The Experiential Learning Cycle is a valuable tool for adventure education. While learning springs from experiences, the lessons do not emerge fully formed into the learner's mind. Indeed, without any processing, an experience would have no effect upon the participant, would simply pass like the world flowing by outside the windows of an automobile. But, when reviewed and considered, experiences can bring home the most powerful of lessons. An Experiential Learning Cycle provides a framework for guiding learning from experience.
The 4-Stage Experiential Learning Cycle:
The most noteworthy Experiential Learning Cycle is the 4-stage model developed by David A. Kolb:
After  doing and experiencing something, a learner  reviews what happened in this specific case,  considers what this means for other situations, then  puts these conclusions to the test in reality.
These stages may be succinctly and memorably labeled as follows:
Facilitating an Experience Using The ELC
Experience: The DO IT. stage is the experience, which could be an intentional activity or it could be an unexpected event or a full workshop – any life experience that can be processed to extract meaning and wisdom.
Often participants will spontaneously engage in post-processing - we are, after all, learning machines. But, without guidance, the discussion is likely to be disorganized and aimless. The adventure learning facilitator can use the ELC model to guide participants through stages of effective learning.
Reflection: At the What? stage, debrief participants and get them to describe what happened. The type of statements you're looking for are:
"When Jason moved he accidently crossed the line."
"Everyone was talking at once until Sue took over."
"We took more time at first than we did the second time through."
Generalization: Then move onto the So What? stage and ask participants what this might mean in other circumstances. Statements like these fit this stage:
"If we leave extra space then it's less likely that someone will get pushed across the line."
"Only one person should talk at a time."
"Once a person finishes they can head back and save time."
Transfer: Finally, at the Now What? stage, participants are asked to apply their learning's to real world situations. They may have that opportunity in another team-building activity. Or you might ask participants to be specific about how they'll take their learning back to their home and workplace. E.g.,
"We should paint a yellow border around the pool to help prevent people from falling in."
"In our planning meetings, let's use a talking stick to ensure only one speaker at a time."
More Than Simply a Debriefing Tool
Beyond its application as a post-processing tool, the Experiential Learning Cycle may be used to help design activities by making decisions about how much time is required, where and how the post-processing will take place, and the activities with which to follow-up.
Note that the ELC is always in your toolbox for whatever happens that may contain valuable lessons for those involved. Using the ELC can help with mundane tasks like setting up a tent or life-changing experiences like a tragedy or emergency situation just as much as it can help with pre-designed teaching activities.
One of the most powerful aspects of the Experiential Learning Cycle is that, once participants are aware of it, it becomes a skill that they own. In other words, you not only help them learn from their specific experiences, but you help them learn how to learn from the experiences that make up the rest of their lives.
Other Experiential Learning Cycles
While Kolb's is arguably the best known and most widely utilized ELC, there are others with their advantages and disadvantages. In 450 BC, Confucius extolled "Involve me, and I will understand", thus suggesting a 1-stage process. The 2-stage model (Experience - Reflection) has been used by Outward Bound and suggests that simply reviewing an experience is sufficient to extract meaning from it. More likely, the reflection stage includes elements of analysis and extrapolation, which are included in their own stages in other models. Moreover, it is likely that individuals are prompted by the act of reflection to engage in their own natural processes of analysis and extrapolation.
The following 3-stage model is easy to explain and easy to grasp. Also, the Kolb model can be needlessly wordy and complex (it has been boiled down to its simplest form above). For many circumstances, this 3-stage model may be best.
Beyond these there are many other ELC models ranging from 2 to 6 stages, and perhaps more, which I will not get in to.
But Is This Really How We Learn?
No. Experiential Learning Cycle models are simplistic and, like all such models, cannot fully capture the complexities of human behavior.
People naturally jump around from stage to stage within the cycles and can process 2 or more stages at the same time. Moreover there are processes occurring within people's minds that are not adequately described by an ELC model.
The empirical data underpinning Kolb's ELC model is weak. And the model takes a western culture perspective; there are critiques that the model does not fit well with eastern cultures.
Besides that, there are situations where didactic or rote learning approaches lead to better outcomes for imparting knowledge. It's simply not possible to induce all types and all areas of learning via constructivist experience methods.
Notwithstanding these limitations, ELC models have brought a great deal of positive value to experiential learning.
Value of Experiential Learning Models
The insight that is contained within Experiential Learning Cycle models, while not a perfect representation of human learning, is still a great aid to educators. By the very simplification of complex human learning, an ELC makes the process accessible. Thus strategies may be devised for effectively guiding learning.
An Experiential Learning Cycle gives a framework for processing concrete, here and now experiences, which can powerfully affect a learner. ELC techniques may be applied in the wilderness, a classroom, or wherever relevant experiences occur. These techniques are applicable to a wide variety of content areas, from human behavior and communication to natural history and the environment and more.
Listening and observing through the filter of an Experiential Learning Cycle reveals much about others. Educators may gain insights about their students by discerning the stages at which they operate (one is always doing things and talking about actions, while another watches and makes predictions - different stages of the ELC). Virtually any conversation may be broken down into statements that fit at different stages of an ELC, thereby revealing much about the speakers and about the import of the discussion.
Experiential Learning Cycle models have been widely adopted and are used throughout adventure education and other training environments. They provide structure and direction to experiential activities, and they give facilitators and participants a common vocabulary for discussing their work together. By applying an ELC, a teacher may ensure that each stage of processing receives adequate attention and that a variety of learning styles are promoted.