Experiential Learning


To make experiential learning effective the learning wheel is used. This is a cycle and a process of setting goals, followed by thinking, planning, experimenting and decision making , followed by action, followed by observing, reflecting & reviewing, followed by a bit more thinking, decision making and sometimes adjusting goals, followed by more action and so on.

What makes experiential learning so special?

Simply that the approach to experiential learning utilises participants own experience and their own reflection about that experience, rather than lecture and theory as the means of generating understanding and transferring skills and knowledge.

Is experiential learning team building?

Trainers will be the first to expound the virtues of experiential learning but so often experiential learning is thought to be about team building activities or outdoor pursuits. Whilst experiential learning may have team building as a learning goal and outdoor activities as a learning method, experiential learning is much more than that.

So what is experiential learning? You could say that experiential learning is a learner centred approach which starts with the premise that people learn best from experience.

Others might simply say that experiential learning as learning-by-doing.

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Owning the experiential learning process

When participants use experiential learning it is they that are doing something and discover what it is like, how it made them feel, what it meant to them, i.e. experiential learning is their experience and no one else’s.

Therefore experiential learning is particularly effective due to its holistic approach of addressing cognitive, emotional and the physical aspect of the learner.

In this way experiential learning is a process that cultivates learning self-sufficiency.

The experiential learning cycle for continuous improvement

Taking an holistic approach experiential learning incorporates continuous improvement by repeating the learning wheel over and over. Continuous use of the experiential learning cycle guides individuals and groups or teams towards improved performance and high quality outcomes.

The more learners use the experiential learning cycle the more they will realise continuous improvement.

Continuous improvement is said to be a journey without an end, this equally applies toexperiential learning . There is always something new, a different way of doing things but the experiential learning cycle can be apply over and over regardless of what change needs to be incorporated into personal or business life.

The experiential learning laboratory

The experiential learning laboratory is an environment different from participants usual environment. It takes them away from the workplace, the home, the familiar environment and place them into an environment of experimentation.

Therefore experiential learning allows people to be challenged, to think about and experiment with new concepts, and to take some risks (not physical).

In this way experiential learning can be as much about reflecting on setbacks and disappointment as it can be on success. In this way experiential learning is new, different, and liberates the learner but most importantly, it is safe and risk free to the organisation.

Is experiential learning self-rewarding?

Another interesting thought about the experiential learning journey is that experiential learning is felt by many to be ‘a reward’ or a gift in and of itself, because of it’s own intrinsic value and vitality as a learning tool.

Used responsibly and professionally, experiential learning can be profound, exciting, engaging, challenging, and
yet caring. Whilst experiential learning is a means to an end for achieving desired learning goals it provides an extra ‘something’ that is not achieved in more traditional forms of learning primarily because experiential learning is both brain, mind, body, heart and soul friendly!

Because of all of this, experiential learning is enduring, which is why it has such a powerful effect on people and why it is used so effectively as a learning tool in professional, educational and corporate environments.

Using experiential learning to reinforce the comfort zone concept

Every person has comfort zones within which they operate yet experiential learning often takes place outside of this zone. Whilst one could say that the key to personal growth and increasing success in nearly every endeavour is the willingness to step outside of one’s comfort zone the way that experiential learning delivers freedom of choice and risks means that learners remain in control of the learning process.

Why? because if experiential learning placed people in situations of great discomfort then learners would be pre-occupied with comfort reinstatement rather than experiential learning . The thing therefore about experiential learning is that whilst stretched and challenged experiential learning will not place learners in a position of great discomfort. Consequently everyone enjoys the feeling that experiential learning generates for they know that their experimentations resulted in success.

