Volume 5 Organizational strength through leadership January 2009
Experiential Learning Method
A learn-by-doing approach
By Helen Baxter-Southworth Experience: Creating a shared reality
“Almost any Your audience is zeroed in on you, hanging Experiential learning, as its name implies,
on your every word and furiously jotting down begins with an experience or activity of
experience can notes. This, you think, is going to be the most almost any kind. The experience is the vehicle
effective training session ever. Maybe. Or to illustrate the learning objectives and may
be used maybe not. range from a lecture to role playing to an
outdoor orienteering course to a real-time
The rapt attention of an audience is a sign
to illustrate the message is being well received in the
team business meeting.
moment, but little else. The true value of that Whatever the experience, it serves four vital
almost message, and corporate training in general, functions:
becomes clear only later and is measured
any learning in how well those skills, knowledge, and 1. Immerse participants in a situation
concepts transfer back to the workplace. focused on the target skills or
point.” concepts. It may also engage them in
Corporate trainers are often burdened with testing a proposed theoretical model.
tightly-packed learning modules designed to
quickly inoculate participants and get them 2. Create a compelling situation for the
back to income-generating jobs. Spoon- participants to get “caught up in the
feeding, lecturing or even cheer leading to act of being themselves.”
our learners is the result of our haste to get
3. Generate interest and motivate
through the “required” material. We are
understandably gratified and relieved when
the passive adult learner participates. But 4. Generate a shared point of reference,
are they learning? That’s the big question data and language subsequent
that lingers in our minds and often goes stages in the process becomes an
unanswered. essential shared point of reference to
Research reveals that adults learn best under
certain conditions. They must be open to Reflection: What just happened?
learning and the presented information must
be relevant to their lives and immediately The next step in the process is reflection.
applicable to their personal goals and
challenges. With the help of a skilled facilitator, the
participants take an immediate look at their
One approach that creates these conditions individual and group feelings and behaviors
while taking the guesswork out of training during the experience. This begins when
is a process called “experiential learning.” the facilitator asks the participants to recall
This systematic process introduces target the events and behaviors that just occurred,
knowledge, skills and concepts using an initial and to describe the “rules,” demands, or
experience reflective of the learner’s real dynamics of the activity. Then participants are
life. The process is broken into four phases: asked to reflect on the impact of their own
Experience, Reflection, Connection and and others’ behaviors.
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Timing is critical: Only when reflection occurs immediately after the clear to the facilitator before beginning,
experience can feelings and reactions of participants be easily accessed. they may only reveal themselves to the
There is no need to “lead” an adult learner or to tell them what happened. group as the reflection process ensues.
In fact, asking leading questions may cause defensive or resistant reaction.
Adults learn best in a climate of openness and respect. The skilled facilitator, For example, if the target focus of an
then, asks simple, open-ended, recall questions: activity is negotiation skills, attention
and questions might focus on bargaining
exchange and mutual interests. If,
• What happened? however, the focus of that very same
• What were the results? activity is building team trust, questions
might focus on forthright communication.
• Did “roles” emerge? What were they?
Because the feelings, actions and
• Who played what roles? statements made during the experience
• ow did that make you feel during the experience?
H will serve as the basis for ultimate
learning, it is important to “publish” or
• hat kinds of attitudes, beliefs, or assumptions governed your record observations of the participants.
behaviors? The facilitator does this by transcribing
answers to questions for all to see—on
a large white board, perhaps—but while
Keep in mind that almost any experience can be used to illustrate almost
staying out of the content. This means the
any learning point. However, the questions used to debrief must be tied to
facilitator does not correct the participant
relevant learning objectives. And while these learning objectives must be
and pauses only when necessary to ensure
accuracy. These verbatim comments
help the group own and remember these
Experiential Learning Method
important, first reactions and will be used
as “data” to validate upcoming teaching
points in the process.
Experience Facilitators should, however, encourage
Creates interest & motivates learning participants to progress in their critical
Reflects real-life challenges thinking beyond simple recall—to analyze
Illustrates target learning or process aloud their observations
Compels participant to get and insights about the experience. For
“caught in the act of being him/herself” instance, the facilitator may ask:
Creates shared experience
Generates shared language • W
ere there any recurring themes
or patterns in personal or group
Projection Reflection behaviors?
Now What? What? W
• as there any cause-and-effect
Focus on transfer of learning between behaviors and personal
Debrief or unpack the experience
Project into the future – back at work feelings?
Describe what just occurred
See yourself using target skill,
Recall personal feelings & reactions
knowledge or concept at work Describe behaviors & sequence of events At this point in the reflection process
Encourage public declaration of Analyze patterns of behavior some evaluation may also take place,
commitment to act Evaluate what worked & did not prompted by questions such as:
Identify potential roadblocks
• iven the experience and the desired
Connection outcome, what worked?
So What? • What did not work?
Shift focus to workplace realities • What hindered performance?
Determine relevance to real life
Compare & contrast with work realities • What helped performance?
Assess effectiveness of behaviors at work
Facilitating Disciplined Reflection
Any experience can be a catalyst for learning. All Experience
that is needed is a skilled facilitator and the use of Lecture, Game
a conscious, disciplined reflection and discovery Problem-solving scenario
process. Use the four-step process below to Work group task
“debrief” a personal or group experience which Team challenge
illustrates the individual or group development Role-play
opportunity. Personal style assessment
When this reflection phase has Team meeting
been successfully completed, the
group should have not only a shared
experience, but also a common,
Now What? What?
personalized language to describe it –
not the facilitator’s or textbook jargon. How might & where you apply the What just happened?
