ELC, or the Art of Experiential Learning

What is your reflective cycle like?

What is your reflective cycle like?

I could also call this post something like this: ‘Brief overview of the experiential learning cycle (ELC)’, or ‘using the experiential learning cycle in teacher training and professional development’, or … Well, I see that the titles can get longer and less attractive, whereas my goal for sharing these notes is quite simple.

Earlier this month I joined John Pfordresher’ Reflective Practice Challenges on his blog. If you would like to learn more about it, or even better, to join in, please read the latest post here and check other links

I really enjoyed sharing my reflective practice mission statement and I was really grateful for the comments and thoughts in response.

A couple of comments were asking to share more about the ELC and how it can be used for teacher reflection process. The other motivation to write about it came from Kevin Stein in his Reflective Practice Mission Statement post. He wrote in inspiration from and with reference to Kathleen Bailey’s amazing article ‘Reflective Teaching: Situating our Stories’ (hint: if you read his post you find the link to this article, as well as many more useful reading sources on this subject)

Kevin’s post helped me to find John Fanselow’s words: “Each event we see can be interpreted in ways different from our usual ways of doing it because we are each limited by the ideas of reality we have.”  

I have been using the ELC in teacher training since 2006. My understanding of how helpful the cycle is in making the reflective process structured and deliberate has also evolved in these years. In this post I would like to share some thoughts about the cycle and how I see it, and I will start doing it by looking at some models of the reflective process I am aware of. Please note that this is not an attempt of any kind of academic research. Instead of this, it is a step towards widening my ‘reality’ of using the ELC and clarifying what the cycle is and is not for myself.

The first three models below were taken from The Power of Experiential Learning by C. Beard and J.P. Wilson.


John Dewey’s Learning Process

The Cycle evolved: it all started from this simple three-stage model of a learning process.

Kurt Lewin's Feedback Process

Kurt Lewin’s Feedback Process

The four-stage model of feedback , where each section is a little more clarified.

David Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle

David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

We then come to Kolb’s model where the stages of the Cycle have a little more ‘user-friendly’ names and look a little more clear in terms of what exactly is happening in each stage.

Now, Carol Rodgers with her four-phase reflective cycle says that it ‘can help teachers better attend to student learning’

Carol Rodgers' Teacher Reflective Cycle

Carol Rodgers’ Teacher Reflective Cycle

More: the link to the complete article ‘Voices inside Schools. Seeing Student Learning: Teacher Change and the Role of Reflection‘ can be found in Josette LeBlanc’s excellent blog post (as well as one more article by Carol R. Rodgers)

You might be wondering what I am trying to say (or to do) with all the models mentioned above. The answer is: I am sharing the cycle I am using on teacher training courses and in helping teachers with their professional development online and face-to-face, and this is a model which looks like this:

My reflective cycle

My reflective cycle

Note: World Learning SIT TESOL Certificate Course Trainers have been using this model on their courses, and I internalized the model for the trainings I facilitate.

How it is similar to the other cycles (two main things)

  • has 4 stages
  • has description, interpretation and future plan (which could be referred to as ‘What? – So What? – Now What? simplistic model)

How it is different from the other cycles

  • the experience itself is not a part of the cycle (I start with its description because we often choose what to reflect on from the whole experience we had as opposed to looking back at everything in a lesson, for example)
  • the ‘interpretation‘ stage is divided into two, and that’s why I have Analysis of the actual moment and how helpful or not helpful it was the student learning in that concrete lesson, etc. and Generalization, where beliefs (or theories, or values) are articulated,  based on the previous stages of the Cycle.

Well, this is the end of my brief overview. I would really like to ask the readers to share any other sources, links, websites, articles and opinions about this subject. I am planning a couple more posts about ELC and really need your feedback and comments. One of them is about various questions about the ELC and how to use it during a feedback session on an intensive teacher training course, the other(s) about each stage of the Cycle and how to distinguish one from the other, and a couple more personal reflections on what magic the ELC can do to our teaching and learning. 

Finally, my question to you: If you are already using the ELC, what is your reflective cycle like? If you are not using it (yet), what would it be like? 

Thank you for reading!

