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Experiential Learning


I would like to find out more about successful uses of an experiential approach to learning, eg, role plays, action learning, outdoors approach.

Has anyone used these approaches to any great effect, and what is the impact or improvement to the organisation?
J Gibbons

9 Responses

  1. Learning from Experience.
    Experiential Learning seems to mean different things to different people and in the process of definition may have lost something.

    Experiential learning is the single most powerful way that an individual can learn a lesson.
    It is the essential engine behind the developmental process that allows us to survive.

    If something hurts us we stop doing it.
    If something causes us discomfort we avoid it.
    If something makes us sick we don’t eat it.

    These are absolutely basic experiences from which we have learned and therefore modified our behaviour in a permanent way.

    We never forget that a fire burns or that cabbage tastes horrible.

    Where our value as trainers becomes apparent is when we can create the situation that allows us to tap into this hugely powerful learning mechanism for the benefit of our trainees.

    There are as many different scenarios for creating experiential learning as there are also many different views on what it is.

    My experience is entirely based on the work place, creating the environment where the workforce gain a different experience.
    This is where we want to change behaviour and it is therefore where the lessons must be learned.

    The lesson itself however is not dramatic and the learning is not instant.

    People need time to adjust their expectations in the same way that Pavlovs dogs responded to the expectation of food when the bell was rung.

    People react in a particular way because their expectation has been set over many years.
    If we want to change the way they behave we have to offer a different environment and understand that it will take time for the individuals to accept that this new experience is for real.

    A single event is seldom sufficient to overcome ten or fifteen years of conditioned response.

    When we have the patience and understanding to realise that we have to wait for each individual to take the experience and learn from it at their own speed, then the difference in performance is an order of magnitude greater than anything we have seen before and because the learning is experiential, the change is permanent

  2. Action Learning in Action…
    You might find it helpful to look up Reg Revans’ work on Action Learning and/or Kolb’s stuff on the Learning Cycle.
    My experience, as both a learner and a developer (during which I learn as well!), of Action Learning is that such experientially-based approaches are hugely powerful. The key is to use such approaches to work on real organisational (or personal) issues so that participants can easily recognise the validity and utility of their learning.
    Any approach that takes people through the Experience/Reflect/Theorise/Experiment route is likely to be more successful than ‘chalk and talk’ classroom based instruction (I hardly dare call it learning!) and in our work we tend to use action learning principles without getting too hung up on the strict definitions and protocols that some people suggest – I guess that pragmatism rules!

  3. A refreshing experiential approach
    Dear J Gibbons
    An experiential approach to learning has grown in popularity as people recognise that a classroom-based approach may not, on its own, be enough. It is recognisably hard to transfer purely theoretical learning, and create action and commitment to change, especially when a person returns to the office to a full in tray! People development is about causing people to change their processes, attitudes and behaviours so that they are more effective in what they do. Peter in his earlier response to your question said that it can take a long time to undo the things people have done habitually for years, and he is correct, however we have developed an outdoors approach that can speed up that process considerably.
    Based around Kolb’s learning process (the predominant theory used in experiential learning which identifies in simplistic terms the need to experience then reflect then learn and then apply) we have developed a range of outdoor based activities that give people experiences that they are comfortable with and allow them insight in to their actions. Rather than take the abseil / raft build approach to an outdoor programme, within these activities we create scenarios that are close to real life, real time circumstances that people find themselves in everyday. The way they work, react and communicate is highlighted in a way that is difficult to deny. A very facilitative style of questioning then draws out the learning for each delegate, and relates it back to the way they operate in the workplace. That learning is then pushed in to an action so that the learning is transferred to work.
    We have run successful programmes using this methodology for senior directors of national firms to team leaders from a factory floor, the objectives may be very different but all provide an outcome that has enabled people to return to work knowing what they need to do to make a difference.
    Accountability is now the word on every training and development managers lips and organisations with business savvy are requiring all of their departments to prove their return on investment; one of our clients has done their cost benefit analysis with each of its programme attendees and it tells them to date we have saved or prduced them £1.9m. But beware, even with the best programme design and approach, without real support or when the chips are down, your learning goes out of the window and we revert to habit as Peter suggested.

  4. Impact needs more than methodology

    I do not use anything other than experiential methods, having found them to have far more impact than a chalk-and-talk session. Adults need to experience and form their own conclusions – and it’s up to the trainer to simulate working conditions to enable the learners to make close links to work.

