What is the Experiential Learning Cycle?

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Experiential learning is something a lot of people have heard of, but not quite so many understand.

This week, I’m jargon-busting to get to the gooey sweet stuff at the heart of successful learning! Yes, I’ve turned cake connoisseur and philosopher to crack experiential learning… Any excuse to eat cake!

We’ve been celebrating a few birthdays this week here at GEHQ and that means lots of cake! It’s clear from the empty plates, we all love a homemade Millionaire’s Shortbread! Yet, how do we know this? Is it all a case of, ‘I eat cake, therefore I am’? Well, sort of! Our sweet knowledge is thanks to a good ol’ dollop of ‘experiential learning’.


Experiential learning may sound like a super jargony L&D term and that’s because it is! Broken down, it simply explains how we learn best through experience and reflection. So, this type of informal learning is all about trial and error…I should know, I’ve burned enough cakes in my time!

Learning From Experience

Decisions, decisions…chocolate or banana cake?

So, how do we effectively learn new skills? You could watch hours of The Great British Bake Off (who wouldn’t want to do that?!) but soggy bottom or no soggy bottom, you won’t know if you like cake until you taste it.

Why?

Because we learn from experience! Whatever you’re trying to master…a baking showstopper, your day job or setting up your own business… your success will be down to Experiential Learning.

Experience-based learning is so effective because it helps establish lasting behaviour change. How? Rather than simply understanding a new subject or gaining a skill, we develop new habits and behaviours.

In fact, according to the 70 20 10 model, 70% of what we know comes from experience and trying new things. Yet, the real learning happens when we reflect on those experiences! Research confirms that quality reflection time helps us learn.

Kolb’s Theory of Experiential Learning

Professor D.A. Kolb is the person most associated with experiential learning theory and said: “knowledge results from the combination of grasping experience and transforming it.”

Kolb’s research shows mastering expertise is a continuous process of experience, reflection, conceptualisation and experimentation. These elements make up the experiential learning cycle which shows the relationship between each phase.

The Experiential Learning Cycle


Concrete Experience

Concrete experience describes the hands-on personal experiences that we learn from. It’s where we try new things, get stuck in and step out of our comfort zone. These experiences could be anything in our personal or professional lives… trying a new recipe, performing a daily task at work or simply missing a tpyo (well spotted!). Through experience, we can learn from our successes and failures. It’s what happens next that creates real behaviour change!

Reflective Observation

Next we need to reflect to successfully learn from our experiences. This is what the ‘reflective observation’ phase of the experiential learning cycle is all about. It’s during this stage that we consider and ponder experiences. What went right and what could be improved? It’s also a chance to observe how it could have been done differently and to learn from others.

So, this is a stage of analysis, observing alternatives and drawing up pros and cons. Whatever works for you! Why did you burn the cakes? Where was the typo? Who is top of the company learner leaderboard and why?

Abstract Conceptualisation

Once we have identified and we understand the defining characteristics of an experience, we can decide what we will do differently next time, if anything. This is a time for planning and brainstorming strategies for success.

You could set the oven timer to avoid a baking mishap, use spellcheck and practise that challenging task at work when you have some spare time. Through experiential learning you’ll be top of the learner leaderboard in no time!

Active Experimentation

The active experimentation phase of the learning cycle is where we get to experiment with our ideas. It’s time to put your plan of action to the test in the real world! After all, if we don’t try something we won’t know if it works. Whatever you’re seeking to master, however lofty or detailed your plans, at some point you have to put away the textbooks and do it for real. However many times you have to go back to the drawing board, the taste of success is worth it!

How Can Online Learning Help with Experiential Learning?

You might think online learning is all about formal training, so where does the experiential learning come in? Here are just a few ways learning technologies can help us learn from experience and reflection.

1. Experiential Learning Activities

Simulate concrete experiences! Online learning provides an awesome platform for recreating real-world tasks, all within the safety of virtual reality. These experiences can take many forms within online training, such as learning games or game-based learning. The training scenarios can be build around meaningful game templates that reflect reality. These virtual experiences can recreate what happens in learners’ day jobs, giving them the chance to practise their skills. For example, customer service officers could come face-to-face with an unhappy virtual customer and be asked to process a refund.

2. Provide Opportunities for Reflection

Provide ample opportunity within the training for reflection. Following a piece of learning or simulated experience you could include open ended quiz questions that invite learners to consider and evaluate their experience. How did the customer service officers feel when faced by the customer’s demands? What went well and what could be improved about their interaction with the customer? What was the outcome?

3. Learn From Each Other through Social Learning

Another important factor in the reflective observation stage of experiential learning is observing and learning from the experiences of others. How do people’s reactions to an experience differ from our own? Why did someone succeed in a certain task? What did they do that I can learn from?

Social learning can help employees learn from each other by providing opportunities for learners to share their experiences on the LMS messageboard and Chat features. Encourage learners to share videos of their experiences and examples of what works for them. You could set meaningful challenges within the LMS to engage staff and get the conversations going! For example, “share a photo example of brilliant visual merchandising.”

4. Experiment! 

Don’t forget to give learners the chance to try, try again! Through simulated experiences, reflective questions and social learning, everyone will be eager to try out their new skills. Encourage people to head back into the training and take on the challenges again! This time they may be able to create very happy customers – no cake needed!

You can encourage learners to keep improving and experimenting with their abilities by introducing engaging gamification features, such as points and learner leaderboards. As learners improve and succeed they will rack up experience points and climb the learner leaderboard.

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Whatever you’re trying to master, be it as simple as pie or as tasty as a fully engaged workforce – make sure you put Experiential Learning at the heart of your learning strategy! With a little experience you’ll be unleashing superheroes within your organisation in no time!

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