Experiential learning occurs when a person engages in some activity, looks back at the activity critically, abstracts some useful insight from the analysis, and puts the result to work through a change in behavior. Of course, this process is experienced spontaneously in everyone’s ordinary life. People never stop learning; with each new experience, we consciously or unconsciously ask ourselves questions such as, “How did that feel?,” “What really happened?,” or “What do I need to remember about that?” It is an inductive process: proceeding from observation rather than from a priori “truth” (as in the deductive process).
Learning can be defined as a change in behavior as a result of experience or input, and that is the usual purpose of training. The effectiveness of experiential learning is based on the fact that nothing is more relevant to us than ourselves. One’s own reactions to, observations about, and understanding of something are more important than someone else’s opinion about it. Research has shown that people learn best by “doing.” One remembers best what one knows better than one remembers what one knows about.
Learning experiences are generated naturally in daily life, but they also can be “set up” to provide opportunities for specific types of learning. A structured experience provides a framework in which the inductive process can be facilitated. The experience is structured so that some aspects of the situation are emphasized and others are not. A set of conditions is established that affects the participants’ roles and the process of interaction. The facilitator may introduce a task to be done by the participant group; this task constitutes the dynamics of the learning situation. Participants experience the opportunities and the constraints of the situation and the human behaviors that are generated by the particular set of conditions. One of the major strengths of this approach is that it can be adapted to many situations or content areas. Once the particular learning objectives are identified, many types of activities can be selected to facilitate their achievement.
After participants have completed the activity or task, they are asked to end that phase of the experience and to process, or discuss, what took place. Within the particular focus, the participants discover meaning for themselves and validate their own learning. The significant thing is that the discussion of feelings, patterns, and implications that constitute the learning phases of the experience are outside the boundary of the artificial group activity. The facilitator helps the members to abstract, from among the aspects of the situation, those elements that capture the essence of the situation. These elements then are generalized to situations in the real world. Learnings about the possible effects of a variety of behaviors can be obtained. The aim is for participants to be able to choose among behaviors when confronted with similar situations in the future.
The Experiential Learning Cycle
The steps in a structured experience follow those of a theoretical cycle (see illustration).
The Experiential Learning Cycle
Experiencing occurs naturally in all life situations. In the training setting, participants are exposed to a particular type of experience. This initial stage is the data-generating part of a structured experience. It is the step that so often is associated with “games” or fun. Obviously, if the process stops after this stage, all learning is left to chance, and the facilitator has not completed the task.
Almost any activity that involves either self-assessment or interpersonal interaction can be used as the “doing” part of experiential learning. The following are common individual and group activities:
- making products or models
- solving problems or sharing information
- giving and receiving feedback
- communicating verbally or nonverbally
- analyzing case material
- negotiating or bargaining
- competing or collaborating
- guided imagery
- creating art objects
- role playing
These activities can be carried out by individuals or in dyads (pairs), triads (trios), small groups, group-on-group arrangements, or large groups. Of course, the learning objectives would dictate both the activity and the appropriate groupings.
It is important to note that the objectives of structured experiences are necessarily general and are stated in terms such as “to explore…,” “to examine…,’ “to study…,” “to identify…,’ etc. Inductive learning means learning through discovery, and the exact things to be learned cannot be specified beforehand. All that in wanted in this stage of the learning cycle is to develop a common data base for the discussion that follows. This means that whatever happens in the activity, whether expected or not, becomes the basis for critical analysis; participants may learn serendipitously.
Sometimes facilitators spend an inordinate amount of energy planning the activity but leave the examination of it unplanned. As a consequence, learning may not be facilitated. The next four steps of the experiential learning cycle are even more important than the experiencing phase. Accordingly, the facilitator needs to be careful that the activity does not generate excess data or create an atmosphere that makes discussion of the results difficult. There can be a lot of excitement and “fun” as well as conflict in human interaction, but these are not synonymous with learning; they provide the common references for group inquiry.
The second stage of the cycle is roughly analogous to inputting data, in data-processing terms. People have experienced an activity and now they presumably are ready to share what they saw and/or how they felt during the event. The intent here is to make available to the group the experience of each individual. This step involves finding out what happened within and to individuals – at cognitive, affective, and behavioral levels – while the activity was progressing. A number of methods help to facilitate the publishing, or declaring, of the reactions and observations of individual participants.
- Recording data during the experiencing stage (for later discussion): rating such things as productivity, satisfaction, confidence, communication, leadership, etc.; listing adjectives that capture feelings at various points.
- Whips: quick free-association go-arounds on various topics concerning the activity.
- Subgroup sharing: generating lists such as the double-entry one “What I saw/How I felt.”
- Posting: total-group input recorded on a newsprint flip chart.
- Ratings: developing ratings of relevant dimensions of the activity, tallying and averaging these measures.
- Reporting: systematic “interviewing” of individuals about their experiences during the activity.
- Nominations: a variation of the “Guess Who?” techniqueâasking participants to nominate one another for roles they played during the experiencing stage.
- Interviewing pairs: asking each other “what” and “how” questions about the activity.
