Kolb Reflective Model

Kolb Reflective Cycle: A Description and Evaluation

Humans have been involved in the practice of reflection for millennia; as far back as 460 BC, Confucius wrote about the power of reflective practice for enhancing the human condition (DunnGalvin et al., 2019). However, in modern times, one of the most influential proponents of reflective practice has been David Kolb (Dennison, 2009). Indeed, Kolb’s learning theory (1984) states that reflective practice is necessary to facilitate genuine learning and development. To explore this theory in more detail, this page will begin by describing Kolb’s (1984) reflective cycle, particularly as it relates to nursing practice. Thereafter, it critically evaluates Kolb’s theory and concludes by providing an example of how to apply Kolb’s reflective cycle when writing a reflective report.

What is Kolb’s model of reflection?

To understand Kolb’s model of reflection, it is first necessary to understand how Kolb viewed the process of learning and development. Like Piaget (1969), Kolb considered learning to be experiential and largely self-driven. Or, in his words. “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984, p. 38). Moreover, Kolb (1984) argued that it is our ability to actively reflect on our experiences which facilitates our learning and development. Thus, it can be said that Kolb’s theory is an experiential learning theory which prioritises the importance of reflection (Dennison, 2009).

According to Turesky and Wood (2010), Kolb’s theory was similar to previous thinkers’ such as Piaget, Dewey, and Lewin, because these theorists “also believed that the heart of learning lies in the way we process experience, in particular, our critical reflections on experiences and the meanings we draw from them” (p.121). Kolb - along with Piaget and Dewey - have been attributed for promoting “learner-centred pedagogy” as opposed to teacher-led education, thus Kolb’s model of reflection has been important for helping to reshape the dynamics of modern education (Dennison, 2009, n.p.).

Kolb’s (1984) model assumes that there are four stages to the experiential learning cycle (see below). The cycle begins with a ‘concrete learning experience’, and then moves on to the ‘reflection’ stage. Conceptualisation is then used to catalyse the reflective process, and insights are used to formulate ‘active experimentation’.

Kolb’s model of learning

Kolb Model Of Learning

Source: The Department of Health, 2004

According to Kolb (1984), the four stages are interrelated via a clockwise pattern, with each stage feeding into the next. Learning is, therefore, a multi-stage and somewhat predictable process (Kolb & Kolb, 2017). When used as a reflective model, it is common for users to write down their responses to each of the four stages (Heron, 1992), as will be explained later in this essay.

Why use the Kolb reflective model?

As mentioned, Kolb’s reflective model helps to facilitate learning, hence the main reason for employing this model is to facilitate personal and/or professional development and avoid remaining stagnant (Dennison, 2009). Any model of reflection can be used to facilitate personal or professional growth, primarily because ‘reflection’ places the user in the ‘driving seat’ and encourages them to facilitate their own development (DunnGalvin et al., 2019). Thus, ‘reflection’ in general is seen as an empowering and sustainable form of learning (Mantzourani et al., 2019). However, Kolb’s reflective model has some unique strengths. Namely, the 4-stage model helps users to appreciate the links between experiences, feelings, thoughts, and behaviours – thus providing a holistic appreciation of the learning experience (Kolb & Kolb, 2017). In this way, Kolb’s reflective model is reminiscent of the concepts implicit to cognitive behavioural therapy (Brooks, 2019). Additionally, Kolb’s model encourages users to take an in-depth, detailed, and typically retrospective assessment of their cognitions and behaviours for the purposes of self-development. This means that it can be a particularly effective model for people who are being introduced to reflective practice for the first time since it does not necessarily require the user to reflect whilst ‘in action’ (Turesky & Wood, 2010). Rather, the learner can take the time to reflect upon their experiences retrospectively and without feeling rushed.

What fields use the Kolb reflective cycle?

Various fields of study use Kolb’s reflective cycle, though it is mostly used in careers which require formal continuing professional development (CPD) such as teaching and healthcare (Turesky & Wood, 2010). In addition, those working in ‘vocational’ or ‘entrepreneurial’ careers are likely to develop an affinity with Kolb’s reflective cycle as it “advocates learning by experience” - something which these people will already be accustomed to (Dennison, 2009, n.p.). Indeed, Kolb’s framework can be useful for learners who are already highly motivated but are looking for a model to guide their learning and development.

