Adult Learning Theory: Experiential Learning


Experiential learning is regarded as a fundamental “principle” necessary in understanding the learning style of adults. Accordingly, it has become a leading concept in both the continuing as well as adult education. Furthermore, experiential learning symbolizes one amongst a small number of ideas which offers a hopeful foundation for linking the existing gap between practice and research. In spite of its long-term philosophical and hypothetical roots, experiential learning has failed to attract a lot of critical and systematic study from scholars and practitioners (Anderson, 1088, p. 7).

The theory of experiential learning gives the importance or the role played by experience in learning. In this kind of learning, knowledge is achieved through the transformation of experience (Kolb, 1984, p. 40). The theory is also called experiential because it has its intellectual origins in the experiential works of Dewey, James, Piaget, Lewin and Freire. There are two views of learning in the theory of experiential learning; pragmatism and phenomenology.

Pragmatist view on experiential learning

Cohen, Boud and Walker (1993) contend that experience is a term that is ambiguous. Accordingly, it may be used as a verb and as a noun. As a verb, it means to encounter, or the process of observing. On the other hand, as a noun it means all that is known, the knowledge or practical wisdom gained from the observing, undergoing or encountering’ (p.6). The difference in meaning of the term experience on the basis of the two word classes forms the foundation for a distinction of both the phenomenological and pragmatic perspectives.

North American adult educators use the term as a noun. To them, experience is a term that ‘can be catalogued, objectified and reflected on’ (Yorks & Kasl, 2002, p.180). Their understanding of experience is influenced by John Dewey’s writing of 1958. Following this writing, the theory of pragmatism developed, and other adult theorists like Rosemary Caffarella and Sharan Merriam, Peter Jarvis, David Kolb and Jack Mezirow seem to have been influenced by this pragmatist interpretation of experience, along with its inclination towards learning. The type of understanding that we obtain here is a reflection-oriented constructive perspective. Furthermore, pragmatism has also been regarded as a widespread and influential theory of adult learning that ‘casts the individual as a central actor in a drama of personal meaning-making’ (Yorks & Kasl, 2002, p.180).

There are three perspectives that have attempted to capture pragmatism, within the context of adult learning and more specifically, experiential learning. Firstly, there is the perspective that David Kolb has taken in his 1984 work. This perspective has influenced adult educators in such areas as corporate training and higher education.

Kolb’s perspective theorizes learning that results from experience as an interaction occurring between two processes. To start with, experience is taken in and then transformed into meaning. The two processes have dialectic modes of transforming the experience.

Kolb contends that the grasping of knowledge is in the continuum of apprehension where there is concrete experience connected with feeling and the other comprehension or the abstract conceptualization that is related with thought. Kolb (1984) further opines that “In the apprehension continuum an individual relies on the tangible, felt qualities of immediate experience and comprehension on conceptual interpretation and symbolic representation” (p. 41).

The writings of Jack Mezirow explore the second perspective on pragmatism, as it impacts on adult education. Mezirow has defined learning as the process of using a prior interpretation to construct a new or revised interpretation of the meaning of one’s experience as a guide to future action’ (Yorks & Kasl, 2002 p.181). According to Mezirow, experience is a stimulus that emanates from life-world and provokes one’s reflection as well as critical reflection making it very important. He differentiates actual experience and our linguistic knowing of it. To Mezirow, actual experience is not very important in extra linguistic awareness. In his model, ‘experience becomes conterminous with the meaning we give it’ (Yorks & Kasl, 2002 p.181).

David Boud provides the third perspective to pragmatism in adult education.

The author perceives experience to be the basis of all types of learning and not a different form of knowing. Along with his colleagues, the authors reject the notion that sensation is the same as experiences when they opine that “in our view, the idea of experience has within it judgment, thought and connectedness with our experience… it always comes with meaning’ (Boud, Cohen & Walker, 1993, p. 6).

Phenomenological view of experiential learning

In this view, experience is treated as a process and an encounter with the world. Heron has provided an insight into the phenomenological view on adult education when he argues that “Presences are presences and images are images. To interpret them in words and concepts, and then suppose that the interpretation is what really matters, to miss their point “(Heron. 1996, p. 185). According to Heron’s perspective, experience is an encounter. The author uses the term experience as a verb, and supports the perception that multiple ways of knowing must be balanced, ‘each with its own canon of validity and a theoretical distinction between feeling and emotion’ (Yorks & Kasl, 2002, p. 182).