About Zhenya

ELT: teacher educator, trainer coach, reflective practice addict https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/
This entry was posted in Reflective Practice and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

27 Responses to ELC, or the Art of Experiential Learning

  1. Hana Tichá says:

    Thanks for this post, Zhenya. It’s really useful to see all the graphs in one place. It shows that there’s not just one ‘correct’ way of doing things. We all have our unique ELCs and the process of reflection is quite flexible. My reflective cycle would probably include planning as well. The cycle would then go planning>experience>reflection (in the form of description and analysis)>planning>etc. But I’m a novice in this field so I might well change my mind tomorrow 🙂


  2. Zhenya says:

    Hi Hana

    First of all, thank you for visiting, reading and leaving your comment. Actually, I was waiting for it! 🙂 I like what you said about planning: putting it simple, it means that through reflection on one lesson today we plan a better lesson tomorrow. The way I perceive the ELC I am using is that the planning aspect is already a part of the cycle. Rogers called it ‘experimenting’, or ‘planning for intelligent action’ and Kolb called it ”applying or testing’ (meaning the theory we come up with in the previous stage of the cycle)

    Wow, I love this discussion and clarifying it to myself more and more! Thank you once again for reading and sharing Hana! 🙂


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  4. wilmaluth2013 says:

    Zhenya – thanks so much for this post! It will be very useful as I keep working on my own writing project about reflective practice. 🙂 The visual of Kolb’s ELC came at just the right time as I’ve been thinking through what we’re doing in each stage & what each stage does or does not have in common with the others. As you know my ELC is pretty much the same (in other words, “exactly the same”) as yours and it’s been such a practical and helpful tool for reflecting on my teaching and training. Now I’m thinking about Dewey’s three stages “observation – knowledge – judgment” and how that would work. What would the questions be for each stage? How would “judgment” lead to another experience? Very intriguing!


    • Wilma Luth says:

      Also, here’s a link to a really nice pdf of Kolb’s learning styles (not sure I’d call it “learning styles” but that’s what the site where this is from calls it).


      • Zhenya says:

        Wilma, thank you so much for reading and leaving your thoughtful comment (and link!). I love your question about Dewey’s “observation – knowledge – judgment” and how those stages correlate to the four-stage cycle, and also how the name of the process impacts the stages (from the learning process to feedback process and to reflective cycle, etc. On the diagram you added it is interesting to see the ‘concrete experience’ stage with ‘feelings’. A lot of thinking is coming I guess! Good luck with the writing project you mentioned! (looking forward to learning more about how it goes!)


        • Josette says:

          I was starting to feel bad that I was taking so long to respond to this post, but with all the juicy comments, I can see that this is the perfect time.

          First of all, Zhenya, thank you so much for creating a clear (visual) map of the different interpretations of the cycle. Like Wilma, this will be very helpful for my future explorations into the ELC. I also think that it will be incredibly valuable during the rest of the RP Challenge. The “go-to” blog post if you will.

          After checking out Wilma’s link, and then reading your reply, I was also wondering about Kolb’s perspective on “feelings” and so I did a little research and found this http://www.simplypsychology.org/learning-kolb.html His use of the cycle to explore learning styles is intriguing and I am now on a mission to learn more about the diverging, assimilating, and converging, accommodating styles he categorizes. I am curious to know how this might connect to the emergent model of the ELC I’m pondering. For example, if we are a “diverging” learner, we might come to the ELC from a strong feelings based perspective. For this learner, the affective environment might be the moment they choose to focus on. On the other hand, an “assimilating” learner may come to the moment from a “I need to understand the practical workings of this moment”. Very exciting stuff!

          Wilma’s link also made me think of a fun, interactive flash of the Kolb cycle a found a few years back http://www.ldu.leeds.ac.uk/ldu/sddu_multimedia/kolb/kolb_flash.htm

          I have more to share in the other comments. 🙂


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  6. kevchanwow says:

    Hi Zhenya,

    What a fantastic post. It’s so rich. Just a few things that got me all tingly and geekily excited:

    – My understanding of how helpful [ELC] is in making the reflective process structured and deliberate.

    I think this is something I often forget about when I get caught up in reflecting on a class (or an activity). Reflective practices take shape over a long period of time and giving that process shape in order for it to shape our teaching means placing it withing the bigger picture of what I am doing. ELC is a great way to make sure this actually happens.

    – “which could be referred to as ‘What? – So What? – Now What?”

    I love it when teachers take the time to translate kind of vague concepts into the language of the everyday. And this is one of the best translations of ELC ever.

    -“I start with its description because we often choose what to reflect on from the whole experience we had as opposed to looking back at everything in a lesson, for example”

    This, for me, is key. Every time we chose to look at something in class, we are also chosing to not look at something else. I think setting up your ELC so the importance of how and what we select to look at is just fantastic.

    And actually, one thing I often do when engaging in RP with my friends is look at a lesson and then, a few weeks later go over and look at the same lesson again. If anything, for me RP is about making the space to engage in multiple interpritations of what happened in a class. Looking at a class from various angles allows me to come up with a wide range of alternatives when planning actions for the future. The idea that I pick what to look at makes going back and look at the same lesson again even more valuable.

