The Learning Theories and Their Use in Academic Setting

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Learning and education are important aspects of one’s life, for they allow one to find their place in the world and build their career in the future. However, in the modern world, the pace at which information is processed is very fast, which means that individuals often have to deal with large amounts of information f they wish to learn. In addition, the need for practical skills rather than purely theoretical knowledge arises very often. This results in the need to use alternative methods of learning which would allow one to gain practical knowledge and to be able to effectively utilise it in the future.

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This paper provides an overview of three such methods, namely, the learning theories that were developed by D. Kolb, D. Schon, and G. Gibbs. First, these three theories are briefly described; after that, some of the ways in which they may be utilised in the academic setting are exposed. It is demonstrated that these theories often allow for achieving practical knowledge, which means that their use in the educational setting may have a number of significant benefits.

The Crux of the Learning Theories

The Theory of Experiential Learning (Kolb)

David Kolb’s theory of experiential learning was first published in 1984 in order to help people to learn and to make use of their experience more efficaciously, providing ways to better transform it into knowledge, which could then be utilised for practical purposes and not only theoretical considerations (Kolb, 2015). Kolb’s model divides learning from experience into phases, and these phases follow one another cyclically. There are four such phases in Kolb’s theory (Kolb & Kolb, 2008):

  1. Concrete experience. At this phase, the subject obtains the experience of that about which they will learn in the future.
  2. Reflective observation. Here, one reflects upon the concrete experience that was gained previously. The reflection might take a systematic form; this permits for better retention of that which was reflected upon. Retaining such memories might be of use at the further steps of the process.
  3. Abstract conceptualization. At this stage, one makes concrete and particular conclusions from the experience that they had at the stage a, and possibly organises these conclusions into systems, creating new theories or using the existing ones.
  4. Active experimentation. After the conclusions are formulated, one is capable of utilising them in their practical life and testing their usefulness.

The fourth stage overlaps with the first one, providing grounds for further learning. The learning becomes a continuous process (Kolb, 2015).

Depending on which stages a person focuses during their learning process, four main types of learning (learning styles) can be attributed to that person; knowing these types allows for adapting the process of studying to one’s preferred way of learning (Kolb, 2015):

  1. Accommodating (active experimentation and concrete experience), or “feel and do”: these individuals prefer to handle practical problems with little regard for abstract speculations.
  2. Converging (abstract conceptualization and active experimentation), or “think and do”: these people are good at solving practical tasks which require intensive critical thinking;
  3. Assimilating (reflective observation and abstract conceptualization), or “think and watch”: clear and logical thinking which allows those who possess it to process large amounts of information and create theories.
  4. Diverging (concrete experience and reflective observation), or “feel and watch”: observation and accumulation of information are preferred to action.

The Theory of Double-Loop Learning (Schon)

The theory of single- and double-loop learning was created by Donald Schon and his colleagues so as to describe the process of learning as it is carried out by such collective entities as various organisations and institutions. The theory describes the ways of acting, accommodating new experience, and revising the old ways of acting in order to develop new, more efficacious ones (as cited in Blackman, Connelly, & Henderson, 2004).

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In order to explain the process of single- and double-loop learning, three main notions are used:

  1. Governing variables, or the boundaries within which the results of one’s actions are to take place according to the desires of that one;
  2. Action strategies, or the plans employed in order to achieve the desired outcomes and keep them within the limits of the governing variables;
  3. Consequences, or the outcomes of actions that were taken (including the intended and the non-intended outcomes).

Acting is perceived as a gradual, continuous process which often occurs within the boundaries defined by these three notions. If it does indeed occur within these boundaries, i.e. when one only creates action strategies in order to achieve consequences which would be within the measures of the governing variables (and these governing variables do not change in any way), then one conducts single-loop learning. However, a more advanced type of learning, double-loop learning, is also possible, and may take place if one starts revising and reassessing the governing variables instead of only changing strategies in order to alter the results of the taken actions. It is clear that this leads to changes in the contents of all the three notions (as cited in Freeman & Knight, 2011).

