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Experiential learning

Experiential learning

Table of Contents

    Today’s modern learner is overwhelmed by responsibilities, distractions, and busy schedules. This doesn’t leave much time for learning and development. However, there is a way to provide effective learning outcomes without all the time requirements. The answer is experiential learning. So, what is experiential learning?

    This technique involves hands-on learning by doing. Most people learn better and faster when actively involved in doing what they are taught. As a result, many companies are starting to understand the potential of experiential learning in the workplace as an effective, accessible learning strategy.

    Just like experiential marketing where customers are involved in an event, experiential learning offers an immersive experience that encourages and provokes reflection.

    This guide is a comprehensive introduction to experiential learning. Here’s a list of what you’ll find inside:

    • What is experiential learning?
    • How does it work?
    • Benefits of experiential learning
    • Tips for implementing it in your organization
    • Experiential learning examples

    Are you entirely new to the concept and asking yourself, “What is experiential learning?” Alternatively, do you want to brush up on some parts of the experiential learning theory? If so, then this guide has the information you seek.

    Let’s start with a definition.

    What is experiential learning?

    Following the famous saying, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand,” this workplace learning style involves hands-on experiences that enable employees to understand critical information by directly performing the skill or task at hand. This training model requires learners to be self-motivated and curious. It is more interactive and learner-centered, so it is often less structured than direct instruction.

    Experiential learning prioritizes engagement by giving learners experiences related to real situations they may encounter in the business world. Consider these examples:

    • On-the-job instructors train employees at the job site instead of being tethered to a physical classroom.
    • Call-center workers train through role-playing calls with colleagues.
    • Medical teams use simulations following a recent emergency in an ER to train new workers and see how they might have reacted to the situation.
    • A construction company uses case studies of real events, such as natural disasters, to better understand various problem-solving approaches for safer buildings.

    These examples focus on training learners by having them take action rather than passively follow an instructor. Experiential learning can be applied to various industries and fields, making it an invaluable part of your organization’s overall training program.

    How does it work?

    So, what is experiential learning in action? The Institute of Experiential Learning aims to unlock the potential in organizations, teams, and individuals through the transformative and deliberate process of learning. Similarly, psychologist David Kolb has extensively studied experiential education and elaborated on how it can be used by leaders, corporate teams, educators, and individual lifelong learners.

    According to David Kolb, there is a consistent cycle that most learners follow. These are the four primary stages or components of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle:

    1. Concrete experience: This is the first step in the cycle. Learners are actively involved in the learning experience, which may include a hands-on activity.
    2. Reflective observation: Next, the learner looks back and reflects on what they know and enjoy from the learning experience. This is where individuals begin to organize their thoughts to analyze their learning experiences.
    3. Abstract conceptualization: This happens as the learner takes their activity a step further. Now, they form new ideas, develop a theory, or adjust their thinking based on their experience and their reflection. Individuals evaluate what they have seen or done, draw conclusions, and conceptualize a pattern.
    4. Active experimentation: This is the last stage. Now, learners test what they have learned through trying new things and applying new knowledge.

    Through this experiential learning cycle, people experience what it means to learn and are better prepared to apply their knowledge to the real world. 

    The benefits of experiential learning

    Commonly referred to as “learning in the flow of work,” this form of learning offers an opportunity to revolutionize how organizations train their employees and create leaders internally.

    It is not enough to just present learning material once. According to studies, creating repeated opportunities for learners to practice new information and skills significantly enhances learning. This benefit applies to both the quantity of what individuals learn and the quality of the active learning application.

    Experiential learning is fulfilling its own expectations as workplace training evolves. So, what is experiential learning best at? Here are some of the top benefits of experiential learning opportunities in an organization.

    Benefit #1: It builds a learner’s capacity to readily adapt to new situations

    A small study involving two groups of students learning about politics reported that the group that used internships to learn (experiential learning) and the group that used direct instruction to learn showed similar success rates during the final assessment.

    However, when tasked to create a new legislative policy, the group that learned through experiential learning performed better than those who only learned written material about legislation. When employees are trained in the flow of work, they become highly adaptable and more agile in new situations.

    Benefit #2: It fills the gap between practice and theory

    It’s one thing to read about how to perform brain surgery in a book; it’s another thing entirely to actually do it.

    With the experiential learning process, learners get the perfect opportunity to practice the theory they have learned. Leading companies understand how to balance their instruction delivery to create time for well-structured microlearning or other facilitator-led resources so that the practice process can get started in later experiential sessions.

