Experiential learning

The Reflective Practice Guide: An interdisciplinary approach to critical reflection - Barbara Bassot 2015

Experiential learning

’One must learn by doing the thing; for though you think you know it you have no certainty, until you try.’



Programmes of professional education and training, such as teaching, nursing, social work and counselling typically include periods of time spent on placement or in a workplace. Many students speak of these times as being particularly significant in their learning. In the same way as it would be impossible to learn how to drive without getting behind the wheel of a car, becoming a competent practitioner in these areas would seem impossible without some ’hands on’ experience. It is generally accepted therefore, that learning from experience plays a vital part in professional training and development. In this chapter we examine what learning from experience means and we look at some key theoretical approaches that explain how we learn in this way. In addition, we consider why we do not always learn from experience and how we can address areas of non-learning.

What do we mean by learning from experience?

Most people learn from experience throughout their everyday lives. For example, phrases such as ’that worked well’ or, conversely, ’I won’t make that mistake again’ show that often (but not always) people take note of what happens around them and take action on it as a result. In addition to this informal learning from experience, students on professional programmes have structured times of placement or work experience to help them to become skilled and knowledgeable in their chosen area of professional practice.

Many writers on the subject of experiential learning use cycles to describe how we learn, and in this chapter we critically examine three particular models that have become popular in this area. These models help us to understand how we can maximise our learning to develop and improve our professional practice.

The ERA cycle

The ERA cycle summarises three of the main components of reflective practice (Jasper, 2013). The first is Experience, or the things that happen to us. The second is the Reflective processes that help us to think through the experiences we have had; these processes help us to learn from our experiences. And the third is Action, which follows as a result of our reflections. The ERA model is often shown as a triangle with Experience at the top, Reflection at the bottom right and Action at the bottom left. Arrows on the triangle suggest that Experience is followed by Reflection, which in turn is followed by Action.

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle

From his background as a psychologist and his interest in organisational behaviour, Kolb developed his experiential learning cycle; his work has become seminal in this area. Kolb was interested in how people learn at work and how they make sense of their experiences in organisations. Heavily influenced by the work of Kurt Lewin, Kolb (1984) developed his experiential learning cycle to depict how people learn from experience. The model is depicted below in Figure 4.1.

The diagram shows that there are four stages in the cycle that are depicted as following on from each other in sequence. Kolb argues that the cycle can begin at any point; however, often, but not always, the cycle starts with a Concrete Experience. This can be something fairly mundane or something new or strikingly different from what we would usually expect. Following the experience, the next stage is Reflective Observation where we think about what has occurred and begin to analyse it. This is then followed by the third stage on the cycle called Abstract Conceptualisation where we start to generalise from what we have experienced, adding to our knowledge of certain situations and practices. In the final stage, Active Experimentation, we are able to begin to apply the knowledge we have acquired to new situations and the next experience; the cycle (or spiral as it is sometimes depicted) then starts again. The experiential learning process could happen in a period of moments, days, weeks or months depending on the situation.


Figure 4.1 Kolb’s experiential learning cycle

Reflective activity 4.1

Now write some notes about an experience you have had recently where you feel you have learned a lot. How can you apply the stages of Kolb’s cycle to this?

Case study 4.1

Cheryl is studying for a BEd in Primary Education and is doing her final placement with a class of pupils in Year 6. She has enjoyed her previous placements; she feels that her confidence is growing and she now wants to make the most of her remaining time as a student in order to learn as much as she can before she starts work as a newly qualified teacher. Cheryl knows that she has a strong Activist learning style, which has been a real strength in the classroom. She works hard and achieves a lot with the pupils. However, she does not always find reflection easy and her mentor has asked her to work on this, as she feels it will help Cheryl to become a good all round teacher. Cheryl decides to try using Kolb’s cycle to give her reflections some structure. She uses her lesson plan to remind her of an experience and annotates it in order to reflect on how the session went. From this, Cheryl is able to identify things that went well and those aspects of the lesson that she feels could be improved. On the back of the lesson plan, Cheryl writes notes under the headings of Abstract Conceptualisation and Active Experimentation to record the new knowledge she has gained through the experience and ideas that she can use when planning a similar exercise in the future. She discusses this with her mentor, who suggests that Cheryl could do this kind of activity with the pupils too as part of their preparation for transferring to secondary school.

