Action Learning explained

Action Learning - Toolshero

Action Learning: this article explains Action Learning in a practical way. This article contains the general definition, Revans Law and the steps involved the process. After reading it you will understand the basics of this powerful management and development tool. Enjoy reading!

What is Action Learning?

Action learning is a process for developing creative solutions to address complex problems that arise in business situations, groups of people and societies.

Simply put: action learning is learning from experience. Some define action learning as the harmonization of thinking and doing. Learning is an ongoing process and is best done with an open and curious mind, the ability to listen, ask questions and explore ideas.

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Action learning involves taking steps to learn through experience. In addition, the effectiveness of these steps is evaluated and a team is challenged to ask the right questions in reflections. The result is a new, more effective solution to the identified problem.

Action learning has proven very effective in developing leadership and problem-solving methods and skills in practice. It has therefore become a regular part of the leadership development program of organizations for some time now.

Learning from experience is not a foreign concept to most. We’ve been doing this all our lives. If person X is late for a meeting because he or she is stuck in traffic, that person realizes that it is better to leave a little earlier next time.

The base of Action Learning: Revans Law

Action learning was originally developed by management scientist Reg Revans. He developed the concept in the 1940s. Professor Reg Revans was very successful; from participant in the Olympic Games, researcher in astrophysics, to university professor and international management consultant.

Reg Revans was convinced that organizations should equate their pace of learning with the rate of change of the environment. This became known as Revans’ law.

Action Learning Cycle

Action learning is different from being taught by others, such as experts. Being led by experts can also be helpful and valuable, but people often respond better to something more than spoken words. With action learning they can identify with their own experiences, instead of the experience of others.

Taylor, Marais and Kaplan developed the Action Learning Cycle. Although action learning can take many different forms in practice, the cycle gives a realistic picture of the phases or steps of action learning.

Action Learning Cycle - Toolshero

Figure 1 – the Action Learning Cycle

1. Action

Before starting this cycle, it is important to realize that actions that will be carried out will be considered later. This ensures that people become more aware of their own behavior.

It helps to write down actions and reactions while it is still fresh in the memory. These action points are then used as input for the next steps / phases of the action learning cycle model.

During these action phases / steps, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What important events have taken place?
  • How do you describe these events?
  • Who were involved in these events and what did these people do?
  • How did I feel during these events? And how did the others feel?

2. Reflection

The reflection step asks the user to think critically about the actions performed in phase 1. Often, reflection is only carried out when a crisis arises. However, it is more beneficial to reflect proactively, so that a crisis is prevented.

There are various methods and ways of learning to reflect, such as writing and group discussions.

During this reflection phase, ask yourself the following questions:

  • How did I try to solve the problem?
  • How have others tried this?
  • What exactly caused the problem?
  • What did we expect from the problem?
  • What assumptions have been made?
  • Is there another problem or situation that can help us look at the situation from a different perspective?

3. Learn

The fact that reflection took place in the previous phase does not mean that learning has taken place. Many teams reflect on their actions after which the document is closed. This third phase is therefore the most often neglected part of the cycle.

The aim of this phase is to draw general lessons from the earlier reflections. It looks not only at what actually happened, but also at what possibly will happen as a result of those specific events. If only the former is considered, learning is superficial and will yield little value for future situations.

During this phase, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What could we have done differently?
  • What have we learned in the previous phase and what new insights have been gained?
  • Were suspicions confirmed or dismissed? pointed out?
  • What new questions arose during the reflection phase?
  • What lessons can we draw from the reflections for the future?

4. Plans

Planning is an important link between future actions and learning from the past. After reflecting on the most important lessons, they are converted into useful items for the future. In general, teams tend to spend a lot of time planning, but sometimes forget to include lessons learned. In that case, the plans are just a formality and not worth much for the future.

Planning new activities or adapting an existing planning involves costs. A cost-benefit analysis is then useful to determine this ratio.

During this planning phase, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Which steps will be used in the future to gain new insights in practice?
  • What will be different in the future?
  • How are we going to do it differently?
  • What should we let go of from the past?
  • How can we make sure we don’t make the same mistake in the future?

Action Learning summary

Action learning is used to solve problems that arise during different experiences. Action learning is therefore also called learning by doing. The process includes several steps that are performed over and over: an iterative process.

Learning by doing is human nature, but this is not always done consciously. If there is active reflection after a certain event, it is possible to extract a lot of value from a situation analysis and to draw lessons for the future.

The first phase in this process is the event that will be reflected on. It is wise to perform the action with the thought in mind that it is being analyzed, because then more conscious actions are performed.

The second phase, reflection, reflects on the action from phase one. The third phase focuses on drawing lessons from what has been analyzed.

This stage is most often neglected, while important insights can be gained here. The final phase, planning, involves incorporating the new insights into future plans. Only then can capitalization be made on the value obtained.

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Now it’s your turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about action learning? Is action learning applied in your professional work environment? What is your experience with reflecting and drawing lessons from it for the future? Do you have any tips or comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Pedler, M. (Ed.). (2011). Action learning in practice. Gower Publishing Ltd.
  2. Revans, R. W. (1982). What is action learning? Journal of management development.
  3. Revans, R. W. (2017). ABC of action learning. Routledge.
  4. Revans, R. W. (1980). Action learning: New techniques for management. Blond and Briggs Ltd.

How to cite this article:
Janse, B. (2021). Action Learning. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero:

Original publication date: 12/10/2021 | Last update: 07/04/2023

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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