    Benefit #3: It creates a safe failing space

    Employees have an all-time low perception of job security. This makes failure feel quite stressful. But at the same time, employers wouldn’t put their trust in an employee without them proving their abilities.

    Experiential learning with simulations provides learners with a space to fail safely and prove their worth to employers. Their career is not at risk when they test their skills through simulations and other scenarios. 

    Additionally, experimentation and failure often lead to innovation and useful insights that wouldn’t have been discovered otherwise. 

    Benefit #4: It enables accurate skills assessments

    Analyzing data from your company’s experiential learning tools can be quite helpful. For example, gamification and simulation programs can provide valuable insight into individuals’ choices during learning and development. In turn, this can help companies determine which skills need more attention and which ones are sufficient.

    Benefit #5: It provides better ROI

    Experiential learning provides opportunities for individuals to learn without pulling them away from their typical roles. It minimizes time spent out of the office stuck in a physical classroom or at a lecture. Also, while both in-office and out-of-office training approaches have their perks, ensuring employees stay at work while learning will often result in a better ROI (return on investment) than taking them to training outside the workplace.

    Benefit #6: It makes the material relevant

    Many learners find training materials pointless and dull. This isn’t necessarily because the training materials are actually pointless and dull, but rather because learners lack a connection between the material and their life. Actually going out into the world and applying new skills or knowledge helps learners understand how the experience can help them and why the training is important. 

    Tips for implementing experiential learning 

    Before incorporating experiential learning methods into your training program, consider what you want your employees to gain from their direct experience. Although you might not be directly involved in your employee’s learning, it’s still vital that you offer them the guidance required to improve their existing knowledge.

    Here are some useful tips to follow when implementing experiential learning in your organization:

    Tip #1: Invest in careful planning 

    Once you decide to employ an experiential learning methodology, consider your objectives and goals for the program. From there, think about the resources and materials learners might need to complete exercises or activities. Also, develop a timeline of how long it might take. Mapping out your desired learning outcome and how best to achieve it will help to keep experiential learning on track.

    Tip #2: Make room to accommodate different learners

    Individuals learn in different ways. Create an experiential learning activity that considers how each learner might react. For example, some individuals might require more guidance or mentorship while others may prefer more independence. When planning your experiential learning program, be sure to provide multiple formats and varieties to accommodate all types of learners. 

    Tip #3: Provide time for action and subsequent reflection

    Any learning that lacks action and subsequent reflection will likely fail. These are important parts of experiential learning, so take time to develop a structure for learners to take action linked to personal goals and reflect on their experiences. This also helps organizers identify the learning outcomes of each activity. For example, you could provide employees with a new workflow process to apply for one week then send out a survey to assess how they are doing with the process and if there are any knowledge gaps to address. 

    Tip #4: Evaluate the percentage of instruction versus practice

    Develop and examine training programs carefully to determine the content percentage that is taught and the content percentage that is practiced. Be sure to include as many interactive elements as possible, like brainstorming in small groups, discussion forums, or role-playing. Attention spans are limited, and experienced individuals have often gone through rigorous training already. Therefore, invest in experiences that improve attention and increase engagement.

    What is experiential learning in real-world contexts?

    Now that you know the benefits of well-run experiential learning, here are a few examples of experiential learning in a workplace that can help drive the point deeper.

    Example #1: Stretch exercises

    Assignments such as leading a task force or a group of experts on a topic where the learner has no expertise can be invaluable. First, share the objective of this exercise and what you expect the individual to learn from it. Then, give helpful feedback during and after the exercise.

    Example #2: “Change” projects

    This is a group project in experiential learning where learners define a problem, brainstorm a possible solution, and work with others to create change that would benefit them. Such training programs help make simple everyday improvements and are useful in creating a learning culture of continuous improvement.

    Example #3: Job shadowing

    Pair up a highly skilled and knowledgeable employee in the same competencies where another employee lacks the skills and needs development. Let the less experienced individual observe, note, and work alongside the highly experienced one. Use structured meetings to elaborate on why some approaches and behaviors work best. This can provide clarity and context. It may also ensure the individual holds onto what they learned.

    What is experiential learning bringing to your organization?

    Experiential learning allows learners to shift their mindset regarding their development. They discover that the point of learning, developing, and being part of a training program is not to memorize figures and facts. Instead, the purpose is to continuously develop, grow, and make valuable connections.

    This learning model not only focuses on acquiring new knowledge but also prioritizes upskilling, character development, and other deeper learning levels. Check out our glossary for more information on the subject and relevant resources on different types of learning that can benefit your organization.