When considering Kolb’s cycle it is important to remember that it is just one explanation of how we learn from experience and, like any other model, it is important to critique it. The arrows on the cycle point in one direction only, which implies that one stage follows neatly after another; in practice this is unlikely to happen each time we learn. While Kolb argues that the cycle often starts with the Concrete Experience, our learning styles (Honey and Mumford, 2000, see Chapter 2) could also play a key part in where we begin on the cycle. Examples are given in Figures 4.2—4.6.


Figure 4.2 Kolb’s experiential learning cycle and Honey and Mumford’s learning styles


Figure 4.3 People who have a strong Activist learning style

Those who have a strong Activist learning style will often want to act quickly and are likely to start the cycle with a Concrete Experience. Some will skip the next two stages and immediately want to prepare to ’have another go’.

Those who are Reflectors will feel much happier having thought things through first and might ’dip their toes into the water’ of the experience only following some detailed planning.

Theorists will often want to go to the library first to read up on relevant details and models and will look at how they apply to the experience. They may be unhappy if they cannot see how their preferred theory works in practice and then go back to the library to read some more.


Figure 4.4 People who have a strong Reflector learning style


Figure 4.5 People who have a strong Theorist learning style


Figure 4.6 People who have a strong Pragmatist learning style

Pragmatists may well want to plan before they act and if things do not go as expected, they might be tempted to do more planning.

All of this means that, in practice, individuals can begin the cycle at any point and travel round the cycle in numerous different directions. In their Learning Styles Handbook, Honey and Mumford examine a large number of possibilities in this regard; this is far removed from Kolb’s unidirectional cycle. However, one of Kolb’s arguments seems clear; in order to learn most from experience, we need to engage with each stage on the cycle. Missing stages altogether (as in all the examples above) by focusing too much on our learning style preferences means that we will fail to maximise our learning.

Finally, it is important to remember that any model that argues for a particular sequence of events will always be flawed. It will face the inevitable question ’So, does it always happen like that?’ And invariably the answer will be ’probably not’.

Reflective activity 4.2

Now think about your recent experience again. Were there stages on the cycle that you missed and, if so, why do you think that was? Does this link with your learning style preferences?


In Chapter 1 we considered Schön’s (1983) concept of reflection-in-action, which formed a central part of his arguments on the need for professional practitioners to adopt a reflective approach. He also wrote in far less detail about what he called reflection-on-action; the kind of thinking that professionals engage in following an experience. This is a reminder of the second stage (Reflective Observation) of Kolb’s (1984) cycle.

Reflection-on-action is particularly important for people who work in the minor professions (see page 9), as there is usually no single correct response to any situation we might encounter. Indeed, mistakes can easily be made if we think ’I’ve come across this kind of situation before. Doing X helped then, so it will probably work now’, as invariably it will not. Each case is unique, and this demands creative thinking at a deeper level on the part of practitioners and an openness to working at finding the most appropriate approach for the particular situation. There is simply no ’one size fits all’ model or approach that can be applied in every case. Using the metaphor of bespoke tailoring, Thompson (2005: 196) aptly describes reflective practice as ’cutting the cloth to suit the specific circumstances, rather than looking for ready-made solutions’. And reflection-on-action forms a key part of this process as practitioners reflect following an experience to seek what works best for that particular client.

So why is reflection-on-action needed? As professional practitioners we need to resist the temptation to accept things at face value. Reflection-on-action helps us to take an analytical approach to our practice and to consider things from a number of different perspectives. As well as identifying how we can improve and find solutions to problems we might identify, reflection-on-action also helps us to see what went well and to build on that. This in turn helps us to build our professional knowledge through Abstract Conceptualisation (stage 3 on Kolb’s cycle) as we think about how we could adapt our practice and approach things next time via Active Experimentation (stage 4 on Kolb’s cycle).

