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Applying the theory of experiential learning to textbook writing

Alice Kolb
Alice Kolb is an Adjunct Professor of Organizational Behavior at the Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University. She has also written extensively about experiential learning. Learn more about Experience Based Learning Systems, Inc.

Experiential learning, a four-stage cycle that accommodates four distinct types of learners, is the ideal way for people to learn. While each person will prefer one part of the cycle over others, it is important for educators to guide their students through each stage in order to achieve the best possible learning experience.

According to Dr. Alice Kolb, president of Experience Based Learning Systems, Inc., textbook authors can use the following ideas to incorporate all four stages of the experiential learning cycle and maximize the educational potential of their books:

First Stage: Concrete Experience. Vignettes or quotes can help students identify with the content of a chapter, or you can provide introductory exercises to give students an initial experience with your topic.

Second Stage: Reflective Observation. Ask students about what they think or feel about a topic to get them thinking about what the content of your chapter means to them.

Third Stage: Abstract Conceptualization. The heavy duty content of a chapter provides the students with new information that they can link to their previous experiences and observations.

Fourth Stage: Active Experimentation. Provide case studies and exercises aimed at getting the students to apply the information in the chapter to their own lives.

Kolb stressed that writers can work each stage of the learning cycle into a chapter in whichever order best fits their writing style: “There is no one way to do it. The learning cycle is not a template—you don’t have to always start with concrete experience and then go through the stages in order.”

For example, a writer could begin with abstract conceptualization by introducing content first, she said, then offer case studies to engage the reader in active experimentation. The application of those concepts in the students’ real lives during the active experimentation stage will also serve as a concrete experience, thus starting the cycle of experiential learning anew.

“In a textbook, if you offer all four elements in any combination and shape it will be more effective than offering just one stage,” Kolb said. “Since textbooks are academic, they are usually rich in terms of content, which I think is very important, but they may risk losing learners who want real experience. An active learner needs to do something actively with an idea, so it’s good to have case studies or exercises so that they can do something with the ideas you present.”