Heron gave four modes: practical, imagination, affective and conceptual, each of which has two processes. The affective mode has emotion and feeling, imagination imagery and intuition, conceptual reflection and discrimination, while the practical mode has intention and action (Heron, 1996, p. 14-15). On the basis of the two perspectives, adult learning should be holistic. The affect mode plays an important part in adult learning as it deals with their emotions. When adult learners are comfortable and able to share their feelings freely, they learn better than when they are under tension due to fear and anxiety.

Cooperative inquiry is very important as it encourages participation in the process of learning. This methodology is based on the assumption that a human being is self-determining. A human being is a spiritual being and a distinct entity in the world. He or she has the capacity to be the cause of their own action and actualize this capacity to the achievement of self-development as well as education achievement (Heron, 1996, p.123).

External and internal barriers to experiential learning hinder the process of adult education (Boud & Walker, 1990, p. 80). Some of the barriers emanate from the learners’ perception, but they could diminish if the learner is helped. Other barriers are deep-rooted. In this case, the learner has learnt from experience and their perception is impaired. Such learners need to revisit their past experiences and examine them against their current experiences. Sometimes, it is not easy to deal with such barriers and a learner may need therapeutic help to enable him or her to overcome the barriers that impede their learning. Learners need to reflect on their past experiences and critically examine them to be able to overcome them and be in a position to learn (Boud, Cohen & Walker, 1993. p 80).

Kolb’s theory on experiential learning

The theory on experiential learning by Kolb and Fry (1975, p. 35) hinges upon four main aspects: observation and reflection, concrete experience, abstract concepts formation, and new situations testing. According to these two authors, any of these four points could be the starting point of the cycle of learning. The authors further opine that effective learning involves an individual possessing four diverse abilities, and these includes reflective observation abilities, concrete experience abilities, active experimentation abilities, and abstract conceptualization abilities. In addition, Kolb and Fry (1975, p. 35) contend that not many individuals are anywhere near these four diverse abilities. Accordingly, individuals have a tendency to become oriented towards a single pole of the aforementioned dimensions. The result of this is that individuals end up developing an inventory to a learning style.

The four fundamental aspects of the model of Kohl and Fry enabled these authors to connect these main aspects of their theory with different styles of learning, by associating these learning styles with various learning characteristics. For example, the converger style of learning, according to these authors, is characterized by active experimentation and abstract conceptualization. Another style of learning, diverger was associated with reflective observation and concrete experience. On the other hand, the assimilator learning style was characterized by reflective observation, and abstract conceptualization. Finally, the accommodator learning style was characterized by active experimentation, along with concrete experience.

It is the position of Kolb and Fry (1975, p. 36) that the process of learning usually starts with an individual undertaking a specific action with the intention of examining what shall be the result of the action in a given situation. There is the need to comprehend such effects in terms of the specific instance in order that in case similar actions were to be taken under similar circumstances, there could then be the possibility of expecting the results of such an action. With respect to experiential learning, generalizing could entail actions over different situations, with the intention of increasing experience past the specific instance, and provide general principles.

The sequence, as provided by Kolb and Fry (1975, p. 36) does not appear to offer the impression of the ability of scholars in adult education to articulate the principle through a medium that at best, can only be described as symbolic. The only implication here is that educators are in a position to draw an association between effects the one hand, and actions, on the other hand over situations that are quite diverse. The development of this model has enabled Kolb and Fry to challenges other learning models that are intent on lowering to a single learning dimension, like intelligence. Furthermore, the authors have also been able to identify weaknesses and strengths liked to the individual styles of learning.

Nonetheless, there are key fundamental issues that emerge from this experiential learning model. To start with, this model has not adequately addressed the issue of the effective process, as it relates to experiential learning. Secondly, there are a few authors (for example, Jarvis 1995, p. 23) who contend that the claims that these authors have made concerning the four divergent styles of learning are somewhat extravagant. Moreover, Anderson (1988, p. 16) argues that this model has not exhaustively addressed the various cultural experiences. The models are also faced with a sequence problem. In this case, the notion of no steps or stages is not in line with the thinking reality. Also, Jarvis (1995, p. 23) has argued that the experimental evidence that offers support to this particular model is somewhat weak based on a limited research base. Also, the model has only been assessed or tested by few studies. Moreover, the association between knowledge and the processes of learning, on the basis of this model, has also been argued as being problematic by Jarvis (1995, p. 23).

