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How to get the most from experiential learning


Emma Webb from Farscape Development explores how to get the best possible results from an experiential learning programme.

Experiential learning is becoming increasingly popular. Many companies are choosing to move away from traditional classroom-based learning as they find it fails to deliver long lasting results. They are aware that truly powerful learning experiences – ones that stay with people for many years – are those that have been moving, stretching or challenging in some way.
Experiential learning can be defined as the development of personal understanding and skills through the analysis of, and reflection on, activity. It is based on David Kolb’s cycle of learning – Plan, Do, Review, Apply. It is founded on the idea that if people experience something (through doing it) they are more likely to remember it and therefore take action. It gives people the opportunity to practise what they have learnt, often in inspiring environments, whilst pushing them out of their comfort zones – resulting in experiences that will stay with them forever. 
"Run a rigorous, in depth training needs analysis to define what outcomes are needed and then decide if experiential training is the best way of achieving them."
But how can you make sure that you are not just sending your people on a jolly? How can you make sure that they are part of a learning experience that delivers real, measurable and long lasting results?
The following eight tips are some of the ways in which you can ensure that you (or your staff) will get the most out of an experiential learning programme.

1. Ask why

Ask yourself – why you are doing the training in the first place? Experiential learning should not be done just because you know that training is needed and it looks like a fun, interesting and memorable way to go about it. If you cannot articulate the business outcomes you need from any training then there is no point in doing it. You need to run a rigorous, in-depth training needs analysis to define what outcomes are needed and then decide if experiential training is the best way of achieving them.

2. Don’t get it confused

Experiential learning should not be confused with team bonding. Paintballing, quad-biking and white water rafting are excellent high impact, memorable ways of bringing a team together – but do they achieve the business needs? Experiential learning enables people to practise and build on skills; it develops talent and shows where peoples’ strengths and weaknesses lie. It should be a long, carefully thought out process that encourages self-reflection and embeds learning over a long period of time.

3. Don’t push too far

Whilst experiential learning should stretch people outside of their comfort zones in order to see how they react in difficult situations, this should not be taken too far. When people experience extreme stress or panic their rational thought processes are overridden by the adrenaline being pumped around their body. This affects decision making meaning that although they might feel exhilarated they are unlikely to learn much.

4. Make it appropriate

There is a huge variety of experiential learning techniques that can be applied to a range of situations and needs. It’s important to make sure the type of experiential training you choose is relevant to your needs. For example, an increasingly used experiential learning technique involves horse whispering – which is brilliant for improving self-awareness through the exploration of emotions and behaviours – but would be of little use on a course to improve project management.

5. Mix theory and practice

Often when people think of experiential programmes they just imagine high-impact activities. However, without the relevant theory to back it up, these activities become meaningless. For example, the communication tool Strength Deployment Inventory (SDI) gives a framework and a language for delegates to be able to talk about and analyse how they communicate when being pushed out of their comfort zones. It is something concrete that they can refer to and remember about themselves. Equally, too much theory and not enough practice results in information overload which won’t be embedded.

6. Make it fit the journey

Experiential elements should not be merely ‘bolted on’ to a wider programme. A day of classroom-based learning with an experiential element tacked on at the end is unlikely to have the desired impact. Delegates may struggle to take an abstract experiential learning activity and translate it to the work environment – unless it has been carefully woven into the learning journey. Experiential needs to be an integral part of the programme – or it’s best to leave it out. Using it as an add-on could result in confusion and a lack of clarity about learning outcomes.

7. Make it explicit

The links between experiential learning and how it relates back to the workplace should be explicit. If the programme is designed to meet the training needs of the business then the links are there implicitly. The job of the facilitator is to make them explicit. This way they can focus on applying what they have learnt – not trying to figure out how to do so.  

8. Build in time for review and discussion

Finally, and arguably most importantly, time needs to be built in for review and discussion. Without making time for a proper review and discussion after every experiential task or activity, the outcomes will be forgotten. It is often skipped over but it is vital for embedding learning from experiential programmes.
Adil Jan, head of IT at Synergy Health, recently sent his team on an experiential learning programme after realising that "people in non-academic environments don’t value 'traditional' learning styles". He said: "Since the [experiential] training there's much more engagement because the team are not afraid to ask or challenge and we've built stronger bonds which means every one of us has been able to achieve more since returning."
He added: "I can't think of a better investment over the year. If you’re willing to take the time to carefully design and plan, experiential learning will deliver ROI which exceeds more traditional training."
Emma Webb is marketing administrator at Farscape Development She blogs at Farscape specialises in delivering results driven learning and development programmes. Their training is experiential and has a foundation in emotional intelligence and behavioural change. You can contact Emma on 0117 370 1800.

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