How experiential learning encourages employees to own their learning

July 27, 2021 - 16 min read

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What is experiential learning? And who is David Kolb?

The 4 stages of the experiential learning cycle

The main goals of experiential learning

The 9 styles of experiential learning

Arguments for and against the experiential learning theory

How to implement the experiential learning method: 3 helpful tips

Try experiential learning for your workforce

When you think of learning, what scenario do you have in mind?

Traditional corporate training usually happens in a lecture format. Some engagement with the material may happen, but it’s not at the heart of the training methodology.

Experiential learning provides an alternative to traditional learning styles.

Experiential learning places the learner at the forefront of the process and lets them experience the material themselves.

Let’s explore what experiential learning is, its pros and cons, and how it can benefit the people in your organization.

What is experiential learning? And who is David Kolb? 

Experiential learning involves teaching new concepts with real experiences in order to develop and awaken human potential instead of using traditional lecture methods.

David Kolb first developed the experiential learning theory in 1984. David Kolb is a psychologist and educational theorist. You can access the version of his theory that was updated in 2011 here.

The Kolb experiential learning theory states its definition as follows:

“The process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combinations of grasping and transforming the experience."

Kolb’s theory of learning is different from other learning models. Cognitive theories place emphasis on mental processes, while behavioral theories don’t take subjective experiences into account.

In contrast, experiential learning theory takes a holistic approach to learning.

According to this theory, several factors influence the learning process, including:

  • Environmental factors
  • Cognition
  • Emotions
  • Past experiences

With this type of learning, educators will purposefully engage with their learners in real experiences instead of lecturing them about a topic. They’ll also encourage focused reflection.

Experiential learning can be used in high schools and higher education. But it can also be used in a work environment.

The 4 stages of the experiential learning cycle 

Experiential learning doesn’t happen all at once. Instead, it happens in four stages. Let’s walk through how the experiential learning process works and look at some experiential learning examples.

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Stage 1: concrete experience

During this stage of learning, real interactions with people in everyday situations are key.

At this point, the learner doesn’t yet have a systematic approach to solve their real-world problems or handle a situation. Instead, they’ll rely on what they feel.

It’s important to keep an open mind and the flexibility to change during learning situations at this stage. Here’s an example. Let’s say employees are going through leadership training.

At this stage, individuals could break out into groups with a challenging task to complete. They’ll need to practice their leadership skills in a real experience.

Stage 2: reflective observation

This stage isn’t so much about doing. Instead, it’s about reflecting.

Once learners reach this stage of the learning cycle, they’re able to understand situations from different perspectives. They can observe a learning situation using their own thoughts and feelings.

From their perspective, they can form their own opinion.

Let’s continue with the previous example. After completing a task, each person in the training can reflect on how they performed. They can discuss with the training supervisor about how the experience went.

Additionally, they can make observations about what went well, what didn’t, and how they believe they can improve.

Stage 3: abstract conceptualization

Instead of learning using feelings like in the first stage, abstract conceptualization uses theories, logic, and ideas. These are used to understand a problem or a situation.

During this phase, learners can use systematic planning to develop their own theories about how to solve a problem.

In the leadership training example, individuals can make links between their experience during the activity and any other knowledge they have that they can apply to the situation.

Stage 4: active experimentation

In this stage, learners once again experiment with real, active situations.

They base their actions and their learning on what they already experienced in stages one through three.

Learners can take a practical approach to think about what would work better than what they already tried in stage one.

In the leadership training, individuals would go back to the first exercise. But they’d try new methods to solve the challenging task based on their ideas generated from stages two and three.

Once this stage is over, learners can cycle back to concrete experience in stage one.

The main goals of experiential learning 

Experiential learning is designed with four specific goals in mind. Let’s go over each one.

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1. Agency

Because learners go through real experiences, they have ownership over the learning process.

As a result, they’re empowered to use their creativity and intellectual curiosity to find new ways to solve problems.

2. Competency

Experiential learning provides learners with a variety of contexts to test out their knowledge.

Because of this, learners gain the competency they need to apply their knowledge and skills to several real-world situations.

3. Belonging

Learners take an active part in their learning with this process.

They can feel connected not just to their peers and learning instructors but also to the learning material itself.

4. Future opportunities

Experiential learning allows learners to reflect and theorize about different contexts. 

These skills can help them find and connect to future learning opportunities. They are learning how to learn.

The 9 styles of experiential learning

Experiential learning doesn’t necessarily have to happen in the same way for everyone. Kolb explains that there are several styles you can use to implement experiential learning

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Here are nine experiential learning styles that you can adapt to best fit your organization:

1. Reflecting

Someone who is practicing the reflecting style will use patience to listen while others take action.

To use this style, learners need to keep an open mind in order to gather information from several sources.

This style allows learners to view a problem from several perspectives.

2. Initiating

Learners who use the initiating style aren’t afraid of failure. They’ll try a method, then try something new if it fails.

There’s no worrying about the fact that they failed first.

