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Kolb's learning cycle and learning styles

Aim of the method/approach
Offers insight into how people learn

When to use it?
This tool is useful at the beginning of an intervention process, when engaging people in M4SDI, to think about their preferred learning styles and how to make the best use of them.

How difficult is it to use it?
Easy – moderate – for experienced users/facilitators

Tool for thought or tool for action?
Tool for thought

Insight in learning styles helps to achieve more effective learning, for example by mixing styles when forming internal and external groups

Description of the tool

Experiential learning cycle
The experiential learning cycle suggests that learning is a fourstage cyclical process, where knowledge and wisdom are ‘created through the transformation of experience’ (Kolb, 1984:38). The stages are:

  1. Learning from concrete experiences (feeling)
  2. Learning from reflective observation (watching)
  3. Learning from abstract conceptualization (thinking)
  4. Learning from active experimentation (doing)

Although the model is presented as a series of stages, in reality it is possible to enter the cylce at any stage and follow it through sequentially. It is important to complete the cycle because as you move from one stage to the next, you build on your learning and improve. Stage 1 is about having a concrete experience – ‘feeling’. For example, certain activities of an initiative/organization did not work out in one particular year. In Stage 2, this experience is reflected on (‘reflective observation’ – ‘watching’) in order to gain information abou twhat happened. In an initiative, we can relate this to the monitoring process – collecting information on similar activities and finding out whether what is happening in one area is also happening in other areas. Stage 3 involves thinking, analysing or planning (‘abstract conceptualization’ – ‘thinking’). Here, we try to make sense of the information available and draw conclusions or develop theories. In an initiative/organization this often relates to or informs decision-making based on critical reflection on M&E findings. The information (and ideas) generated during the sense-making processes (such as yearly stakeholder meetings) informs the adaptation of existing plans or the development of the next annual work plan. The fourth stage (‘active experimentation’ – ‘doing’) involves planning and working with these new ideas, e.g. a work plan. Experimentation in this instance means the implementation of the annual plan. And so the cycle continues. The learning cycle has proved to be a very helpful tool in problem-solving and project management and can be used in all the core M4SDI processes.

Learning styles

We have seen that learning takes place in different ways. Peter Honey and Alan Mumford (1986) identify four distinct learning styles or preferences – and many of us tend to follow one or two of these. The learning styles are activist, theorist, pragmatist and reflector, and the main characteristics are presented below. These learning styles are closely associated with the Kolb learning cycle. So an activist might be primarily interested in experiencing new challenges and not in taking the time to critically reflect and draw lessons from experiences. To become a better learner, s/he should engage with other stages of the learning cycle.

CharacteristicsLearning methods

Activists learn by doing and participating. They like challenges and tend to jump in with both feet first. They are usually open-minded in their approach to learning, and impartial with respect to new experiences. Often you find ‘explorers’ and ‘innovators’ in this category.

  • Brainstorming
  • Problem solving
  • Group discussion
  • Puzzles
  • Competitions
  • Role-play

Reflectors learn by observing and thinking about what happened. They prefer to observe from a distance and ponder on experiences from various perspectives. They like to collect data to analyse and reflect upon, as well as consult stakeholders. However, reflectors often delay reaching conclusions. You will often find researches and M&E staff in this category.

  • Models
  • Statistics
  • Stories
  • Quotes
  • Background information

Theorists like to understand the theory behind actions and think things through. You can engage these people in learning processes by using models, concepts and facts. They are naturally objective, preferring to analyse and synthesize, and put this new information into coherent theory. Managers and other decision-makers are often found in this category. Much of their decision-making style can be described as rational.

  • Thinking about how to apply theories to reality
  • Problem solving
  • Discussion

Pragmatists like to seek and try out new things they have learned and put them into practice. Abstract concepts and plans are not considered important unless they can be put into action. Pragmatists like to try out ideas, theories and techniques to see if they work. Often, you find implementers in this category.

  • Paired discussions
  • Self-assessments
  • Personality tests
  • Coaching
  • Interviews


  • Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (1986) The Manual of Learning Styles, Peter Honey Publications Ltd, Maidenhead, Berks.
  • Kolb, D. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
  • Kusters, C.S.L. et al (2017). Managing for Sustainable Development Impact: an Integrated Approach to Planning, Monitoring and Evaluation. Wageningen, Wageningen Centre for Development Innovation, Wageningen University & Research, and Rugby, UK: Practical Action Publishing.