Case study 4.2

Neil is training to be a social worker and has always enjoyed reading; he has identified that he has a strong Theorist learning style. He is an analytical person who likes to examine a range of theories to find the best approach to any given situation. Once he has found his preferred approach, he enjoys applying the model and working towards a solution. As he progresses, Neil finds that he has ’tried and tested’ methods, which help him to feel confident. But after a while Neil finds that his methods do not always work as well as he expects and he finds this frustrating. When this happens, he is always tempted to try again, but usually with little success. Neil realises that instead of seeking answers in books, he needs to reflect on the experiences he is having, to try and identify what is not working and why. As time progresses, he realises that in many situations he cannot simply apply one approach, but needs to draw on aspects of a number of approaches to support the particular client he is working with at the time.

Reflection-on-action is central to reflective practice as it can prevent stagnation through routine. It demands that we turn off our ’autopilot’ and see each situation afresh. However, this does not mean that we need, or indeed will be able, to spend time reflecting on every detail of our professional lives; this would simply be too exhausting. But reflection-on-action means being open to new ideas and through it our practice can develop and remain vibrant.

Driscoll’s ’What?’ model

People who are new to reflective practice often find a simple, straightforward model useful when seeking to learn from their experiences. In particular, Driscoll’s (2007) ’What?’ model (drawn from Borton’s Developmental Framework, 1970) is an example of such a model. Like Kolb’s (1984) model, it is drawn as a cycle (or in this case as a spiral) with arrows pointing clockwise.

The model has the following three steps:

Step 1 — What? — this involves writing a description of an event or an experience.

Step 2 — So what? — here we reflect on the event or experience and start to analyse selected aspects of it.

Step 3 — Now what? — a range of proposed action points are devised following the experience, focusing on what has been learned. When depicted diagrammatically, a number of arrows are drawn from Step 3 to represent a range of possible actions that could be taken in the light of our experience.

Driscoll has also formulated a number of useful trigger questions to help us to use the model effectively, including:

Step 1 — What? — how did I react and what did others do who were involved?

Step 2 — So what? — do I feel troubled in any way, and if so, how?

Step 3 — Now what? — how can I change my approach if I face a similar situation again and what are my main learning points? What different options are there for me?

Case study 4.3

Dan is training to be a nurse in elderly care and wants to reflect on the experiences he is gaining on his placement. Dan decides to use the questions in Driscoll’s model to help him to begin to analyse what he is learning.

Step 1 — how did I react to the experience and what did others do who were involved?

Today I was observing an experienced community nurse change a dressing on a man’s leg that is badly infected. The man was nervous and became very distressed — he has had dressings replaced regularly and knows that the process is very painful. I felt awful about causing him more pain. The community nurse seemed very calm and spoke to him in a reassuring way. She asked him if he would like some pain relief and he said yes. She sat with him for ten minutes to make sure that the pain relief was working and spoke with him about his grandson’s visit that he was looking forward to at the weekend. This definitely seemed to put him at ease.

Step 2 — do I feel troubled in any way, and if so, how? She made it all look so easy. How would I cope if I had to do this? As a nurse I am meant to relieve pain not cause it. She focused on the patient while I focused on myself.

Step 3 — how can I change my approach if I face a similar situation again and what are my main learning points? What different options are there for me? I learned a lot from the community nurse. She was very caring but firm. She knew the man’s dressing needed to be changed but did everything in a very calm and kind way. She distracted him and helped him to relax. These are all strategies that I can try in the future if I have to do this. Nursing isn’t only about my clinical skills; my interpersonal skills are vital, as is compassion and understanding for my patients.

