Applying the Kolb Experiential Learning Model (ELM) to Distance Learning

I began my teaching career as a resident (classroom) instructor teaching Army officers about leadership. My teaching techniques are based on Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model (ELM) that involves the following steps: (1) Concrete Experience, (2) Publish and Process, (3) Generalize New Information, (4) Apply, and (5) Develop.i ELM, which has worked very well for me in the classroom, directly emphasizes that adults learn when they:

  • Discover for themselves
  • Take responsibility for their learning
  • Have a venue to receive experience and feedback
  • Understand why the lesson is beneficial to their personal and/or professional livesii

When I retired from the military and transitioned to distance learning instruction, I wondered if it was possible to apply Kolb’s ELM to an online curriculum and still facilitate a valuable adult learning environment for 32 geographically dispersed students. Here are some techniques that I currently use to apply Kolb’s ELM in online teaching.

In my distance learning class, we meet routinely online every two weeks. During each synchronous session, the students will usually brief a practical exercise that they have developed together since the previous session.

  1. Concrete Experience: After listening to the previous practical exercise and providing feedback, I take time to introduce the next lesson through the use of a specific experience. The Concrete Experience Step personally involves students in the lesson and demonstrates the potential value. I present open-ended questions or conduct a brief exercise that allows each student to enter the affective domain (growth in feelings or emotional areas)iii through personal involvement and interaction with classmates.
  2. Publish and Process: Before ending this online session, we move to the Publish and Process Step where I obtain their reaction and ask them what they have learned from the open-ended question or exercise related to the upcoming lesson (Concrete Experience). This allows the students to potentially see the importance of the material that they are going to study over the next two weeks. Remember both the Concrete Experience and Publish and Process Steps occur before the students have actually reviewed the upcoming lesson. If this is relatively new material or a number of students lack existing experience, I may begin the Generalize New Information Step (lecture, demonstration, etc.) and provide recommendations for specific study. I’ll provide practical exercise guidance, review upcoming assignment instructions, and answer any questions before ending the session.
  3. Generalize New Information: During the next two weeks, the students are now responsible for reviewing the lesson material. This officially begins the Generalize New Information Step and is where students will enter the cognitive domainiv . Instead of classroom lecture and demonstration, students use computer-based instruction, assigned readings, and case studies found on Blackboard, our learning management system. I am always available through e-mail, phone, or Defense Connect On-line (DCO), which is the Department of Defense’s online chat and web conferencing service. However, the responsibility is with the student to review and learn the material.The next two steps can be delayed or conducted sequentially based on delivery methodology or specific lesson block learning objectives.
  4. Apply: After the students review the material, we move to the Apply Step (or assessment). The students will collaborate via e-mail, telephone, or DCO and complete a practical exercise that measures their ability to accomplish the learning objective. I am still available to provide further guidance and assistance, however, they are now applying what they have learned to gain experience or improve upon existing experience. To support and reinforce the practical exercise preparation, I post discussion board questions to quickly conduct a “check on student learning” and allow students to further share ideas and interact with each other and me. Further, in addition to large group practical exercises and discussion board questions, I use a number of other venues such as individual and group writing assignments, small group presentations, tactical simulations, etc. After two weeks, we come back together online and the students continue with the Apply Step by presenting their practical exercise or briefing. As required, I may revisit the Generalize New Information Step (lecture, demonstration, socratic questionsv , etc.) to highlight any major points the students do not fully understand.
  5. Develop: After the presentation, I now use the Develop Step to inquire as to how students feel they can use this material in the future and its value to their professional and/or personal lives. I provide verbal feedback immediately and written feedback later in the week.

In sum, with student-centered learning and instructor involvement, I found I am able to apply the Kolb ELM model to an online course that fully facilitates a valuable adult learning environment.

Lieutenant Colonel Eric T. Moore, US Army, retired, is currently an Interdisciplinary Distributed Learning Instructor for the Advanced Operations Course (AOC), Department of Distance Education, U.S. Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS.

i Adjunct Faculty Guide for Faculty Development Phase 1 (FDP1) Tutorials and Practicums, U.S. Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS.

ii Adjunct Faculty Guide for Faculty Development Phase 1 (FDP1) Tutorials and Practicums, U.S. Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS.

iii Clark, Don. ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains’. Retrieved [March 21, 2013] from

iv Clark, Don. ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains’. Retrieved [March 21, 2013] from

v Adjunct Faculty Guide for Faculty Development Phase 1 (FDP1) Tutorials and Practicums, U.S. Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS and Changing Socratic Questions. Retrieved [May 23, 2013] from