It should be noted, however, that this theory of learning has its limitations, and using this scheme may fail to detect certain possible solutions to a given situation (Blackman et al., 2004).

The Theory of Reflective Learning (Gibbs)

The theory of reflective learning was created by G. Gibbs in order to improve the Kolb’s model of the experiential cycle of learning. Gibbs, however, focused more on the reflection upon one’s experiences; in this case, it is believed that such reflection allows for a more efficacious procession of information, as well as in the creation of better ways of action. This may prove to be of use especially in the cases when one’s actions fail to yield the desired outcomes, meaning that these actions (or, perhaps, even the very aims of these actions) need to be reassessed and improved, which can be done in the process of reflection (as cited in Jasper, 2006).

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Such a reflection may take place as a five-step process; this process might often become a cycle in which the last step of one cycle transforms into the first step of another cycle (Raynor, Marshall, & Sullivan, 2005):

  1. Description: this step involves producing a detailed description of the situation that is to be analyzed and improved;
  2. Feelings: at this stage, it is necessary to recollect and describe the emotions and feelings that were experienced during the situations which one is reflecting about.
  3. Evaluation: at this step, one ought to try to evaluate the situation in question in an objective and non-biased manner. It is also needed to assess which approaches to this situation were effective, and which ones failed to produce any acceptable result.
  4. Conclusions: at this stage, one should make conclusions pertaining to the situation that took place, and to take into consideration other courses of action that may be implemented instead of that course of action which was actually taken in the past (and necessitated the need for the current reflection).
  5. Plan of actions: finally, one needs to create a plan of action which would include the decisions made at the previous steps. This plan then ought to be used in situations similar to the one in question, should one become a part of such a situation.

Utilising this model in practice permits yielding better outcomes in future situations similar to those situations which were analyzed, thus allowing for determining an optimal course of action in these circumstances beforehand.

Using the Theories in the Academic Setting

The Theory of Experiential Learning (Kolb)

The theory of experiential learning permits one to learn by utilising their own experience, and not only the information that was learned from external sources and may have little connection to the experience that one possesses, thus being rather abstract. It is possible to employ this theory in a number of academic settings, including the education in management and development (Kolb & Kolb, 2008).

Kolb’s theory provides an opportunity for these students to achieve considerably better learning outcomes due to the nature of the fields that they pursue; these fields require a large amount of very practical knowledge and skills. In addition, it allows the students to re-examine their own beliefs and attitudes, turning learning into a continuous process which permits for the revision of old convictions and adoption of new views (Kolb & Kolb, 2008).

In addition, it is possible to employ Kolb’s learning theory for students who are studying other disciplines, such as information security technologies (Konak, Clark, & Nasereddin, 2014). For instance, Konak et al. (2014) describe the process of using Kolb’s learning theory in a virtual computer laboratory. A significant problem related to the use of such laboratories is that the students often have to follow rather long prescriptive instructions, losing any understanding of the procedure in the process.

Using the adapted Kolb’s learning theory, however, permitted Konak et al. (2014) to obtain significantly better studying outcomes in this setting. Another example of the use of Kolb’s experiential learning theory is provided by Baker, Robinson, and Kolb (2012); this time, the theory was utilised for students of agricultural disciplines in order to teach them meta-cognitive skills, as well as to promote goal-oriented thinking among these learners.

It is clear, therefore, that Kolb’s learning theory is a powerful tool which may become useful in any situation when one has to utilise their experience in order to learn something from it. Such a tool can be of use not only in the academic setting but also in any situation where it is needed to adapt to the changing environment.

The Theory of Double-Loop Learning (Schon)

It has already been stressed that the theory of double-loop learning can be utilised by entities such as businesses and organisations in order to reflect upon their goals and methods and achieve considerably better outcomes. However, this theory may also be of use to individuals obtaining knowledge in the academic setting. For instance, students who are getting their education in the sphere of business may benefit from it (Freeman & Knight, 2011).