Principles of experiential learning

  • Experiential learning recognises that people learn best from their own experiences and their own reviews
  • Experiential learning subscribes to the notion that what people do is more important than what they know
  • Experiential learning renders behaviours and attitudes visible and thereby can become acknowledged and then addressed
  • Experiential learning is built on the premise that it is not enough to explain to people what to do, they must be shown how to actually do it and then how to improve it
  • Experiential learning moves beyond knowledge and into skill by generating a learning experience – the more experience the greater the skill
  • Experiential learning gets to grips with the most important aspect of training and that is to achieve change in behaviour and attitude
  • Experiential learning understands that to be remembered over a long period of time the learning process should be enjoyable, motivating and rewarding

Applications of experiential learning to business

Before experiential learning programmes are designed and delivered the learning objectives and how learning can be transferred into the workplace has to be considered.

Throughout an experiential learning programme, the learning objectives should remain in focus and be subjected to review. In this way experiential learning will regulate progress being achieved and if necessary what options exist for alternative action.

Following an experiential learning programme the group needs to explore the personal and group learning achieved and agree on an action plan to address how they can begin to apply that learning into the workplace. The action plan is also based on the experiential learning cycle within a structured model for goal setting.

This might relate to many business objectives, for example, management teamworking, leadership or coaching skills, team building, business review meetings, personal development, communication skills and behaviours, dealing with conflict, management style, personal development , etc.

In summary, the structure, process and design of a learning programme reflects the experiential learning cycle, i.e., set goals, participate, observe and reflect, learn, set goals, redesign, participate, observe ……..

The experiential learning environment

  • Experiential learning respects the individuals ideas and choices
  • Experiential learning gives the individual the right to ‘confront’ difficult situations with the view to there resolution
  • Experiential learning provides opportunity to take on challenge in an atmosphere of support and caring (the challenge may be intellectual, emotional, physical, mental, or all four)
  • Experiential learning generates space and time to stand back and reflect when pressures or doubts become too strong
  • Experiential learning cultivates a realisation that the attempt at doing something new or different is more significant than the result
  • Experiential learning produces an awareness that effective learning requires small controlled steps outside comfort zones

The structure of an experiential learning programme

A training needs analysis is always the starting point for experiential learning programme design. These should take place with representatives from the whole ‘system’, i.e. external experiential learning representatives as well as internal sponsors and custodians. It is very important during training needs analysis to take into account the business aims and culture of the organisation as a whole as well as the individuals and teams.

The experiential learning design is based on the findings of the training needs analysis. An experiential learning programme can include any combination of planning meetings, workshops, assignments and progress reviews. For clarity we shall use the term ‘modules’ to refer to a meeting or workshop or assignment or review. Modules can be interwoven or stand alone and are designed to be sequential to build on and anchor experiential learning generated.

The experiential learning design uses innovative approaches as described below, to achieve the individual’s, team’s and organisational goals.

The design of experiential learning modules ensures that they offer challenges of a mental, emotional, intellectual and physical nature to the group – it is therefore an holistic approach. Just like life! In order to achieve positive outcomes, the group must work together to plan, participate, problem solve, make decisions and consider the role of leadership when appropriate. Therefore team building s a key component.

Other components of an experiential learning module explore feelings, trust, feedback, listening, effective questioning, communication between generations and levels of management, risk taking, reflection and review.

Subsequent experiential learning modules are designed after the learning from previous modules. Individuals and the group have time to work on action plans and implement those plans between experiential learning modules.

Each experiential learning module begins with an evaluation of action plans before moving forward in the experiential learning cycle.

The length of an experiential learning programme is dictated by the group or team’s objectives and of course budget. Programmes can have a duration of weeks, months or even years. Much depends upon the effectiveness of inherent team building and whether experiential learning is part of a continuous improvement, or life skills, or qualification programme, or on the other hand viewed as a short term energiser.

Whatever the duration of the experiential learning programme the principle here is for the facilitator to help the group/team apply the learning into their work setting. At the time when both the client and consultant feel that the experiential learning habit has been anchored, the consultant becomes redundant or can occasionally be brought in to facilitate meetings or reviews or conduct team coaching or individual mentoring sessions.


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