Publishing can be carried out through unstructured discussion, but this requires that the facilitator be absolutely clear about the differences in the steps of the learning cycle and distinguish sharply among interventions in the discussion. For example, during the publishing phase it is important to stick to sharing feelings and other reactions and observations and not to allow some participants to skip ahead to generalizingâinferring principles from what happened. Conversely, some group members’ energies may be focused on staying inside the activity, and they need to be nudged into separating themselves from it in order to learn. Structured techniques such as those listed above make the transition from stage one to stage two cleaner and easier. That, after all, is the job of the facilitator: to create clarity and transition with ease.
This stage can be thought of as the fulcrum or the pivotal step in experiential learning. It is the systematic examination of commonly shared experience by those persons involved. During this stage, participants attempt to answer the question, “What actually happened?” . This is the “group dynamics” phase of the cycle, in which participants essentially reconstruct the patterns and interactions of the activity from their individual reports. This “talking through” part of the cycle is critical, and it cannot be either ignored or designed spontaneously if useful learning is to be developed. The facilitator needs to plan carefully how the processing will be carried out and focused toward the next stage, generalizing. Unprocessed data can be experienced as “unfinished business” by participants and can distract them from further learning. Selected techniques that can be used in the processing stage are listed below.
- Process observers: reports, panel discussions (observers often are unduly negative and often need training in performing their functions).
- Thematic discussion: looking for recurring topics from the reports of individuals.
- Sentence completion: writing or saying individual responses to phrases such as “The leadership was…,’ “Participation in this activity led to….”.
- Questionnaires: writing individual responses to items developed for the particular structured-experience activity.
- Data analysis: studying trends and correlations in ratings and/or adjectives elicited during the publishing stage.
- Key terms: posting a list of dimensions to guide the discussion.
- Interpersonal feedback: focusing attention on the effect of the role behaviors of participants in the activity.
This step should be thoroughly worked through before going on to the next. Participants should be led to look at what happened in terms of group dynamics and behavioral trends but not in terms of “meaning.” What occurred was real, of course, but it was also somewhat artificially contrived by the structure of the activity. It is important to keep in mind that a consciousness of the dynamics of the activity is critical for learning about human relations outside the training setting. Participants often anticipate the next step of the learning cycle and make premature generalizations. The facilitator needs to make certain that the processing has been adequate before moving on.
Once the processing step has been accomplished, participants are ready (and should be encouraged) to say goodbye to the content of the structured activity and to focus on the learnings. This is the point at which learning readiness occurs. The question to be answered next is “So what?”
A key concept in experiential learning is that of pattern. Pattern implies that there is an order to the elements of a situation and that these elements occur with some regularity. Although variations on basic patterns occur because of individual and subcultural differences, they can be understood beyond their differences when seen as a general class of event. The concept of pattern unites previously isolated phenomena. When the arrangement of elements is understood in one situation, this understanding can be generalized and applied to other situations.
Much of experiential learning is concerned with bringing one’s characteristic styles of interaction into conscious awareness, evaluating them with respect to their utility for different personal and professional roles, and modifying those particular aspects of one’s style that limit one’s effectiveness.
Also, certain patterns of elements in social situations evoke common behaviors, irrespective of individual styles of interaction. For example, a task group with limited resources tends to feel frustrated. A member’s choice of behavior to express this frustration is more a function of the roles and norms of the situation than of his or her personality. A structured training approach emphasizes the patterns in given situations that provide opportunities for certain behavioral alternatives while limiting opportunities for other behavioral alternatives.
However, if learning is to transfer to the “real world,” it is important for the participants to be able to extrapolate the experience from the training setting to the outside world. An inferential leap has to be made at this point in the structured experience, from the reality inside the activity to the reality of everyday life. The key question here is “So what?” Participants are led to focus their awareness on situations in their personal or work lives that are similar to those in the activity that they experienced. Their task is to abstract from the processing phase some principles that could be applied “outside.” Thus, the generalizations are to be made about “what tends to happen,” not “what happened in this particular group.”
This step is what makes structured experiences practical, and if it is omitted or glossed over, the learning is likely to be superficial. The following are some strategies for developing generalizations from the processing stage:
- Guided imagery: guiding participants to imagine realistic situations “back home” and determining what they have learned in the discussion that might be applicable there.
- Truth with a little “t”: writing or making statements from the processing discussion about what is “true” about the “real world.”
- Individual analysis: writing or saying “What I learned,” “What I’m beginning to learn,” “What I relearned.”
- Key terms: posting topics such as “leadership,” “communication,” “feelings,” etc., to focus generalizations.
- Sentence completion: writing completions to phrases such as “The effectiveness of shared leadership depends on….”
It is useful in this stage for the group interaction to result in a series of productsâgeneralizations that are presented not only orally but also visually. This strategy helps to facilitate vicarious learning among participants. The facilitator needs to remain non-evaluative about what is learned, drawing out the reactions of others to generalizations that appear incomplete or controversial. Participants sometimes anticipate the final stage of the learning cycle also, and they need to be kept on the track of clarifying what was learned before discussing what changes are needed.
