Theory? Or experience?

Many people believe you have to choose between experience and theory when you want to gain knowledge or skills. But the choice represents a false dichotomy. It’s on my mind today as I get ready to meet my first two classes of undergraduate students since 2012.

The first day of a college course is about two things: setting expectations and getting to know each other. One important way for students to get to know me is to hear my thoughts about how people learn. Here’s what I’m likely to say about theory and experience today.

How Do Adults Learn?

A researcher named David Kolb observed adults learning at work and discovered what we call the “experiential learning cycle.” Learning is non-linear. It’s a cyclical process with four phases. Let’s go through a simple example.

Credit: Jonathan Newton

Imagine you’re a swimmer and you want to learn to compete in the 100m butterfly event. You start by talking to an expert—a swimming coach named Bob. Bob tells you about butterfly. One of his points is that upper body strength is key. At this point you’ve got theoretical knowledge (some abstract understanding) but, if you quit now or if you and Bob just keep talking, you definitely won’t learn to compete in the 100m butterfly event.

phelps-practiceAt some point, Bob tells you to jump in the pool and swim laps with paddles to build upper body muscle. You are learning to compete in the 100m butterfly event by experimenting with something new. Again, if you just keep practicing or quit now, you won’t learn much.

You enter the next phase when you have the actual experience of competing in a 100m butterfly race. You place 5th. If you quit now – or you just keep entering more races – you won’t learn that much. You’ve got to continue to the next phase of the cycle.

Credit: David Goldman

After your experience, you have to think back on the race. What EXACTLY happened? Reflection on your experience is necessary. If you’re committed to continue learning how to swim the 100m butterfly …

swim phelps turnyou start the cycle again by talking to Coach Bob, who theorizes your turn technique slowed you down. This is just an idea until you get in the pool and experiment with new turn techniques. Then, in the next race, you might experience a win. Or not.

The point is that as long as you are learning, you keep going through this cycle – this spiral – of conceptualization, experimentation, experience, and reflection. Expert knowledge will require about 10 years or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice on your part. Michael Phelps started swimming competitively at 7 and made the Olympic team at 15. But he didn’t win any Olympic medals until 4 more years passed. (Note that it took Bobby Fischer, perhaps the best chess player in history, 9 years of learning to reach grandmaster.) Reaching just the level of apprentice will require that you put in 250 hours – that’s 5 hours of quality practice per week for 3 months. kolbs cycle

What Does This Mean for My Students?

Although my example focuses on a sport, the learning cycle applies equally well to any workplace task or skill. Real learning requires both theory and experience. Here are some ways the learning cycle influences how I have designed our course.

First, the activities I’ve planned will require you to move back and forth between thinking and doing. You’re probably more comfortable with one of them. But the quality of both matter.

Second, I believe learning is a process, not an outcome. If you focus only on grades (an outcome), you’ll be frustrated. And you won’t learn as much.

Third, I expect you to take risks. Sometimes you’ll fall down. Failure is necessary for learning. I will do all I can to make it “safe” for you to fail.

Finally, it’s an advantage to have a teacher/coach to guide you through the learning process. I’ll give you as much individual attention as I can, but teaching ~70 students at one time means there are limits on what I can offer. (I mean Coach Saban has 9 assistants to coach 125 or so football players!) So I expect you to coach each other. Your coaching should lead to deeper knowledge, too.

So let’s get started!

Related Readings

Kolb & Kolb (2009). Experiential learning theory. In S. J. Armstrong & C. V. Fukami (Eds.), The SAGE Handbook of Management Learning, Education and Development (pp. 1–59). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Ericsson et al. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), 363–406.


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  1. Your discussion of experience and theory is very interesting. Some students seem to be able to use theory as if it were experience easily, but most need to work through the learning process.

    1. I agree, Jim. I’m one of those who “gets” the theory/experience connection intuitively. It took years of teaching for me to realize most students need to be coached through the process. Happy New Year!

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