    However, the organisational impact depends on whether the learning could be applied immediately, whether a course was the appropriate answer to the problem, whether the new behaviours are at odds or congruent with the organisation, whether there was a reward for behaving in a different way.
    I suggest you look at Paul Kearns’ articles on this site (if you haven’t already done so


  5. Experiential learning
    For information the Police Service bases it whole training ethos for new Officers on experiential learning. It uses a very simple model for this, that forms the basis for debriefing exercies of whatever variety. If you want more information then please feel free to contact me.

    Don Oldcorn

  6. Experiential learning makes an impact by engaging different part
    I use experiential methods whenever possible, as I find it the most affective approach, both in terms of understanding and retention of material. Experiential learning makes an impact by engaging different parts of the brain. This is particularly the case if several different senses are involved in some way (hearing, vision, touch, and possibly even taste and smell). Participants are, by definition, involved with it, and so cannot sit back and observe at a distance (and perhaps let their mind wander to other things). Exercises can easily be designed to appeal to all learning styles.

    I use experiential learning in two contexts: my training job (SVQs and advice work) and in teaching a complementary therapy (Shiatsu). A few random examples of experiential learning activities I have been involved with (as a trainer or a learner) include:

    1. using Duplo (large Leggo) bricks of different colours to “build” the different sections of benefits application forms (e.g., Income Support);

    2. using Winnie the Pooh toys to represent SVQ candidates with different learning styles, and getting small groups to give support and feedback to them to suit their individual needs

    3. getting people into a circle and getting them to throw a ball to someone else while shouting out the name of an item on a list they are learning (e.g., the name of a type of benefit, a name of a type of SVQ evidence; can also be used, as an ice-breaker to help people learn each others’ names by throwing the ball to someone while shouting out their name). In each case, continue the ball throwing until the items are sufficiently reinforced;

    4. getting SVQ assessor-candidates, in small groups, to identify types of sample pieces of evidence; and getting them to judge pieces of “faulty” evidence;

    5. getting Shiatsu students to understand different anatomical systems by: “being” a cell; moving in different ways depending on whether they are primarily in contact with their muscles or their bones; making a vertebra from plastascene, etc.

    6. games of different sorts which illustrate different aspects of Oriental Medicine Theory;

    7. making collages to illustrate points of theory.

    I could go on and on, once I get started!

    My experience is that I (and learners) gain a more in depth understanding of the theory or practical techniques by doing something active. If it’s something a bit unusual, and either fun or with some sort of emotional impact, they will also remember it easily afterwards! Experiential methods can release the imagination and creativity of both learners and trainers.

    I gained some ideas from attending several courses run by The Training Shop ( and some from other sources (including other trainers). If you haven’t used this type of methodology before, going to a Training Shop course will get you going.

  7. Is Cynthia talking about Experienial or Accelerated learning?
    Cynthia’s comments are very useful and welcome – however, my understanding of experiential learning relates the content to the specific (work) applications by having the learners actually use the material to deal with a real problem.

    In that context, some of Cynthia’s examples seem more like Accelerated Learning, which is also an extremely useful approach, than Experiential Learning.

    Don’t we have to be careful to explain our definitions and usages of words 🙂

  8. Different uses of the terminology
    Geoff, experiential learning is one of those terms used in different ways by different people in various contexts. What you referred to has also been described by some as Action Learning Sets (another term used differently by different people). In some contexts, experiential learning is any kind of learning which immerses people in an experience rather than just gaining information through listening, reading or observing. Because of that, it does overlap with accelereated learning.

  9. Terminology

    I support Geoff on this one. Experiential Learning is a specific methodology in which the trainer/facilitator steers an individual or group through David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. Training Zone’s founder Tim Pickles has an excellent summary on line at Kolb wrote a book in 1984 entitled ‘Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development’.
    The course will have a series of experiences (as close to the real situation as possible) and will review their own feelings, behaviour in the context, It’s useful for self-awareness and skill development.
    Accelerated Learning is another methodology with underlying theories of the brain and how people take in information. It tries to appeal to as many senses at once like VAK (Visual, Auditoy, Kinaesthetic).
    Action Learning is based on Reg Revans’ work in which real life projects are used as vehicles for learning.
    These are three methodologies out of many that a trainer may use. It is the knowledge of these and the ability to use whichever is appropriate for learning outcomes and audience that makes us skilled in our field.



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