    Thanks for mentioning my post and for your blog in general. It’s really helped me understand my own teaching practices more fully.



  7. Zhenya says:

    Kevin, thank you for reading and joining the discussion with such a thoughtful and detailed comment. I smiled when I read about being ‘caught’ in the reflective process, because I could identify with it so well myself. Even being aware of the ELC and the importance of ‘structured’ deliberate reflection I can still get ‘stuck’ in one stage, for example. I think I saw a definition of ‘rigorous’ reflection as ‘shared in a community’ (can’t remember the source; what I am trying to say that is perhaps reflecting with someone can help to ‘get out of the circle’ and use it as a cycle?

    As for the ‘What? – So What? – Now What?” translation: I kind of like it (because it is so simple) and then I kind of don’t (because it seems to be too simple) I like to use it before a training course, for example, or as a marketing tool to explain how one the course which uses the Cycle is different from the one that does not [a note to myself: write more about it one day]. It works especially well if we talk about a pre-service training for people who have never worked as teachers before. Now, if I think about teachers with experience who would like to develop their reflective skills, etc. – then I would not us the translation. The major reason to me is that it only shows three stages, not four of the ELC. I wonder if this is purely the question of perception and semantics?

    Also, I would like to remember your sentence: Every time we chose to look at something in class, we are also choosing to not look at something else. – This is so well-said! I think even defining the ‘moment’ and deciding where one ‘piece’ to reflect on starts and finishes can be a very interesting process, not to say how each of them impacts student learning. Wow, so much to think about.

    Finally, the way to re-approach the same piece, or moment in a few weeks after the ‘hot’ reflection and look at it again (reflect ‘coldly’?) makes so much sense. Interestingly, things that seemed ‘right’ or ‘relevant’ might be changed, or confirmed, or new lenses emerge. Well, this makes the ELC the ‘cycle’, not the ‘circle’ – and it never ends? 🙂

    Thank you once again for the comment which made me think more and more. I am still in the process of drafting my comment to your post about Communicative Language Activities. I enjoy both the title, the post and the discussion that follows. So much to learn about teaching and writing for me! 🙂



    • Ron Bradley says:

      Thank you, Zhenya, for this blog. I had written a fairly lengthy reply only to lose the whole thing. So instead of trying to recreate it, I will use the experience to illustrate the points I was trying to make, using the ELC.

      I read Zhenya’s blog about the ELC and was interested to see the various versions. I then read all of the replies with great interest and especially a point that Kevin made, “Every time we choose to look at something in class, we are also choosing to not look at something else.” The points I was addressing in my original reply concerned the nature of the language in each stage, the need for student evidence to support our conclusions, and the need to address a significant moment in the lesson. I had finished my response, but I wanted to insert something from one of my saved websites. I highlighted and copied the item and then hit the X at the top to delete the page. When I tried to find this blog and my original post, it was gone. I subsequently realized after some experimentation and frustration (no expletives) that I should have hit the back arrow to get back to this reply.

      It appears that my failure to re-access this blog and my reply was due to ignorance of the process. Perhaps if I had looked at the options for getting back, I might not have hit the X and deleted everything. Since I had had no previous experience it seems I had to go through this before learning to appropriate process.

      When accessing another website for the purpose of copying and pasting and item into a response in this blog, be sure to hit the back arrow and not the delete X to get back to your reply.

      Plan for Future Action:
      The next time I respond to this blog and want to insert an item from another website, I will hit the back arrow to return to my reply.


      So this was a significant moment for me. I suppose the downside for the potential reader, is that they (you) didn’t get to (maybe have to) read my original. Some of the things to notice: The Description is totally objective, without analysis or interpretation. It is detailed, providing enough information about the experience to next analyze. It is in the past tense. If this were a moment in a lesson, I would need to include student behavior as evidence of success or failure. The Analysis is just that–exploring reasons for the success or failure and positing possible solutions. The Generalization is a statement of “fact”, to be tried out in the future, and it is in the present tense. The Plan for Future Action is in the future “will” and is not wishy washy–“I hope to…”. “I will try…”, but “I will…”. It is in the future tense. The theme is consistent and focused and does not diverge into other moments. Is is detailed enough to provide a SMART objective to be tried out the next time. The time shift from past to present to future is significant. If we do not move to the future we will be stuck in the past.



      • Zhenya says:

        Dear Ron,

        I was so impressed to read your comment (and appreciate it even more knowing that you had to re-write the whole thing once again!) Thank you for doing it! (I am still curious about this one though: I wanted to insert something from one of my saved websites. – would love to read about it!)