The benefit here is clear: when such students learn how to utilise the double-loop learning method in the academic setting, they become capable of using it consciously while being managers of organisations. This also teaches them to employ the methods of critical thinking, for these students learn to reflect not only upon the methods that they use in order to achieve certain goals but also on the goals themselves, which permits them to set clearer and better aims and modify them in accordance with the currently existing circumstances.

In addition, it was also demonstrated that the double-loop learning theory can be utilised in clinics and medical institutions by physicians in order to provide patient learning (Reychav, Kumi, Sabherwal, & Azuri, 2016). Therefore, it is clear that this technique may be taught to medical and nursing students as one which may be employed as a possible method of patient education.

The Theory of Reflective Learning (Gibbs)

The theory of reflective learning can also be used both in practical situations and in an educational setting aimed at preparing students for solving practical problems. For instance, Potter (2015) provides an example of a situation in which it was necessary to make a decision aimed at improving the methods of leadership that were utilised in an organisation. The author describes an instance of a successful use of the Gibbs’ theory of reflective learning that allowed him to analyze the behaviour of a business team and address a problem that persisted in it. It is clear, therefore, that Gibbs’ theory can also be used and taught in the educational setting, especially for learners who study leadership and business, as a method for solving practical situations.

In addition, the method of reflective learning can also be taught to students of the field of medicine, including nurses and physicians (Jasper, 2006). Due to the fact that the learning circle allows for reflecting upon decisions which were made in particular circumstances, it is possible for such students to use it in order to reflect upon situations that they encountered during their medical practice. Such reflection may help them to identify the mistakes that were made during the practice, and avoid similar errors in the future (Raynor et al., 2005). And, of course, these students will later be able to use this approach so as to analyze some real-life situations in their future careers.


In conclusion, it should be stressed that the learning theories which were created by D. Kolb, D. Schon and G. Gibbs may prove extremely useful in the academic setting due to the fact that they provide learners with ways using which they may be able to obtain concrete practical knowledge, often from their own, initially “unprocessed” experience. It is also important to point out the fact that these three theories are rather different, and should be used in the settings for which they are the most suitable. Even though these theories might have a number of disadvantages and limitations (Blackman et al., 2004), it is still possible to use them in the educational settings tin order to prepare students for their future lives as practitioners.


Baker, M. A., Robinson, J. S., & Kolb, D. A. (2012). Aligning Kolb’s experiential learning theory with a comprehensive agricultural education model. Journal of Agricultural Education, 53(4), 1.

Blackman, D., Connelly, J., & Henderson, S. (2004). Does double loop learning create reliable knowledge? The Learning Organization, 11(1), 11-27. Web.

Freeman, I., & Knight, P. (2011). Double-loop learning and the global business student. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 41(3), 102-127.

Jasper, M. (2006). Professional development, reflection and decision-making for nurses. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2008). Experiential Learning Theory: A dynamic, holistic approach to management learning, education and development. In S. J. Armstrong & C. V. Fukami (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Management Learning, Education and Development (pp. 42-68) [ResearchGate version]. Web.

Kolb, D. (2015). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (2nd ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education.

Konak, A., Clark, T. K., & Nasereddin, M. (2014). Using Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle to improve student learning in virtual computer laboratories. Computers & Education, 72, 11-22. Web.

Potter, C. (2015). Leadership development: An applied comparison of Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle and Scharmer’s Theory U. Industrial and Commercial Training, 47(6), 336-342. Web.

Raynor, M. D., Marshall, J. E., & Sullivan, A. (2005). Decision making in midwifery practice. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier.

Reychav, I., Kumi, R., Sabherwal, R., & Azuri, J. (2016). Using tablets in medical consultations: Single loop and double loop learning processes. Computers in Human Behavior, 61, 415-426. Web.

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ChalkyPapers. "The Learning Theories and Their Use in Academic Setting." January 31, 2022.