In the generalizing stage, it is possible for the facilitator to bring in theoretical and research findings to augment the learning. If concepts are to be taught, this is the time to do it. Introducing cognitive points here can provide a framework for the learning that has been produced inductively and can help to check the reality orientation of the process. It is important that any input from the trainer be linked directly to the points that have been generalized by the participants. Also, the practice may encourage dependence on the facilitator as the source of knowledge and may lessen commitment to the final stage of the cycle if the outside information is not “owned” by the participantsâa common phenomenon ofdeductive processes. Typically, less outside input is needed than one who is not familiar with the process may assume.
The final stage of the experiential learning cycle is the purpose for which the whole structured experience is designed. The central question here is “Now what?” The facilitator helps participants to apply generalizations to actual situations in which they are involved. Ignoring such discussion jeopardizes the probability that the learning will be utilized. It is critical that attention be given to designing ways for individuals and/or groups to use the learning generated during the structured experience to plan more effective behavior. Several practices can be incorporated into this stage.
- Consulting dyads or triads: taking turns helping one another with back-home problem situations and applying generalizations.
- Goal setting: developing applications according to such goal criteria as specificity, performance, involvement, realism, and observability.
- Contracting: making explicit agreements with one another about applications.
- Subgrouping: in interest groups, discussing specific generalizations in terms of what can be done more effectively.
- Practice session: role playing back-home situations to practice “new” behavior.
Individuals are more likely to implement their planned applications if they share them with others. Participants can be asked to report what they intend to do with what they have learned, and this can encourage others to experiment with their own behavior.
It is important to note that on the diagram of the experiential learning cycle there is an arrow from “applying” to “experiencing.” This is meant to indicate that the actual application of the learning is a new experience for the participant, to be examined inductively in turn. What structured experiences “teach,” then, is a way of using one’s everyday experiences as data for conscious learning about human interactions. This sometimes is referred to as “relearning how to learn.”
Such learning is an everyday part of everyone’s life. As long as one’s mind is functioning normally, one never stops learning. A major purpose of human resource development is transferring learning from training programs to the job situation and – equally important – transferring the experience of relearning how to learn from the training situation to one’s professional and private lives.
Considerations in Facilitating Experiential Learning
Although the stages of the model have been presented in discrete terms, it is clear that the interaction between them (and within them) is complex. No learner goes through these phases exactly step by step, and it probably would not be desirable to do so. The danger also exists that the participants might become fixed at one level because changing one’s behavior is frightening or emotionally demanding. Some participants may engage in what seems to be whimsical behavior because they fail to see how the training is related to issues in their own lives.
If there is a major shortcoming in the area of change agentry, it lies in the completion of the latter phases of the cycle. The economics of time and money have discouraged the development of programs that might result in more integrated and long-term behavioral change. All too often one is seduced by the exhilaration of discovery (the early stages of the model) and finds generalizing, processing, and publishing relegated to the last half hourâor even minutesâof the program. We all know that there are people who have left training programs full of good intentions but have soon returned to their old ways of behaving. When long-term change in individuals and/or organizations eludes us, we may begin to blame it on the participants rather than to examine the training design. Trainers must question their own professionalism or ethics if they attempt to present “exciting” training events that emphasize experiencing and discovering and are clearly lacking in generalization and application. Many clients will assert that they cannot afford a longer, more substantial design. The credibility of the HRD profession may be dependent on our answer to that assertion.
What experiential learning does best is to instill a sense of ownership over what is learned. This is most easily achieved by making certain that each stage of the learning cycle is developed adequately. The implications of the model stress the necessity for adequate planning and sufficient time for each step.
Another element that makes structured experiences so useful as learning devices is their safety. Each individual’s responses to what happens during a structured experience are valid learning for that individual. In didactic learning, in contrast, the teacher has the power to push his or her interpretations, styles, and experiences, with the result that the participants’ own reactions and insights – what they truly know – may be lost. It is imperative that facilitators preserve the integrity of each participant’s individual experience.
Another aspect of the safety of a structured experience is the psychological safety provided by the boundary of each structured situation. When the artificial activity has ended, it is done with. The consequences of one’s way of being in a situation can end with that situation. The processing, generalizing, and applying phases of the cycle emphasize going past the generating experience and thinking in terms of what tends to happen and how it might be different next time. Thus, participants can engage wholeheartedly in assigned tasks and then separate themselves from the situation in order to view it in retrospect. In this way, they are less encumbered by the emotional impact of events within the artificial situation. One can learn and be different in the next situation.
Learning experiences that utilize the experiential learning model allow participants to confront basic psychological and behavioral issues that they have to deal with in their daily lives. The model gives participants an opportunity to examine their feelings and behaviors related to interactions with other individuals. Examining their feelings and other reactions to situations helps to expand the participants’ awareness and understanding of the function their emotions play in their behavior. Not only does this add to the interest and involvement of the participants, it also contributes significantly to the transfer of learning. No other type of learning generates this personal involvement and depth of understanding. The ultimate result is that participants accept responsibility for their own learning and behavior, rather than assigning that responsibility to someone else.
Pfeiffer, J.W., & Ballew, A.C. (1988). Using structured experiences in human resource development (UATT Series, Vol. 1). San Diego, CA: University Associates.