Driscoll’s model is simple and the three stages — ’What?’, ’So What?’, ’What next?’ — are easy to remember, particularly when you are new to professional practice and it seems like there is so much to learn. In particular, the question ’Do I feel troubled in any way?’ is extremely useful as our feelings can act as a prompt to deeper thinking and exploration (see Chapter 6). However, after a while you may find that you want to reflect at a deeper level so, if appropriate, you should feel free to use this in the early days of your practice and then to move on to other approaches. This means that your reflective skills will develop alongside the other key skills that you use in professional practice.

Reflective activity 4.3

Now try using Driscoll’s model to reflect on a recent experience. How does it compare to using Kolb’s model? Where are the similarities and differences?

Learning as transformation

It is widely accepted that learning has the potential to transform a person’s life, and as you progress in your studies and in your professional life you may feel that you are becoming a different person. Looking back on my own professional life, I know that I am not the same as the person who initially trained to be a Careers Adviser.

Illeris (2014), drawing on the work of Taylor (2009), identifies the following six principles that can lead to transformative learning.

1 Acknowledging individual experience — this is the previous experience that each learner brings with them, which forms a starting point for learning. When this is recognised and valued, people are more likely to reflect on their current position and to challenge themselves through experience.

2 Encouraging critical reflection — this involves paying attention to three key elements: the meaning people extract from what they are learning, the process (or how people are learning) and the premises (or the context for learning). The latter appears to be particularly significant for transformative learning to take place.

3 Engaging in discussion and dialogue — a dialogue with self and others is vital as this prompts critical reflection and this is how individuals discover their boundaries.

4 Having a holistic orientation — people need to learn as whole beings. This includes engaging with their emotions (see Chapter 6) and their context. This happens through a process of ’see-feel-change’ (Taylor, 2009: 10).

5 Being aware of context — having an appreciation of their context and their experiences — means that people are more likely to adapt to change. In particular, being aware of the time constraints of life and how to manage them is significant for learning as transformative learning takes time.

6 Building authentic relationships — this is a particularly important element for people who are training to be teachers and mentors. It involves being open and honest and allowing learners to question their growing understanding. This enables the person in training to understand themselves and their practice better and allows their confidence to grow.

Reflective activity 4.4

Looking at the six principles above, which do you feel is most important for your professional learning and why?

Overall, Illeris argues that a learner-centred approach is most likely to lead to transformation, and experiences that enable people to develop at their own pace and in ways that are most suited to them are most likely to succeed. However, this presents challenges for students and teachers alike because the syllabus or the National Occupational Standards for the particular sector still needs to be met. The rise of competence frameworks has done much to restrict flexibility in professional training, although the maintenance of standards is vital for the well being of clients and professionals.

Do we always learn from experience?

Whilst it is widely accepted that learning has the potential to transform people’s lives (Illeris, 2014), when we look back honestly at our own lives and those of others it becomes clear that this does not always happen. This also applies to learning from experience. As one student who was training to be a Careers Adviser once said to me, ’I don’t understand why I keep making the same mistakes. I know what I need to do and when I go into the assessment, it’s clear, but when it comes to it, I just don’t seem able to do it’. Why is this? If it were as simple as ’practice makes perfect’ why is it that in some situations improvement does not happen automatically?

The work of Jarvis (2003) gives us some useful indicators about a range of responses we can have to learning experiences. He views learning as a more complex process and explains that it does not always happen following an experience. Based on the work of Kolb, he carried out research with adult learners to try and identify how learning took place. The cycle he then developed (much more complex than Kolb’s cycle) can be traversed via nine different routes depending on how the person responds to an experience. The routes themselves are not specified because of the difficulties of isolating them and because an individual might be able to follow more than one route in any one experience. However, the cycle is described as having the following nine aspects.

1 The person having the experience.

2 The situation.

3 The experience.

4 The person: reinforced but relatively unchanged.

5 Practice experimentation.

6 Memorisation.

7 Reasoning and reflecting.

8 Evaluation.

9 The person: changed and more experienced.

This is depicted in Figure 4.7.

An individual can have one (or more than one) of nine responses to an experience. Jarvis describes nine routes on his learning cycle, which he puts into three groups: non learning, non reflective learning and reflective learning.

