Experiential Learning Theory Applied to Criminal Justice Curriculum

Criminal justice scholars have become subject matter experts in their selected fields having earned advanced graduate degrees; however, none of these criminal justice graduate degree paths prepares a criminal justice scholar to become a professor/facilitator to teach criminal justice studies (Green, 2011). The criminal justice discipline needs a professional development training series that will prepare criminal justice instructors to teach using the best postsecondary teaching practices (Kiriakidis, 2011). Part of the professional development training curriculum will be to study different adult learning theories. Incorporating learning theory into the criminal justice curriculum design enhances the learning experience for adult learners (Kiriakidis, 2011). This paper will discuss the benefits of using David Kolb’s (1984) experiential leaning theory (ELT) when developing criminal justice classes.

Defining Kolb’s Theory

David Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning theory (ELT) is a process by which obtaining new knowledge comes from transforming different experiences to grasp new ideas to help problem solve. Kolb’s ELT design is a four step repeating cycle of learning focused on the individual learner. The steps in Kolb’s learning cycle are the concrete experience (introduction to the problem and becoming immersed in learning), reflective observation (observing and gathering information), abstract conceptualization (critical thinking, analyzing, and discussing options), and active experimentation (planning and producing results/or product) (Northern Illinois University, n.d.). All though the ELT design has a starting point, Kolb’s indicates that the learner can enter the cycle at any stage, as long as the learner completes the full cycle during the lesson and experimenting (McLeod, 2013). Kolb further explains for a learner to gain genuine knowledge the learner needs to be actively involved in the experience, the learner must reflect and discuss the experience, the learner needs the ability to analyze the experience, and the learner must apply problem solving skills demonstrating they can apply their new knowledge to a real problem (Kolb, 1984; McLeod, 2013).

Kolb’s ELT developed from his research and awareness that experience is at the center of the learning process (Kolb, 1984). The learner’s prior life experience along with the ability to analyze and process new experiences to further ones knowledge is the core concept of experiential learning (McLeod, 2013). Reflective evaluation is a critical part of the ELT process (Northern Illinois University, nod). By reflecting on the experimentation, the learner starts to build a foundation upon which additional experimentation leads to greater understanding. This process leads to critical thinking, good decision-making skills, and problem solving applications.

Kolb’s Influence on Criminal Justice Studies

One of the reasons that David Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning theory (ELT) has been popular within criminal justice course design is that the ELT is adaptable and relevant to both traditional and online class designs. Kolb’s ELT design takes the focus and responsibility for learning off the professor/facilitator (McLeod, 2013). The adult learner must take active ownership and get involved for the ELT process to be affective. A good facilitator can enhance the ELT experience; however, the facilitator is not essential or gatekeeper to the students learning process with the ELT (Costner, Lopper, Walker, & Brooks, 2013). The key component of the ELT is the learner’s ability to reflect on experiences using individual critical thinking skills (McLeod, 2013). With the ELT, student learning can occur without the presences of a class facilitator; therefore, the active class facilitator does not define the ELT process (Northern Illinois University, n.d.). This is one of the major reasons that the criminal justice discipline frequently designs classes using Kolb’s ELT as a framework. A well-designed class using Kolb’s ELT has the ability to be more effective with a passionate supportive facilitator guiding the class and allowing the students the freedom to explore and make discovers on their own through a concrete experience, observation and reflection, analyzing and discussing, and then doing (Northern Illinois University, n.d.). Kolb’s ELT cycle can repeat itself as needed for each learner to gain a deep learning experience through repeated experimentation (Cotner et al., 2013).

