The Learning Cycle

Kolb’s learning cycle is divided into four stages: the concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract hypothesis, and active testing (Zull, pp.17-23). Our concrete experience is the sensory information we receive from the environment and our bodies in the form of auditory, visual, vestibular, tactile, olfactory and gustatory information, the perception and reflection of which defines our conscious experience. Reflective observation is such conscious perception of sensory information: It’s the physical (brain) integration of sensory stimuli into units of meaning or images that trigger stored information/memories and allow for interpretation through associations, mental re-enactment and the analysis of it all. It’s where bottom-up and top-down processing come together fostering the next stage in the learning cycle.

The reflective observation of our results is an important step in re-evaluating or expanding our learning by comparing it to other experiences and drawing parallels or noting differences and potential problems with the new information. From here we can again move to abstract hypothesizing of why it would or wouldn’t fit or what else in our experiences it could apply to – in other words, generalizations. The process of making connections and creating clear images of the subject matter, which are the currency of our thought, is what assures comprehension, memorization, and integration of new information during the learning cycle.  

Reflective observation is a fairly time-consuming affair compared to mere sensation. This is due to the differences in neural processing of the two: sensory input is more direct and employs fewer brain resources, while also relying on myelinated neurons that conduct information much faster than their largely non-myelinated counterparts in the integrative cortices, whose pathways are also far more convoluted (Zull, p.163).

Reflection requires much more engagement of our memory banks and our integrative centers as we evaluate and retrieve information for comparison with the new forms encountered. It’s furthermore vulnerable to interruption by other incoming sensory information that starts yet another learning cycle, and the need to physically act on it and others, all running parallel to each other, and competing for brain’s attentional resources. And full attention and unwavering focus is critical to the speedy completion of the process.

Reflective observation can further be sabotaged through retrieval and comparison with incompatible information or over-investment in other processes, especially when they are very emotionally fueled, such as a belief that we could never understand the information (let’s say math) and that we may have critical information components missing that make it inaccessible to us, or that this information is somehow incompatible with our cognitive constitution. The only time we are not distracted with incoming sensory stimuli or the need or ability to physically react to our perceptions – that also happens to be the time we are most capable of suspending disbelief and judgment – is when we are asleep (Zull, p.167-169).

The brain is very capable of continuing the reflection process subconsciously, and allowing the perceptual relations, connections and solutions to surface in our dreams. Our emotions are still very active in our dream state, which is important since the memories stored are infused with emotion, and so is all of our thinking. This is why there are cases of people who find solutions to problems and generate breakthrough ideas in their sleep – it simply gives them enough time and attentional space to complete the reflective process.

Abstract hypothesis is where we make generalizations and abstractions about everything we’ve experienced or will experience – we generate rules and beliefs about the world that guide our further conscious action, perceptions and reflection. Moreover, this stage allows us to derive new information by building on what we’ve learned thus far: we hypothesize and make predictions and conclusions from which we are then able to create new knowledge. And of course, we act on these beliefs and knowledge in the active testing stage, through which process we acquire the necessary feedback, that again activates the learning cycle and yet another round of active testing that will confirm, deny, or suggest a need for still further reflection.

Zull, James E. (2002).The Art of Changing the Brain: Enriching the Practice of Teaching by Exploring the Biology of Learning. Sterling, VA. Stylus Publishing LLC.