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Principles of 'Experiential' Learning

Updated: Jan 24, 2019

With experiential learning, the clue is in the title - learners absorb and encode the information delivered by their trainer by 'experiencing' it in a facilitated environment.

You have done this from an early age...think about how you learned to walk and talk.

Experiential learning has two key aspects:

- It is an ACTIVE process that engages the learner, not a PASSIVE process whereby the learner is lectured to.

- Learning starts with the experience or activity and is followed by assessment and reflection performed by the learner.

Experiential learning is not always the most appropriate method but is incredibly useful when training practically based knowledge/skills.


A session may be structured like so:

- First, the topic and learning objectives are introduced.

- Next, the learning is contextualised - the 'why' of the session is explained using examples

- Now, the trainer drills down on the learning, the 'what'

- Learners work, supervised bu their trainer on the learning

- Learners assess their work and reflect on what they have achieved

- Repetition of the last two steps occurs until the action is embedded

- The trainer recaps learns and sets actions

Want an example of experiential learning?

If we were to look at mortgage lender's criteria, its important for Brokers to know all about this.

We could simply give them a sheet with all the info on it...easy right?

But they haven't learned anything, they just have a handout and will always rely on this rather than think about where the information comes from, can change etc.

What if instead of making a handout FOR the brokers, THEY made it is a session facilitated by a trainer?

They could pick the key pieces of information that the handout should have on it, how that info was grouped together, and then research this themselves so that they leaned more about where this came from etc.

Once they have created their handout, they can use it, evaluate it, and add to it if required...but the key here is THEY do it.

A small change to HOW you train, guiding people to learning rather than spoon feeding them, can mean the difference between them 'learning' and simply turning up for the notes.

Key Principles of Experiential Learning

1: The Learner is Central to the process

The learner must be active for them to 'experience' something rather than be lectured about a subject. They must, at some point, perform all of the required learning themselves, or all of the learning themselves, broken down into smaller skills.

2: Less Facilitation is More

This seems to run counter to your role as trainer but you need to be as uninvolved in the 'experiential' side of your sessions as possible...this means mistakes will (and should) be made!

The assessment and reflection part of your session will help refine what your learners are doing.

3: 'Steer' Learning Outcomes

Looking at the learning structure, it would be fair to worry that learners may come to the 'wrong' conclusion or perform incorrect actions as with experiential learning they are free to come to conclusions free from a trainers facilitation.

There are two ways to handle this:

- First, when you contextualise the training, you use an OUT of contexts example then an IN context example to 'steer' learners towards outcomes.

- Second, you ensure that the session is designed for you to repeat the 'experiential' learning portion after assessment and reflection by learners so that you are able to 'steer' by suggesting subtle changes to the way they work next time.

4: Negativity Kills Experiential Learning

Learners who start an experiential learning session feeling negatively about it will NOT actively engage at the level required to learn anything.

When planning sessions, make sure that the benefit to the learner(s) is clear and obvious.

If learners know 'whats in it for me' then they can more easily see the link between training and success.

5: You cannot predict what an individual will learn

This seems like a cop-out, but its true that everyone is different, may take actions and behaviours away from a session you didn't expect.

Plan for this.

Merely running an activity without contextualising it to start, and summarising it afterwards will create ambiguity that you don't want. Be specific in what you want learners to do NEXT.

6: It doesn't end at the end

Learners may 'learn' but for them to 'do' what you want outside of a session, there needs to be follow up to help 'embed' the behaviour or learning.

7: The activity isn't the be all and end all

Yes, experiential learning revolves around an activity or activities, but there still needs to be consideration given to the information you present, the assessment of learning YOU need to preform, the feedback etc.

Don't get so obsessed with activities that you forget that you're there to teach.

8: Keep it simple

When planning an activity, keep it simple!

This will be the first time that learners are experiencing your activity, so the less complex the better.

9: The 'Assess and review' stage is essential

Once the activity is completed, learners MUST first assess (how did that go? what worked? what outcome was there etc).

Assessing is goal specific. Did they achieve the goal, and how?

Reviewing makes the learners look 'forward', if they were to do 'it' again, what would they do differently?

These two activities are the core of learning. Looking back and learning from what was done.

Guide learners towards the positives first, both to avoid negativity and to encourage constructive conversation. Let learners speak and come to their own conclusions before steering them towards next steps.

10: Leave your ego out

You MUST be hands off to a degree you may not be used to for experiential learning to work.

This can be difficult but is essential.

Trust in two things:

- Your learners will draw valuable and positive conclusions whilst completing activities if you've introduced and contextualised properly.

- The structure of learning is such that you can 'steer' the next attempt so that again, learners can make their own valuable and positive conclusions.

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