Non learning

Presumption (aspects 1—4)

This happens routinely in everyday life, where we experience the same (or similar) things many times as we socialise with those around us. We approach such situations in a similar way based on our previous experiences. In these situations we can assume we already know what to do or how to behave when, of course, this may not be the case.

Non-consideration (aspects 1—4)

Many learning opportunities are missed because we simply do not consider them to be noteworthy at the time: maybe we are too busy, too tired, distracted or simply see them as a waste of time.


Figure 4.7 Jarvis’ experiential learning cycle

Jarvis (2006), p. 9

Rejection (aspects 1—3, then 7—9)

Here, something is specifically rejected; this involves some thought, followed by evaluation. There are a number of reasons why we reject things, for example we might feel they apply only to others and not to us. We might have tried them before and found them to be unhelpful. Over time it could be that rejection becomes part of our habitual response (we have all met cynical practitioners who are quick to say ’we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work, so it won’t work now’) and hence rejection might over time become presumption.

Non-reflective learning

Pre-conscious (aspects 1—3 to either 4 or 9)

This learning happens incidentally and is generally not recognised as learning per se. In effect, it might not be called learning at all until it is recognised as such later. So we may not initially realise that we have learned something, but only see it like this later when it enters our consciousness. For example, we may recognise something as familiar (e.g. a theoretical model that seems very clear and simple, even obvious to us) which we later realise we have learned through a previous experience or experiences. It is a mistake to think of this as intuition (’well, I just knew how to do this’ or ’I understood that anyway’); it has been learned previously because you can probably identify a time when you could not do the thing you have identified or did not understand it.

Practice (aspects 1—3, then 5—8 to 6 to either 4 or 9)

This often applies to skills learning. Through experience we have the opportunity to try things out in practice; this might include following processes and procedures, applying a theoretical model or copying an experienced practitioner as they model their skills to us. This is often done through conscious imitation of the practice of someone else whose work we respect and admire.

Memorisation (aspects 1—3 to 6, possibly to 8 and then to either 4 or 9)

Many of us will equate this to things that we have needed to learn ’off by heart’, for example our times tables, mathematical formulae, chords on a guitar or keys on the computer keyboard. Here, repetition is important to ensure that our responses become automatic in relevant situations.

Reflective learning

Contemplation (route 1—3, to 7 to 8 to 6 to 9)

This could be described as purely thinking about something after an experience. Those with a strong Reflector learning style will be very familiar with this and can indeed spend a long time in contemplation. It does not necessarily mean that action will follow, although it might at some point in the future.

Reflective practice (route 1—3, possibly to 5, to 7 to 5 to 8 to 6 to 9)

This is clearly the most complex route so far as the practitioner reflects before experimentation and afterwards too and evaluates their experiences in an iterative way in order to become more skilful and knowledgeable. This underlines that reflective practice itself is indeed a complex process.

Experimental learning (route 1—3, to 7 to 5 to 7 to 8 to 6 to 9)

This appears more complex still as the learner focuses on practice as a basis for their reflections as they seek to ground their knowledge in practice and reality.

Perhaps the most important aspects here are the insights this work gives us about why we fail to learn. The following case study shows how an individual can navigate the cycle and fail to learn from experience.

Case study 4.4

Sarah is training to be a Careers Adviser who cannot understand why her learning appears to be ’stalling’. She doesn’t understand why she keeps making the same mistakes. She knows what she needs to do and when she goes into the assessment, it’s clear, but when it comes to it, she just doesn’t seem able to do what she knows she needs to do. Following an in-depth discussion with her tutor it appears that she was ’tracking’ across the cycle following each experience (3) because of failing to engage with any other element on the cycle. She was thereby exiting the cycle prematurely, reinforced (and determined to try again) but relatively unchanged (4). This is rather like the person in Figure 4.3.

