Learning to do anything in our lives requires us to get active.  When we’re putting together some flat-pack furniture, we tend to read the first instruction, have a go, make some mistakes and learn from them….or not!  It’s very unlikely that we will sit and read the entire instruction booklet from cover to cover and then begin to work practically.
Most of us learned to walk and talk by practising.  Trial and error is the main method here, with guidance from parents or carers and hopefully lots of praise and encouragement.

According to the 70 20 10 model, 70% of what we know comes from experience and trying out new things.  

Goals of experiential learning

 “There are two goals in the experiential learning process. One is to learn the specifics of a particular subject, and the other is to learn about one’s own learning process.”
- David A. Kolb

Kolb has a four-step learning process for this that is applied multiple times in every experience:  Experience – Reflect – Think – Act.

Perhaps you go to a restaurant – you eat a great dish.  That’s the experience!  You reflect on the experience – what was it you enjoyed?  You think about it – what exactly was in it?  Maybe you do a little research.  Then of course you act on it – you make the dish.  The cycle begins again….you eat it, you reflect on how similar it was, you think about what you could have done differently…you make it again!

How can we apply this into training or teaching?

Experiential learning doesn’t have to be huge or formally structured.  Asking a peer to explain what they have done/are doing can be hugely helpful.  After that, the learning partner can teach someone else to really understand, reflect on and consolidate what they have achieved.  Asking learners to extend their responses and explain their thinking can be a very simple way to use experiential learning.

Simulated experiences

Although some learners find role play an intimidating idea, it can be very successful when used well.  If learners feel comfortable already in the training/teaching space, it can be effective.  If you are learning how to deal with an unhappy customer or phone a client to cancel a booking, it is much more effective to actually do it.  If the trainer emphasizes how much better it would be to make mistakes within a simulation than in real life, learners may find this much more helpful.

If your training has been regularly punctuated with discussion, games and learning experiences, learners should feel much more inclined to take part in simulated experiences.  It is really helpful to give them that cycle to consider:

Experience – Reflect – Think – Act

The discussion after the role play or simulation is as or possibly even more useful than the activity.  

A case study is also a great resource for experiential learning.  It encourages the learner to consider what they would do, why and how.  The ensuing discussion around the example in the case study may give them a different point of view in how they might act or react.

Useful reflection

After role play or a case study, questions need to be carefully planned to ensure the discussion is useful and leads to learning.  These could include:

• How did you feel the scenario should be resolved when it first began?
• Did the scenario turn out differently than you expected?
• How did others’ behaviour and comments change your mind?
• What emotional reactions did you have during the scenario and why do you think this may have been?
• What strategies did you use to try to resolve the issue and would you do this again next time?
• Overall, what did you learn from the experience?

Other active strategies for learning

These strategies can be used throughout a course or peppered throughout a day to keep things active:

• Post-its: ideas written on post-its and put up in a certain area of the room to show opinions/agreement etc.
• Snowballing: a learner writes down their ideas and questions about a topic.  They form a pair and share these ideas – they may amend what they have written.  They then form a group of 4 and this can grow into bigger groups if appropriate.
• Think pair share: giving thinking time individually to learners before they share ideas with a learning partner.
• Line up: placing yourself in a line to show agreement/disagreement.

Anything that gets people moving should be useful and will hopefully lead to some active, experiential learning.  If learners are always directed back to reflection after the experience, learning should be taking place.  Make learning active – turn it into an experience to be remembered.