Using an experiential learning approach


Stella Collins, Stellar Learning Last Published  28 April 2015

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Background information
Experiential learning approaches are based on David Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model (though this has been challenged and developed since it first came out in 1984). The theory is that learners actively experiment and participate in realistic activities and then reflect on what they notice and learn. They can then translate that learning back to other experiences and begin experimenting again.

This approach advocates more natural, realistic learning experiences than traditional or theoretical approaches to learning. For instance: in an experiential leadership programme you ask a participant to lead a team on an activity such as a treasure hunt. After the activity everyone reflects on what happened, what they learned and what they’d do differently. This is in contrast to other approaches where people learn a specific model from a trainer about leadership and then plan how to apply it to their situation.

Stronger experiences increase the emotional and sensory stimuli available to learners and so create stronger memory links. Experiential approaches are often more holistic, involving the mind and body, so tend to be more memorable and applicable than theoretical learning.

Research shows that when we experience the same mental and physical states as when we first learned something we find it easier to recall what we learned; this is known as context dependant learning. Experiential approaches stress learning from concrete, real experiences followed by reflection on the acquired ‘knowledge’ or experience and from the learning process itself.

Learners need:
  • To be motivated to willingly engage in the activity and experience
  • Opportunities to reflect on the actual experience
  • To use analytical skills to conceptualise the experience
  • Skills and opportunities to use the new ideas gained from the experience.
Step 1: Design your experiential approach from the start
To meet the needs of learners in an experiential approach you should ensure that you do the following:
  • Design realistic, concrete experiences. The more similar a learning experience is to the real world the easier it is for a learner to use their learning back in the workplace. Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away with wonderfully creative ideas but bear in mind that the activity is a means to an end, not an end in itself. For instance, inexperienced facilitators may organise an experiential learning activity day such as learning leadership through learning to sail. The sailing may be great fun in itself but without the reflection and opportunity to put leadership skills into practice it’s nothing more than a nice day out.
  • Plan in minimal intervention from the trainer/ facilitator. Create activities where the learner experiences and reflects without having to be led step by step by a facilitator. Write out clear briefing sheets so participants get started with minimal intervention from you. 
  • Share the experiential approach with the participants so they know they are expected to do the learning for themselves. Make sure to include it in your joining invitation (see the tool on 'engaging people before training' for more on joining invitations).
  • Design activities that stimulate realistic feelings and emotions so that the experience is richer and more like real life. For instance, for a leadership activity limit the time on a task and introduce occasional unexpected interruptions.
  • Run several short activities (10-30 minutes) each followed by its own review for a greater long term impact than one longer activity.
  • It’s tempting to cram in more content; and you’ll possibly find pressure from stakeholders to build in more information. Remain steadfast in your professionalism and experience as a facilitator that you know people learn better when they have time to repeat, reflect and review and that content is not the most important feature of learning. 
  • Ensure there are opportunities for realistic skills practice afterwards. For instance if you’re teaching ‘sorting’ in Excel create a floor exercise to sort and order physical objects to understand the concept, reflect on what was learned and then participants can sort real workplace items on a spreadsheet, followed by further practice, review and reflection back in the workplace.
Step 2: Get into the mindset of an experiential learning facilitator
One of the hardest challenges when facilitating an experiential activity is developing your own mindset; especially if you’ve previously been in a more pedagogic role. Make sure you master the right mindset by focusing on the following:
  • Be learner centred. Your role is to help people recognise what they learn and to make the experience meaningful for them. 
  • Accentuate the positive. By focusing on the valuable insights from experiential learning you may be able to resolve different organisational and personal goals. For instance: a learner realises they may not be the team player they thought they were because they keep contradicting other people but by recognising their analytical and divergent thinking skills they can find their place in the team and perform more effectively.
  • Learners need to learn for themselves. Develop the confidence to recognise that learners are more capable than you of knowing what they need to learn. Your role is to facilitate the learning process and not to do the learning for the learner. For example: If you’re asked to design a workshop that contains a new element for you, don’t start learning it for yourself. Instead ask for support from ‘experts’ in the field to assess relevant materials. Review the materials you would use if you were to learn the topic. During the learning session give the learners access to those materials (books, articles, websites etc) and let them identify the information they require rather than absorbing what you thought they ought to know and have only just learned ahead of them.
  • It’s them not me – lose the ego! There are two mindsets in which your ego can get in the way: 1. When you’re an expert in the topic – don’t be tempted to tell the learners everything you know. They only need to know what they need to know to get them to the next stage. 2. When you’re not confident in your knowledge or skills it can be tempting to demonstrate your credibility by holding the stage and delivering everything you do know. Resist this temptation in favour of asking more questions, deferring to the learner’s knowledge.
  • Learner perceptions are right for them – don’t judge. What someone takes from an experiential learning activity is what they need to take from it, and whilst it may be different to what you planned, or different to what everyone else learns, it’s still OK for them to have that comprehension, perception and realisation. Accept that their learning is what’s right for them.
Step 3: Motivate learners
During experiential learning part of your role is to motivate people to learn by helping them to ee what they will get from this learning experience. This could be as simple as an exercise asking questions like:
  • What difference will this learning make to you?
  • What will you be able to do after this learning?
  • What will this activity teach you about yourself?