Aspect 2 is particularly interesting and points to the influence that our situation has on our learning. It is clear that we learn more in some situations than in others, and, in this particular instance, the fact that Sarah was being assessed may well have an impact on how much (or rather how little) she could learn from the experience. We all need to be in environments that are conducive to learning to be able to develop to our full potential. In this particular case, she knows what she has to do, but somehow is unable to do it in the pressurised atmosphere of being assessed. So another possible response she might have could be to memorise what she has to do (6) to enable her to cope with the pressure. This might help a little, particularly if the assessment task is fairly straightforward, but even so, she could again exit the cycle reinforced but relatively unchanged (4) if she then fails to put things into practice.

Sarah could also spend some time in contemplation, thinking through the best ways of trying to achieve what she needed to achieve, but could still fail to change the way she does things and exit the cycle as before (4).

Table 4.1 Learning from experience


It is clear that we do not always learn from experience and there are many factors that can influence whether or not we learn at particular times in particular places. Table 4.1 highlights some of these.

Reflective activity 4.5

Now think about how you feel you learn best. Consider the points in the table above — which do you feel apply most to you and your learning? Are there any that do not apply? Are there any points you would like to add?

Reflective activity 4.6

Think of a time when you feel you learned a lot. Why was this? What can you gather from this about how you learn best?

Regressive transformation

As well as failing to learn from experience, Illeris (2014) identifies that people can fall back in their development through regressive transformation. Feelings of discomfort can be an indication that this is happening and thoughts such as the ones listed below can be common.

• That things are moving too quickly.

• That the demands are too high.

• That it is too difficult to let go of current viewpoints or behaviours.

• That the levels of doubt and uncertainty being demanded are too difficult to cope with.

• That we want to experience the safety and security of our current position and do not want to change.

Any or all of these feelings can mean that we fail to move forward in our learning and development.

Case study 4.5

Shan is a youth support worker who has completed her foundation degree. She now wants to move on to the final part of her studies to gain a full BA with honours. Shan is very committed to her work and study, but it seems that as soon as she returns to university things start to go wrong, and she feels like her development is regressing. In particular, her personal circumstances become difficult. Her parents emigrated last year; Shan’s grandmother has become ill and she feels responsible for her as she is the relative who lives nearby. In addition, Shan’s workload has recently increased because several members of staff have left her organisation and it is taking a while to recruit new people. Shan feels very tired and overwhelmed; since Christmas she has been ill on several occasions. This means that she has had to miss several sessions at university and feels she is falling behind. In spite of her supportive tutors, she decides to interrupt her studies as things at the current time are just too difficult for her. She hopes to resume her studies when things get easier for her at which point she hopes her development will be re-kindled.


In this chapter we have examined the whole area of learning from experience and have considered how and why this does not always happen. We have examined models by Kolb, Driscoll and Jarvis and have considered a range of factors that can promote or inhibit learning. In the next chapter we move on to consider some of the different arguments regarding how we learn most.


Borton, T. (1970) Reach, Touch and Teach, London: Hutchinson.

Driscoll, J. (ed.) (2007) Practising Clinical Supervision: A Reflective Approach for Healthcare Professionals, Edinburgh: Ballière Tindall, Elsevier.

Honey, P. and Mumford, A. (2000) The Learning Styles Helper’s Guide, Maidenhead: Peter Honey Publications.

Illeris, K. (2014) Transformative Learning and Identity, Abingdon: Routledge.

Jarvis, P. (2003) ’Adult learning processes’, in P. Jarvis and C. Griffin (eds) Adult and Continuing Education, London: Routledge, pp. 180—98.

Jasper, M. (2013) Beginning Reflective Practice, Andover: Cengage Learning.

Kolb, D. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Schön, D.A. (1983) The Reflective Practitioner, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Taylor, E.W. (2009) ’Fostering transformative learning’, in J. Mezirow, E.W. Taylor et al. (eds) Transformative Learning in Practice: Insights from Community, Workplace and Higher Education, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Thompson, N. (2005) ’Reflective Practice’, in R. Harrison and C. Wise (eds) Working with Young People, London: Sage.