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What is the learning cycle?

The learning cycle is a model for how we learn autonomously: how we transform our experiences into new knowledge and skills that align with the kinds of lives we want to live, and the people we want to be and become. It is based on Kolb's (2014) model for experiential learning, but also integrates insights from cognitive psychology, the science of expertise, and from mindfulness.


Its core idea is simple: you learn autonomously by setting yourself a learning goal, practicing in an effective and targeted way, seeking and processing feedback, and using that feedback to check your progress and set new goals.

Easy? Let’s dive into each step a little more to see what it entails.


  1. Goal setting means identifying things you want to do or achieve and generating a mental image of what achieving them can look like. In other words, you set yourself a ‘standard’ against which you can measure yourself. Setting your own goals makes you more motivated and committed to learn and better able to ‘self-regulate’ your learning – that is, evaluate your performance and learn from it. But it requires considerable self-understanding to really know what you want. And it is never easy to resolve the conflicts and trade-offs between the different things you aspire to, or to identify the best ways of achieving what you want.

  2. Effective practice is like training for sports or music: designing activities that help you to improve your performance in a particular domain. It is clear that the more hours you spend on deliberate practice towards a particular learning goal, the more your performance will improve. Olympic athletes can train up to 5-7 hours a day, 6 days a week. Some probably even more. But this kind of training can also be applied to learning academic knowledge and skills, without aiming for the Olympics (or a Fields Medal)! Some regular deliberate practice can make a whole lot of difference for any learning goal you aspire to.

  3. Feedback is any information you receive about the quality of your performance, which you then have to process so you can use to improve it. Feedback can be explicit - think written comments in the margins of your essay - but also implicit - think of huge yawns from the audience when you are presenting. It can help you identify strengths and weaknesses in your development. It can also shed light on the efficacy of your chosen strategies or training regime. And maybe the feedback points to your complete mastery of your goal and push you to set new ones. But seeking, hearing, and processing feedback takes considerable skill, and be time-consuming to the point where you may decide just not to bother.


The key to meaningful, autonomous learning is not only to engage in the activities of the learning cycle. It is equally important that you do so regularly and make this type of reflection part of your habitual learning process. Our tools are designed to help students do just that: they are reminders to take a step back and set goals, practice, and use feedback to check back in with their goals and identify the right ways forward for them.

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