The Basics of Experiential Learning Theory

Employees sitting round a table, viewed from above

Different learning and education styles and methods can provide various benefits in training. People usually have different preferences when it comes to learning style, which is important to take into account when designing and delivering training. Being able to learn using a style that works for them can help any individual to learn faster and retain information more easily.

Experiential learning theory is one of the things that L&D professionals should be aware of if they want to design their training in a way that works for everyone. It’s a theory that essentially focuses on learning by doing, emphasizing the importance of experiencing something in order to learn new things. Experiences help people to remember what they were doing and retain what they learned while doing it. Understanding experiential learning theory is part of knowing how different people learn and their learning preferences.

David Kolb’s Learning Cycle

David Kolb is an educational theorist who is best known for his work on experiential learning theory (ELT). Influenced by other theorists such as John Dewey and Jean Piaget, he published his theory in 1984. It has since become important in many different types of education and training, from early year’s education to professional training. The theory includes four stages of learning, each of which relates to the different ways an experience helps someone to learn:

  • Concrete learning is when a person experiences something new or interprets a past experience in a new way
  • Reflective observation is when the learner personally reflects on an experience that they have had
  • Abstract conceptualisation comes when the person begins to change their thinking or form new ideas based on the experience
  • Active experimentation involves applying the new ideas to the world around them to see if they change or improve how they do things

This cycle can take place quickly or it might occur over a longer period of time. Because this is a cycle, learners can enter at different stages. At which stage they enter, according to Kolb, depends on the learner’s preferences and learning tendencies.

Kolb also defined four different learning styles, which influence which stage of the cycle is most dominant to the learner.

  1. Diverging – People with a diverging learning style prefer to be observers. They like to watch and learn, rather than be the people doing things. They also often have strong imaginations. They like to work in groups and often have an interest in people. Those with this learning style focus on concrete learning and reflective observation.
  2. Assimilating – The assimilating learning style applies to people who like to have clear information. These people are analytical and prefer to learn with hard concepts and abstracts, rather than by working with people. Their focuses are on abstract conceptualization and reflective observation.
  3. Converging – People who are converging learners like to solve problems. They prefer to apply what they have learned to practical issues and technical problems. They will also try out new ideas. When learning, they focus on abstract conceptualization and active experimentation.
  4. Accommodating – Accommodating learners take a practical approach. They like to be challenged and are ready to use their intuition to tackle problems. They use concrete learning and active experimentation when they are learning.

The Benefits of Experiential Learning in the Workplace

There are numerous benefits to using experiential learning to inform professional training. When practicing what is learned, retention of information past two weeks is an impressive 68%, compared to just 29% for just studying written material. Experiential learning can also help employees to learn how to adapt to new situations. It joins up theory and practice and it also allows for accurate assessment of skills.

What Experiential Learning Means in Professional Training

So how can experiential learning theory be applied when designing and delivering training courses and materials? Experiential learning practices ensure professionals get to learn through experience and action, rather than purely by rote learning. It’s a more hands-on way of learning that lets people put what they learn into practice.

Some of the ways experiential learning might be put into place in the workplace include:

  • Role-playing real life scenarios, such as interacting with customers – role-playing can help people to see things from the perspective of others. It gives them the chance to put their skills into practice when developing interpersonal skills and behavioural skills.
  • Simulations to demonstrate how to respond to a situation (for example, in first aid training) – this could include using equipment simulators or software to recreate real-life scenarios. Virtual reality tools and augmented reality are also being used in similar ways.
  • Looking at case studies of actual events – analysis of case studies can be used to help people develop their analytical and decision making skills. By looking at case studies, you can identify things that were done effectively and actions that perhaps weren’t the best choice in hindsight.
  • On-the-job training with mentors or training partners – this enables people to learn while they are working. They can help with knowledge and skill retention because they are learning by doing, rather than trying to retain information from a classroom and put it into practice later.

When designing and delivering training to professionals, it’s important to take into account how different methods can provide the right learning experiences. The training experiences that you design can appeal to people with different learning styles but you have to take them into consideration. Experiential learning can work for all learning styles, but it’s necessary to create the right experiences. The experiences that you need to design also need to match up to the skills that are being taught for maximum effectiveness. However, it is possible to include all types of learners in one experience if it is designed well.

Keep each type of learner in mind when designing and delivering experiential training. You should provide something for each type of learner, whether they prefer to watch or be more hands-on. Think about the different stages of the experiential learning cycle too so that you can take them into account.

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