Learners who prefer this style can take opportunities to learn without holding back.

3. Acting

Learners who use the acting style are typically assertive and focused on achievements. They’re also punctual and courageous.

If they have a deadline, they’ll find ways to solve problems in time. When they commit to an objective, they stay connected.

Learners with this style are talented at problem-solving with limited resources.

4. Imagining

Those who use the imagining style will usually be creative and are typically empathetic leaders. They’ll also tend to care for and trust others.

Because of this, they have self-awareness and also feel empathy for others during learning experiences.

They enjoy helping others through issues and coming up with visions for the future.

People with this learning style will also be more comfortable in ambiguous situations compared to others.

5. Thinking

Those who use the thinking learning style are structured but skeptical. They use logic to make their arguments.

They’ll also prefer to use quantitative tools when analyzing a problem.

Learners with this style can effectively communicate their ideas. Additionally, they can make judgments on their own.

6. Analyzing

The analyzing style requires someone who’s methodical and precise.

These people are planners. They like to have all the information at hand to see the full picture and reduce mistakes.

They’ll also use critical thinking to analyze a situation.

7. Deciding

Learners who use the deciding style can focus on one thing at a time and commit to it.

These learners have a realistic view of an experience. They’re also accountable and direct.

Learners who prefer this style can find practical solutions to their problems.

8. Balancing

People using the balancing style can bridge differences between others.

These learners are resourceful and adaptable. They can easily identify blind spots in a situation.

9. Experiencing

Learners with the experiencing style are engaged and intuitive. They’re the best at teamwork and building relationships.

These learners are also comfortable expressing their emotions.

Arguments for and against the experiential learning theory 

Not everyone agrees that experiential learning is the best way to learn. 

Benefits of experiential learning

According to Kolb’s research, there’s a correlation between a person’s learning style and which majors in college they choose.

This suggests that using the experiential learning method, and understanding their experiential learning style, can help students find a major and a well-suited profession. 

Experiential learning can also help learners discover their strengths as they learn. Learners can adapt their learning style to which strengths they have. They can also work on their weaknesses to lessen them.

Arguments against experiential learning

Some studies show that someone’s learning style isn’t stable over time. This means that what once worked might not always be the most effective method of learning for them.

Some critics believe that the experiential learning method is simply too restrictive. It also fails to address how non-reflective experience can help in the learning process. 

Others believe that this theory fails to analyze how learning happens in larger groups. Having everyone actively participate in all the stages of learning can be difficult and time-consuming when there’s a lot of people in a group. 

How to implement the experiential learning method: 3 helpful tips 

Want to try out the experiential learning method in your organization? Here’s how you can get started.

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1. Encourage learner interaction

Creating an interactive learning environment is key for experiential learning. You need to do more than let an instructor give a lecture.

Instead, find ways to encourage your employees to interact with the learning environment.

Their own hands-on experience is what should help them learn.

Give them an opportunity to try to find their own solutions and reflect on the results. Then, they should have another opportunity to try again based on what they learned.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re teaching your employees about a new project management methodology that’s going to be rolled out soon.

After explaining the basics of the methodology, you can split them up into groups and simulate a project they need to manage.

They’ll need to come up with real solutions to manage the project and learn from their mistakes.

2. Engage all five senses

Find ways to engage all five senses during a moment of experiential learning.

By default, people’s sense of sight will already be engaged. But the other senses are important, too.

Give real tools that learners can feel and touch. Recreate the sounds that they’d hear in a real situation.

This is because engaging the senses can help retain information. Smell is the sense that triggers memory the most.

So, if you can find a way to incorporate smell into your learning experience, take the opportunity to do so.

Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re teaching employees workplace safety for construction sites.

Construction sites often have several smells present, like the scent of lumber or paint. These could be important smells to include in the training environment.

But not all learning experiences will have the opportunity to include smell. In that case, focus on engaging whatever senses make the most sense.

3. Create an environment similar to the real thing

Tie it all together by providing your employees with an environment that’s as close to real-world experiences as possible.

Engaging the five senses already takes one step in the right direction. But if you can safely have your employees learn in the same environment they’ll perform in, do so. This will give them direct experience with the learning material.

If this isn’t possible, try to replicate the real environment as much as possible.

If you’re teaching leadership skills, give a real opportunity for your learners to lead.

In any case, failure should be safe. For example, don’t have your employees learn to lead with a real client project, at least no in a solo capacity. They’ll be nervous about failure and won’t want to experiment as much.

When it’s safe to fail, it’s also safe to experiment. This will allow them to gain a richer experience.

Try experiential learning for your workforce 

Experiential learning isn’t suited for all learning situations, but it can be extremely effective when used correctly.

Knowing which type of learning works best for any given topic is important to improve the human capital in your organization.

BetterUp helps organizations develop and support high-performing businesses and people. Schedule a demo to see how your organization can benefit from BetterUp.

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Published July 27, 2021

Erin Eatough, PhD

Sr. Insights Manager

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