Kolb’s model of reflection in nursing practice

As mentioned, reflective practice is a common feature of the healthcare professions. Indeed, in 2019, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) released a statement advising that, to be registered, all nursing practitioners should be involved in regular reflective practice. Whilst following Kolb’s model is not an NMC requirement, many nursing programmes do teach Kolb’s theory as a method for reflection, hence it is generally considered to be a valuable model (Mantzourani et al., 2019). It can be said that healthcare providers have an ethical and legal imperative to ensure that nursing practitioners engage in reflective practice since this will help to “foster improvements in practice and services”, and ensure that the public receives the best level of care possible (NMC, 2019, n.p.).

Why is Kolb a good reflective model?

Kolb’s model of reflective practice has been a seminal and highly influential theory. Despite its influence, there has been some criticism levied towards this model (Heron, 1992), as will be explored in the next section. Nevertheless, generally speaking, Kolb’s model is good because it places emphasis on slow, thoughtful and precise reflection. Moreover, due to its individualistic focus, it empowers users to feel confident in their ability to ‘manage’ their own development (Dennison, 2009).

Kolb model of reflection pros and cons

As mentioned, there are both strengths and weaknesses associated with this model, as summarised in the table below.

Positives

Negatives

It is empowering and satisfying because it places the learner at the centre of their development – This was quite unique in the 1980s as pedagogy was more teacher-led during this time (Dennison, 2009).

Reflective models (particularly the more detailed ones such as Kolb’s) can place emotional strain on the user if they are not supported by a leader or peer (UOL, 2018).

It can be used with any type of ‘concrete experience’ so can be used to reflect on personal or professional experiences.

This model does not acknowledge the role of unrequested peer feedback. Moreover, the reflection process itself is quite individualistic in focus (it does not require the learner to ask for others’ feedback); thus, the results could be too one-sided.

It can be used to develop emotional intelligence and resilience more generally (DunnGalvin et al., 2019).

It does not acknowledge the potential for cultural factors or gender differences (Heron, 1992).

It helps to identify “gaps in skills and attitudes and facilitate CPD” (NMC, 2019).

Kolb did not provide a detailed account of how to conduct the reflective process (Heron, 1992), though subsequent studies by other authors have provided detailed advice and guidance (The Department for Health, 2005: UOL, 2018).

It highlights the link between experiences, feelings, thoughts, and behaviours – it provides a holistic overview of the learning process and helps users to understand the links.

It has been argued that the four-stage approach is too simplistic and is not representative of human cognition (Heron, 1992), though I would argue that the model does provide a holistic and convincing account of the relationship between experiences, feelings, thoughts, and behaviours – in a similar way to CBT (Brooks, 2019).

It encourages in-depth and considerate self-reflection (because the reflective process takes quite a lot of time to complete).

There are some empirical studies supporting the value of reflective practice, but not many supporting the value of Kolb’s model specifically (Dennison, 2009).

How do you write a reflection using the Kolb model?

As mentioned, when utilising Kolb’s model, it is typical for learners to write down their responses to the four stages. A template for achieving this is provided in the following section. Generally speaking, it is advisable for learners to take regular breaks and not rush the reflective process (UOL, 2018). Moreover, it is typically necessary to anonymise the details of others, particularly if working in the capacity of a nurse or other practitioner where patient confidentiality is a compliance requirement (NMC, 2019).

Kolb’s model of reflection template

Below, a template for completing Kolb’s model of reflection is provided. The column on the right indicates questions to ask or activities to try at each stage of the reflective cycle.

Stage

Focus

Questions to ask/Activities to try

Experience

Sensing and feeling

What happened?

What went right/wrong?

Reflection

Watching and reflecting

How did this experience make me feel? How might this experience have affected others?

How did this experience compare to other similar experiences?

Take regular tea/coffee breaks and discuss with peers (see OUL, 2018).

Conceptualisation

Thinking

Why might it have happened this way?

What might have happened if I had have behaved differently?

What could be the reason for this outcome?

Consider theories or concepts relevant to the situation/context (OUL, 2018).

Active experimentation

Doing behaving

If my behaviour led to a negative experience, what will I try to do next time to facilitate a more positive outcome?

