Experiential learning theory (ELT) describes learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984, p.41).
We can say that ELT’s attempts to express the holistic nature of the learning process can be described as a learning model in that it attempts to integrate, and portrays what Eickmann, Kolb & Kolb (Designing Learning, 2004) describe as
… [two] dialectically related modes of grasping experience – Concrete Experience (feeling) and Abstract Conceptualization (thinking) – and two dialectically related modes of transforming experience – Reflective Observation (reflecting) and Active Experimentation (acting). Individual learning styles are determined by an individual’s preferred way of resolving these two dialectics.”
Kolb and Fry (1975) argue that the learning cycle can begin at any one of the four modes but suggest that the optimal learning process begins in the Now (mode  in Figure 1) as the learner undertakes an immediate action or concrete experience and then observing a response on the effect of the experience.
Extending this, the learner then reflects to understand these effects so that if the same experience or action was undertaken in the same circumstances it would be possible to anticipate the effect of the action. The third step is for the learner to understand and assimilate the principle under which the experience exists, synthesizing the experience, their reflection on its effect and previous experiences, to form abstract concepts “from which new implications for action can be drawn” (Boyatzis, Kolb & Mainemelis, 2006, p.3). These implications can be actively tested, from which new experiences can be drawn, iterating the cycle.
Kolb and Fry emphasize the “creative tension” generated by the opposite modes in the model; learning is a process requiring sets of polar opposites among the four learning modes to dynamically interact. It is the very process of taking the learner outside of their comfort zone that causes the learner to extend their current knowledge, skills and abilities. For the learning intervention to be successfully integrated into the learners cognitive scheme, the learning cycle should
touch all the bases – feeling, reflecting, thinking, and acting – in a recursive process that is appropriate to the learning situation and what is being learned.”
How each individual learner achieves this is accordance with their unique learning style. According to Kolb (1976) the learning style inventory is a catalog of characteristics designed to place individual learners on an appropriate quadrant of the learning cycle (see Figure 2) relevant to their “abilities” (1975, p.35).
Boyatzis, Kolb and Mainemelis elaborate on the context of a learner’s abilities in Experiential Learning Theory: Previous Research and New Directions (pp.3-4):
In grasping experience some of us perceive new information through experiencing the concrete, tangible, felt qualities of the world, relying on our senses and immersing ourselves in concrete reality. Others tend to perceive, grasp, or take hold of new information through symbolic representation or abstract conceptualization – thinking about, analyzing, or systematically planning, rather than using sensation as a guide. Similarly, in transforming or processing experience some of us tend to carefully watch others who are involved in the experience and reflect on what happens, while others choose to jump right in and start doing things. The watchers favor reflective observation, while the doers favor active experimentation.
Each dimension of the learning process presents us with a choice. Since it is virtually impossible, for example, to simultaneously drive a car (Concrete Experience) and analyze a driver’s manual about the car’s functioning (Abstract Conceptualization), we resolve the conflict by choosing. Because of our hereditary equipment, our particular past life experiences, and the demands of our present environment, we develop a preferred way of choosing. We resolve the conflict between concrete or abstract and between active or reflective in some patterned, characteristic ways. We call these patterned ways “learning styles.”
Boyatzis, R. E. Kolb, D. A. & Mainemelis, C. (2000) Experiential Learning Theory: Previous Research and New Directions. [Internet] IN: Sternberg, R. J. & Zhang, L. F. (Eds.). Perspectives on cognitive, learning, and thinking styles. NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, Available from: http://learningfromexperience.com/research-library/experiential-learning-theory [Accessed 31st May 2012]
Eickmann, P. Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. A. (2004) Designing learning. [Internet] IN: R. J. Boland & F. Collopy (Eds.), Managing as designing (pp. 241-247). Stanford: Stanford University Press. Available from: http://www.learningfromexperience.com/images/
uploads/Designing-Learning.pdf [Accessed 25th March, 2010]
Fry, R. & Kolb, D. A. (1975) Toward an Applied Theory of Experiential Learning. IN: Theory of Group Processes. (Cooper, C. ed). New York: John Wiley and Sons, Inc
Kolb, D. A. (1976) The Learning Style Inventory: Technical Manual. Boston, Ma. TRG Hay/McBer.
Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Prentice Hall