideas and possibilities. Diverging learners can see things from different points of view. They care about things. They would rather watch than do. To solve problems, they tend to gather information and use their imagination. They are best at looking at real situations from more than one point of view.

Kolb called this style "diverging" because people with this style are better at coming up with ideas in situations like brainstorming. People with a different way of learning are interested in many different kinds of things and like to gather information.

They care about people, are often creative and emotional, and are usually good at the arts. Diverging style people like to work in groups, listen with an open mind, and get personal feedback.

Assimilating (watching and thinking - AC/RO)

Assimilating focuses on understanding and organizing information. The assimilating learning style is clear and easy to understand. People are not as important as ideas and thoughts.

These people need a good, clear explanation instead of a chance to do something. They are very good at understanding a lot of different kinds of information and putting it all together in a clear, logical way.

People who learn by assimilating care less about people and more about ideas and abstract concepts. People with this style are more interested in theories that make sense logically than in ideas that are useful in the real world.

People with this learning style prefer reading, lectures, exploring analytical models, and having time to think things through when they are learning in a formal setting. It's a learning style often seen in scientists and anyone working with lots of data.

Converging (doing and thinking - AC/AE)

Converging is focused on practical, hands-on learning and problem-solving. People with a converging learning style are good at solving problems and will use what they've learned to solve things. They are more interested in technical tasks than in people and relationships.

People who have a converging learning style are best at putting ideas and theories into practise. A converging style prefers trying out new ideas, simulating situations, and working with real-world applications.

Accommodating (doing and feeling - CE/AE)

Accommodating is focused on learning through hands-on experience and experimentation and this is probably my prefered learning style. It's "hands-on" and relies more on intuition than on logic. These people like to take a practical, hands-on approach and analyse later. They like to take on new challenges, try new things, and follow through on plans.

By understanding your own unique combination of these learning styles, you can tailor your learning experiences to better fit your strengths and preferences. This can make learning more effective and enjoyable, and can help you to get more out of your learning experiences.

The Benefits of Experiential Learning

One of the strengths of Kolb's Learning Theory is that it's very flexible. Unlike some other learning theories, which are very prescriptive and specific, Kolb's Learning Theory is more of a framework than a set of rules. This means that you can adapt and modify the theory to fit your own learning style and needs.

For example, you might decide to focus on one stage of the learning process more than another, or you might choose to skip a stage entirely if it doesn't work for you. The flexibility of Experiential Learning Theory allows you to tailor your learning experiences to fit your own needs and preferences, which can make learning more effective and enjoyable.