What skills might I need to develop in the future and how will I obtain these?

Take a look at case studies for inspiration of how to change one’s behaviour (see UOL, 2018).

If reflecting on a positive experience, how will I ensure that I create similar positive outcomes in the future?

Kolb reflective cycle example

Perhaps the most effective way to demonstrate Kolb’s reflective model is to provide an example. In figure 4, an example of a nurse’s reflective cycle is presented. In the example, the nurse reflects on the ‘concrete experience’ of providing care to one of their patients who has dementia. In the example, the nurse noticed their patient looked solemn and decided to reflect upon why this might be. At the ‘reflective’ stage of the model, the nurse recognised that they felt stressed and overworked that day, and so probably rushed the patient’s bed bath. Then, at the conceptualisation stage, they recognised that this had probably led to the patient’s low mood, as the patient may have felt overlooked and unimportant. Taking into account the NMC’s (2019) guidelines for patient-centred care, the nurse plans, at the ‘experimentation’ stage, to take a calmer approach during their next encounter with the patient and invite them to take an active role in washing themselves (as far as they are capable).

An example of Kolb’s reflective model (self-developed)

Kolbs Reflective Model

How do you cite Kolb’s reflective cycle?

When applying Kolb’s reflective model, it is important to cite this correctly. Kolb first proposed his 4-stage theory of experiential learning in a book published in 1984. The full reference for this book is provided below and should be placed in the reference list of any reflective report.

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

It is important to remember that Kolb’s model has been developed over the years, both by himself (Kolb & Kolb, 2017) and other theorists. Thus, if engaging with newer material, this should be cited accordingly.

In conclusion

This article has described and evaluated Kolb’s reflective model. It began by situating the importance of reflection within the broader learning cycle, to show how Kolb saw reflective practice as a necessary pre-requisite for genuine development. The essay then proceeded to explain the importance of reflective practice for certain professions, particularly nursing. Finally, a template for completing Kolb’s reflective cycle and an example were provided. In general, it is evident to see how reflective practice empowers learners. More particularly, it is evident to see how Kolb’s model encourages learners to adopt a thorough and carefully considered reflective approach.

References

Brooks, M. (2019). The importance of using reflective practice when working with refugees, asylum seekers and survivors of torture within IAPT. The Cognitive Behaviour Therapist, 12(1).

Dennison, P. (2009) Reflective practice: The enduring influence of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory. Compass: Journal of Teaching and Learning, 1(1).

DunnGalvin, A., Cooper, J., Shorten, G. & Blum, R. (2019). Applied reflective practice in medicine and anaesthesiology. British Journal of Anaesthesia, 122(5), 536-541.

Heron, J. (1992). Feeling and Personhood: Psychology in another key. London: Sage

Kolb, D (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. (2017). The Experiential Educator: Principles and Practices of Experenital Learning. US: EBLS Press.

Piaget, J. (1969/18). The Psychology of the Child. London: Basic Books.

Mantzourani, E., Desselle, S., Le, J., Lonie, J. & Lucas, C. (2019). The role of reflective practice in healthcare professions: Next steps for pharmacy education and practice. Research in Social and Administrative Pharmacy, 15(12), 1476-1479.

NMC (2019). Regulators unite to support reflective practice across health and care. [Online]. Available at: https://www.nmc.org.uk/news/press-releases/joint-statement-reflective-practice/ [Accessed 15 July 2020].

Slade, M., Burnham, T., Catalana, S. & Walters, T. (2019). The impact of reflective practice on teacher candidates’ learning. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 13(2).

The Department of Health (2004). The cycle of learning. [Online] Available at: https://www1.health.gov.au/internet/publications/publishing.nsf/Content/drugtreat-pubs-front1-wk-toc~drugtreat-pubs-front1-wk-secb~drugtreat-pubs-front1-wk-secb-2~drugtreat-pubs-front1-wk-secb-2-4 [Accessed 15 July 2020].

Turesky, E. & Wood, D. (2010). Kolb’s experiential learning as a critical frame for reflective practice. Academic Leadership: The Online Journal, 8(3), 118-131.

UOL (2018). David Kolb. [Online] Available at: https://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/doctoralcollege/training/eresources/teaching/theories/kolb [Accessed 18 July 2020].

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