Have a look at the 'Using motivation theories' tool for more ideas on motivation.
Step 4: Introduce challenge by choice
Encourage learners to experiment and try new things that they will learn from but let them make the choices about how they participate. For instance a common form of experiential learning is when people face a strong physical or emotional challenge, such as climbing or high ropes activities. Different people will face different ‘challenges’ in that type of activity; some may be nervous about heights but find working with new people very easy.

Each person should be encouraged to push themselves but not to overwhelm themselves and given permission to decide how and whether they partake, or when they say stop.
Step 5: Set up the exercise clearly
Give clear instructions for exercises, even if you don’t choose to share the potential learning outcomes. You may not always tell people what the purpose of the exercise is because you want them to discover that for themselves. For example: You give instructions for an activity to plan an event. Part way through the activity you interrupt to ask everyone to plan a different event and see what happens. Your purpose was for people to learn how they react to change but by not warning them of the change they react more genuinely.

Some people can find this challenging and it may distract from their ability to learn so you may want to brief them on some potential outcomes (see ‘Security and stimulus’ tool for more ideas about creating certainty).
Step 6: Notice and pay attention to what happens
Whilst people are engaged in activities your role is to notice behaviours, patterns and how people respond to the exercise or activity. Are people taking the lead, do they leap straight into the activity without any planning or do they spend all their time planning at the expense of taking action? How do people respond to challenges in the activity – do they embrace the opportunity or does it make them disheartened? How do they react to each other?

You may or may not take notes to refer to later. If you choose to take notes explain to the participants you are doing it to refer back to at the end of the activity.
Step 7: Facilitate the activity
Whilst people participate you may find it useful occasionally to ask questions, prompt thinking, give feedback or make comments.

Accentuate the positive and what’s working. Build on strengths and what people are doing well rather than focusing on negatives, weaknesses or inabilities. It’s important to build confidence before skills and attitudes.

Ask questions – don’t give answers. Remember it’s up to the learners to do the learning so asking them questions and teasing out answers will be more powerful than telling them. Take a coaching approach. Questions such as these can help promote analytical and critical thinking:
  • Did you notice...?
  • Why did that happen?
  • Does that happen in life?
  • Why does that happen?
  • How can you use that?

Expect the unexpected. Participants may take exercises in a different direction than you expected. Learners may experience outcomes that were not expected by you, other learners, other stakeholders or the organisation. So long as those outcomes help them perform more effectively then you’ve achieved your outcome. For instance you may ask people to solve a puzzle, designed to stretch their creative thinking skills, and instead of solving it as a group they choose to split into sub groups who come up with different solutions. The creative thinking skills were stretched but the path to get there was slightly different to what you’d anticipated.

However they get there you should check against the outcomes for the exercise:
  • Have they achieved what was expected even if it was through a different route?
  • Have they learned something more valuable than you expected?
  • What can you and they learn from this unexpected outcome?
  • How can they use this information to improve their performance?
  • How can they use their reflection to improve their learning about their learning?
Step 8: Review and reflect
Time for reflection and review is crucial for all learning and in experiential learning activities time is explicitly built in to do this. Review learning after each activity rather than waiting until the end of the overall session or programme because otherwise people may lose something they can build on or forget something they did earlier.

Ask people what they thought about the activity generally; what are their instant reactions? Then ask more detailed open questions. Here are some suggested open questions to use. You don’t need to use them all at once; select different questions at different review points:
  • What do you do well that you could do more of?
  • What went well that you could do again?
  • What were the challenges?
  • What were your reactions to the exercise?
  • What do you need to do less of next time?
  • What do you need to stop doing?
  • What did you think about whilst you were doing the activity?
  • How did you feel?
  • How did other people seem to feel about the task or about your part in it?
  • What can you learn from them?
  • What will you do differently next time?
  • What did you learn about learning?
  • How will you improve the learning experience next time?

To avoid feeling uncomfortable about any potential silences count up to 17 in your head. If you get to 17 you can be fairly confident nobody has an answer.

If participants ask you questions, before answering them yourself, reflect it back to the speaker or the group to see if they can answer it. Something like:
  • What does everyone else think?
  • What suggestions are there from other people here?
  • If you knew the answer to this question what would it be?
Step 9: Action planning and round up
At the end of an experiential activity round up the session with a brief review and some overall conclusions.

Ask people to create action plans. You might use something simple like:
  • What I'll stop
  • What I'll start
  • What I'll do more of.

You might also ask them to create a more comprehensive action plan detailing commitments, times, who will hold them responsible (see the review and action plan resource).

Make sure to thank everyone for the valuable contributions and participation.