        The second thing that impressed me was the format of your comment and how it reflected the Cycle you are using (and can clearly see the stages, which look very similar to those I use 🙂

        The third (and your main!) point about the language that can help us reflect using the ELC at each stage. I agree with the language you mention in general, however, would like to think a little more about the Generalization step. You wrote: The Generalization is a statement of “fact”, to be tried out in the future, and it is in the present tense. – I guess the similarity to me would be using the Present Tense here, and the difference would be to call it ‘belief’, not a ‘fact’. Let me explain why: to me, the reflective cycle is about thinking process after teaching a lesson, and the Generalization stage is a moment to think about a ‘bigger picture’ and state a belief, or form a (little?) theory about something. For example, the one above could be something like ‘ When writing a comment on a blog it is important to have a back up of a text, especially using several sites for quoting and linking’ and then the ‘back button’ idea can be one action point for the future. What do you think? Does the fact/belief difference make sense to you, or I misunderstood your point?

        And the other interesting question to me think about is this one: do action plans in the reflective Cycle need to be SMART? Coincidentally, one colleague asked me this very question about a week ago and I could not give any better answer than ‘I believe this is a good idea’ Do you (or anyone) know a source that could help me with this answer?

        Thank you for writing, using the cycle, and reflecting on it. Most importantly, thank you for reading!

        P.S. I might be totally wrong and old-fashioned but I sometimes type my comments and responses in a google mailbox, then hit spellcheck, and then post. Helps me save the text if I do something wrong (and…, well, I often say thank you to myself for this! 🙂 )


        • Ron Bradley says:

          Zhenya, as usual, your responses and questions are very thoughtful–both meanings (thought provoking and kind.) I somehow knew that when I wrote “fact” is would raise a question, and I am glad it did. Maybe this is cultural, but when put in quotes, the absoluteness of the word is many times meant to be taken lightly or as a grain of salt–os not necessarily an undeniable fact, like the sun will come up tomorrow. But we could also argue that the Generalization(s) coming from the experience, and even possibly experts in the field, should be at least informed. “Belief” to me can border either on the side of having strong evidence or only opinion. I think that generalizations should tip more toward strong evidence worth pursuing and experimenting with in the future. So for training purposes, I have to agree with your questioning–fact is too absolute.

          I do really like how you have reworded the Generalizations and have chosen one significant piece to act upon.

          As for the Plan of Action, yes, I feel strongly the it should be SMART. For me it needs to be something that I can measured the next time I write a blog. If I just say, “I will do a better job the next time I write a blog”, there is nothing to give me direction or anything to ELC the next time. I have seen participants, after their directions failed miserably, say, “I will give better directions.” And I will comment, “what exactly will you do to make them better?

          I am trying to remember what I said I wanted to insert, but I will send you my sample reflective cycle that will illustrated what I mean by SMART plan of action. I felt honored when Lois used it for the Algerian educators.


    • Josette says:

      Dear Kevin and Zhenya,

      I’m learning so much! Thank you for the in depth exploration of the cycle. It has brought back a lot of memories of the reading and writing I’ve done in recent years.

      Zhenya, I think the article you are referring to in relation to “community” and “rigorous” is this Carol Rodgers article about Dewey http://www.jcu.edu/education/ed100/Rodgers,%20C.%20(2002).%20Defining%20Reflection%20Another%20Look%20at%20John%20Dewey%20and%20Reflective%20Thinking.%20Teachers%20College%20Record,%20104(4),%20842-866..pdf Am I right?

      I really liked the way you defined how you use the What? So What? Now What? model. I never articulated it that way, but I agree that it’s a great entry point for people new to the cycle. In fact I used it many times when I gave presentations on it. And this discussion also made me think of a series I did years back where I used it for my blogging audience (pre PLN era 😉 ) I was attempting to connect the ELC and Nonviolent Communication (NVC). I need to revisit it again to see if my thoughts have changed. Here is the post http://wp.me/pE2zk-jC It links to the other posts in the series.

      I’d like to respond to Ron’s comments now. I’ll have to come to them later.

      Thank you again for the food for thought!


  8. Zhenya says:

    Dear Ron and Josette (and everyone who commented here)

    Thank you so much for reading and writing: I am learning so much about reflection through the eyes of reflective professionals (yourself) and feel ready and willing to ‘dig deeper’ and write more about the Experiential Learning Cycle.

    Ron and Josette, I have read and re-read your thoughtful comments, and followed the links, and kept thinking about what you said. I realized that if I start to respond in the comments section the replies will be too long. At this point I decided to turn my response to you (and a couple of additional thoughts) into a new post, which will be ready this weekend. I am thinking about something like ‘ELC Questions and Answers’ (where I think I will have more questions than answers) and would really want you to hear your thoughts in reply.

    Can’t really express how grateful I am feeling now for this chance to be learning together with you!



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