Participants will also have personal How did it feel?
learnings (re-learnings) back at work?
feelings about their own involvement. What were the results? The causes?
What’s most likely to de-rail your good
This sense of personal involvement, intentions to apply these learnings? What “rules” governed your behavior?
ownership and experience is a critical What will support your good intentions? The group’s behavior?
component to learning. The stage Did roles or behavior patterns
has now been set to shift from a emerge?
“laboratory” experience to “real life”
Connection: From “So what?”
How does this experience compare
to “Ah, ha!”
and/or contrast to “real life”?
In this next step of the Experiential Did you or others behave as you or
Learning Method, participants are they might back at work? How so?
asked to step back and away from the How are the “rules” & results of this expe-
completed experience and shift to the rience like the rules &
workplace realities. They are challenged results at work?
to make a connection between the
exercise they have just described and
their personal life. To facilitate this, the
leader may refer to the group’s reflection situation? Do these behaviors repeat themselves at the workplace? Is this
recorded comments and ask questions laboratory experience relatable to life or work experience?
Keep in mind that it is not the facilitator’s job to evaluate the learner’s
success or failure. It is up to the learner to evaluate his or her own progress
• s this experience anything like your toward self-chosen goals. To encourage this, the facilitator may ask the
environment at work or the context participant to reflect directly on this. For example:
in which you live?
• ave your behaviors or attitudes
• ow does your behavior or attitude affect your effectiveness or that of
ever been described in these terms your team? How to does it affect the quality of your relationships?
in the “real world?”
• re you achieving your desired results with these behaviors, attitudes
• id you or the other participants
D and beliefs?
act in any way like you might behave
• s the organization achieving its desired results? Why or why not?
back at work?
• hat behaviors have been affirmed here that you need to continue and
• re the “rules” of this experience at
all like the “rules” or assumptions
you operate under back at work? If • W
hat did you do here that you realize is helpful? What is not helpful?
so, what are the similarities? If not,
what are the differences? Successes and failures alike are opportunities for learning, and the adult
learner knows best his or her own “teachable moments.” The role of the
To borrow a scientific metaphor, in this facilitator is to guide the adult to reflect on their learning opportunity.
stage we are testing the validity of our Any response on the part of the participant is useful. A seasoned facilitator
experiment. That is, how applicable is knows to “Trust the process.” This simply means that there will be learning
this experience to a more generalized
in every engagement. It just may not be the same This final step, projection, is what we are hired to
learning the facilitator came in to teach or the learner deliver as facilitators, trainers and coaches. This phase
came to learn. is designed to push the adult to visualize, imagine and
project mentally using the target skill or knowledge on
If, despite the questions and introspection, there turns the job. It is the application of the sentiment, “If you can
out to be no connection between the exercise and reality, see it, you can do it.”
the facilitator might ask: “How is what happened here
different than reality?” The contrasting description still For maximum efficacy, learners need the opportunity
provides useful information. to try out their new skills quickly, and to apply it to
an immediate problem or opportunity. The facilitator
The connection stage is designed to help the learner can help identify a time and place where they can
become aware of the relevance of the target skills and immediately apply the target skill. To do this, they might
concepts to his or her real life. The critical thinking ask:
questions in this phase are designed to highlight
behavior patterns we take for granted or may have never
taken the time to analyze. H
• ow can you remind yourself of the good intentions
you have arrived at here?
Projection: Now What?
• hat barriers are you likely to confront that might
Thus far, the learning group has engaged in an derail your good intentions?
experience and discussed its relevance in their lives in • How can you make this skill usage a habit?
class—but what now? The return on the investment is
realized only when the learner decides to transfer the
new knowledge, skill or ability back to the workplace. This Engaging a crowd with a dynamic Power Point
begins in the final “projection” phase of the Experiential presentation may feel like training, but to be truly
Learning Method. effective, facilitators need to utilize more innovative,
interactive ways to transfer knowledge, skills and
In this phase, participants “project” into the future— concepts from the training room to real life. When we
seeing themselves in their mind’s eye applying the new find ourselves tight on time and overwhelmed, we must
skill or concept. Participants are encouraged to make remind ourselves of the learner’s needs for relevance,
decisions and public declarations regarding future self-evaluation and self-direction. The Experiential
actions. Learning Method fulfills all of these needs, ensuring that
Adult learners must reach their own conclusions and ultimate lesson is not only received, but implemented.
feel sufficiently confident in their ability to apply the
knowledge with only limited exposure to failure. The
payoff must be obvious. To guide the learner to this
insight, the facilitator might ask:
Knowles, Malcom. The Adult Learner: A Neglected Species. Houston:
Gulf Publishing Company, 1978
• ow might you apply these skill sets elsewhere?
What kinds of questions do you hear yourself asking? Adapted from
• ow have the skills that have been helpful in this
Bloom & Krathwohl.
“laboratory” experience be transferred back at home
• hat patterns of personal behavior are not useful or
effective and might be discontinued in the future?
• hat newly learned skills could you incorporate?
An effective facilitator will not let the participant off the
hook with platitudes and generalities such as, “I’ll have
to be more open,” or “I’ll have to treat the customer with
more respect.” Challenge the participant to get specific
with prompts such as:
• What might you say?
• ho is most likely to challenge these new 10490 Little Patuxent Pkwy, Suite 280
behaviors? Columbia, Maryland 21044
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