For any adult learning theory to enhance the learning process, facilitators need professional development training in the best teaching practices as well as practical exposure to pedagogy associated with the selected learning theory (Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010; Penger, Znidarsic, & Dimovski, 2011). It is essential that university and colleges offering criminal justice studies at their institution establish a professional development training series designed around best teaching practices, current pedagogy, educational technology, adult learning theory, and culture diversity acceptance training (Northern Illinois University, n.d.; Penger, Znidarsic, & Dimovski, 2011). Faculty attending professional development training that is relevant expressed more confidence in the teaching presences in the classroom, more compassion, and teaching skills have enhanced (Northern Illinois University, n.d.). Studies have shown that instructors who successfully complete quality professional development workshops have reported they are happier, have better student retention rates, better classroom management performance, and fewer incidents of academic dishonesty with improved communication skills that were acquired during professional development workshops (Penger, Znidarsic, & Dimovski, 2011). Kolb’s ELT is a credible adult learning theory to design professional development workshops (Northern Illinois University, n.d.).

Kolb’s ELT On Criminal Justice Distance Education Design

Criminal justice programs have grown significantly with the advancement and popularity of distance education programs. Richmond and Cummings (2005) research identified three online course designs based on Kolb’s ELT (1984). With the ongoing advancement in distance education platforms, class design is critical to achieve a quality educational process.

The first is the affective learning environment. This type of online course design includes interactive tutorials to support course concepts or synchronous live chat sessions (Kolb, 1984; Richmond & Cummings, 2005). The second online course design based on Kolb’s ELT is the perceptual learning environment. This type of online course design includes journals, reflective questions, lecture summaries, and asynchronous class discussions that allows students in different time zone to continue the class discussion when they have time to study and not be online at a prescribe date and time (Kolb, 1984; Richmond & Cummings, 2005). The third online class design based on Kolb’s ELT is the behavioral learning environment. This type of online course design includes structured group projects. Lessons and assessment design focuses on applying theory to real world application that encompasses critical thinking and analysis. This type of course design requires the use of small study groups with assigned goals and objectives for each member of the study group (Kolb, 1984; Richmond & Cummings, 2005).

The Future of Kolb’s ELT With Criminal Justice Course Design

Incorporating and designing David Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning theory (ELT) into both the traditional classroom and distance education classes has proven to be an effective interactive learning experience for students (Benecke & Bezuidenhout, 2011). Instructors facilitating classes designed with Kolb’s ELT have reported students immersed in the learning process, students demonstrated good analytical skills, worked respectfully with assigned learning teams to accomplished assigned work, and have taken ownership of their own educational journey (Cotner et al., 2013).

A quality educational experience begins with planning the course design and selecting a learning theory that matches the class description, scope, and objectives (Benecke & Bezuidenhout, 2011; Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010). Criminal justice studies are constantly evolving with scientific advancements in such fields as forensics and other areas such as computer crimes. To stay current with evolving technology and current trends, the criminal justice discipline will need to design state of the art curriculum incorporating new educational technologies for both the traditional classroom and online classes (Cotner et al., 2013). The course designs that can meet these demanding challenges for both educational platforms are the classes incorporating the adult learning theory of Kolb’s ELT. David Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning theory (ELT) will benefit the criminal justice course design by incorporating student centered learning activities designed to get the student involved in problem solving skills as they build new knowledge through experimentation, that is encouraged by the motivated course facilitator (Northern Illinois University, n.d.; Benecke & Bezuidenhout, 2011).

Designing criminal justice courses that promote critical thinking exposes students to problem solving skills that can promote social justice change in the inspiring scholar. Providing relevant and technical professional development training for criminal justice instructor’s increases the facilitator’s knowledge and confidence to maximize the benefits of classes designed and influenced by Kolb’s ELT (Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010). The benefits of designing criminal justice classes using David Kolb’s (1984) experiential learning theory (ELT) will enhance the overall quality and satisfaction of the program.


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About the Author

Mark Bond

Mark Bond has worked in law enforcement and has been a firearms instructor for more than 33 years. His law enforcement experience includes the military, local, state and federal levels as a police officer and criminal investigator. Mark obtained a BS and MS in criminal justice, and M.Ed in educational leadership with Summa Cum Laude honors. As a lifelong learner, he is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in education (EdD) with a concentration in college teaching and learning. Mark is currently an assistant professor of criminal justice at a university and adjunct professor of administration of justice studies at a community college.