Jarvis theory on adult education and experiential learning

Jarvis (1995, p. 23) illustrates several responses that have a potential impact on the learning situation. Accordingly, the authors applied the model developed by Kobl on experiential learning to diverse groups of adults, and he requested that they assess this model on the basis of their experience as regards learning. Jarvis was then in a position to construct a model that made room for diverse avenues of addressing the issue of experiential learning. The learning process that Jarvis constructed highlighted several levels of outcome on the issue of experiential learning. Moreover, the learning process by Jarvis emphasise what has come to be regarded by educators as experiential leaning. The model of the learning process according to Jarvis provides an insight about how learning occurs. Further, it sheds light on the functional aspects that identifies the process of learning. Jarvis model has also attempted to emphasize the learning process, something that other types of models on adult learning have failed to address.

The learning process

The model by Peter Jarvis provides adult learning educators with a more insightful direction towards facilitating the opportunities for adult education learning. By applying Jarvis theory on experiential learning, educators in adult education gain further insights on the best way to accomplish learning, in addition to formulating hypotheses.

Case study

A research survey was carried out on a group of pharmaceutical students by Buge Apampa and Amandeep Rai, in 2009. The aim of this particular study was to assess how experiential learning impacts on graduates and students in pharmaceutical studies at Medway Foundation. Accordingly, it was the intention of the survey to explore the value that pharmaceutical education get from experiential learning. In light of this, the objectives of this study were to examine the perceptions held by organizers of placement programmes and students on experiential learning, to explore the level of satisfaction f students on the placement programmes, to determine the perceptions of students on how relevant experiential learning is in terms of their pharmaceutical care and professionalism development. Finally, this study wished to assess the potential barriers to sufficient learning opportunities provision.

The study employed a combined quantitative and qualitative research design. Following the approval by the university ethics committee, the researchers sent the information pack regarding the research to all the 121 respondents that had enrolled as the study subjects. Data collection was in the form of a semi-structured questionnaire that had been pre-piloted on the basis of 5-point Likertscale. The survey recorded a 44 percent response rate. The result of this study revealed that the placement organizers were confident that the clinical exposure to the pharmaceutical students was more of a learning style through experience.

On the other hand, the pharmaceutical students affirmed that experiential learning had helped them to obtain a higher level of insight with regard to a number of challenges and practical problems that the usually have to face in their profession. The study therefore revealed that the learning by experience to which the pharmaceutical students were exposed to in their profession, was highly regarded by these subjects. In addition the level of socialization of the students, from a professional perspective seemed to have greatly improved as a result of the experiential learning to which they were exposed to. 80 percent of those students that participated in this study affirmed that they would be more than willing to recommend to other students the placement site that they were currently attached to, and this signifies an overall level of satisfaction regarding experiential learning. On the other hand, preceptors indicated positive comment regarding the practice of learning through experience.


Not many scholars in adult education have explored the issue of facilitation in-depth. There is a lack of adequate discussion in literature on the most effective approaches to adult education. Group facilitation also lacks a uniform definition and this leads to insufficient capturing of its diversity and complexity. There is the need therefore to shift the learning process, and focus more on the students to find out whether they bring in their own experiences. If they are given the kind of learning that does not recognize their past experiences the process will not be effective (Thomas, 2006, p. 7). Further research needs to be done on the field of experiential learning. Practitioners and scholars needs to take time and study the field of adult education and how experiential learning has impacted on it.

Yalom and Leszcz (2005, p. 563) argues that in order to ensure that the available literature on experiential education is developed coherently, it must embrace credible, well executed and relevant methods. The different theories of learning are interrelated, with one theory building up on another. It is important to note that learning theories in adult education are learner-focused, meaning that adults, as learners, usually plays a significant role in the learning process. In this regard, self-directed learning theory demands that students take responsibility of their own learning. A form of learning that has been viewed as “Informal and incidental learning is at the heart of adult education because of its learner-centered focus and the lessons that can be learned from life experience (Marsick & Watkins, 2001, p.25).


As a concept in adult education, experiential learning has received the attention of various scholars for a long time. Scholars have also disagreed on diverse fundamental issues that impact on adult learning, even as they all endeavour to emphasise on the importance of a learner’s experiences. Theoretical implications of experiential learning have been viewed as somewhat elusive by adult education practitioners, prompting them to view experiential learning as more of a promise, as opposed to a reality. Experiential learning is based on a learner’s experience. This form of learning is significant in adult education since adults have vast experiences that they bring to any learning situation that they might encounter. Experiential learning theory is holistic and becomes more effective during an intrinsic learning process. The gain in popularity of adult education means that learning facilitators in adult education require further training to enable them to facilitate learning in such a manner as to ensure that the learning experiences become meaningful. Desirable results in adult education can only be attained through effective facilitation.


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