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4 Distinct Components of Experiential Learning

By Ian Cornett on March 20, 2017

Lectures. Online videos. PowerPoint presentations. Role-playing games. Simulations. There are so many training methods out there that it’s hard to choose which one is the best fit for your organization. Another type of training that organizations can use is experiential learning, an engaging experience-based training method that consistently leads to higher learning retention rates and permanently changed behavior in participants. What really makes experiential training different from other kinds of skills training? Here are four distinct components that every experiential learning activity must have.

1. Activities require hands-on participation.

Lectures and PowerPoint presentations have long been popular training methods, because they allow trainers to fit a lot of information into a short amount of time. Experiential training, however, takes a radically different approach. One of the hallmarks of these events is their participatory nature. During an activity, every trainee takes part in a hands-on situation, where they will interact with other trainees to solve a challenge.

The participatory nature of experiential training helps build conviction in participants. With immersive exercises, learning becomes more visceral, immediate, and personal. Trainees experience first-hand how their behaviors during the exercise lead to certain outcomes—a lesson they can apply in the workplace. With training techniques like lectures, the conviction-building component is often missing.

Furthermore, requiring trainees to participate in experiential activities combines learning with practice. Instead of learning about a new skill during training and then having to wait to practice that new skill on the job, trainees get to learn about, practice, and refine the new skill during the participatory exercise. They leave the training session much more confident about using their new skills on the job and succeeding at doing so.

Learn how you can adopt experiential learning into your training and  development initiatives with this guide.

2. Trainees participate as themselves.

Of course, experiential learning isn’t the only type of training that calls for active participation. For example, role-playing scenarios—in which trainees are given certain predetermined roles, like a customer and a salesperson—are popular participatory training techniques. This further differentiates experiential training, as it requires and allows participants to be themselves during the event.

Again, this helps build conviction in participants. During a role-playing scenario, it’s all too easy for participants to dismiss the outcome, because it wasn’t really the participants who brought the outcome about—it was the “characters” they were playing.

When they participate as themselves, however, they can no longer excuse outcomes. Experiential training definitively demonstrates cause and effect for participants, as it shows them exactly how their behavior causes certain outcomes.

3. Activities are designed as a themed metaphor.

Perhaps the most distinctive component of experiential training is its immersive, story-like nature. Instead of simply having participants simulate a common workplace scenario, experiential training activities mask the similarities to workplace problems with a themed story. The story acts as a metaphor for the challenges that participants face on the job.

For example, instead of asking members of a dysfunctional team to mimic what happens in a team meeting, members are instead tasked with working together to find hidden treasure deep in the Amazon jungle.

Experiential learning’s themed metaphors provide two big benefits.

  1. Working through a themed activity is so much more fun than working through work-like situations. The themed nature of experiential training keeps participants excited and engaged throughout the entire experience.
  2. Masking common workplace scenarios with themed challenges creates a safe space for participants, which encourages them to take risks and try out-of-the-box problem-solving techniques. If the training situation directly mirrored their on-the-job reality, participants may be too concerned with possible failure to take risks. Designing the exercise as a fun, themed situation removes the pressure that participants may feel—leading to big breakthroughs that they would have been too cautious to achieve on the job or during a job-like training scenario.  

4. Trainees end with a results-oriented debrief.

No experiential activity is complete without the debrief. The debrief allows a facilitator to make the connections between what participants worked on during the themed exercise and how the exercise relates to participants’ on-the-job experience. Facilitators “unmask” the metaphor, so to speak. Understanding and retention really hinge on a clear, in-depth debrief, which is why the debrief is so essential to experiential training. During the debrief, the facilitator reveals how the strategies that participants used to win the game are the same strategies they can use to succeed at work. When participants return to work to try out their new skills, they’ll remember the visceral experience of the themed exercise and the connection to winning at work.   

Have you integrated any of these experiential learning components into your past training? What were the results?

Experiential Learning: The Key to Effective Employee Development

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Ian has been with Eagle’s Flight since 1997, and is Executive Vice President, Global Accounts. He holds an MBA in Finance and Marketing from the University of British Columbia. Ian spent 12 years at Nestlé Canada and brings a wide range of experience that includes practical business experience in management, sales, program design, development and mentoring. He works closely with the Global licensees to ensure their success as they represent Eagle’s Flight in the worldwide marketplace. He has developed outstanding communication skills and currently is the Executive in Charge of a large Fortune 500 client with a team of employees dedicated to this specific account. As a result, Ian has been instrumental in driving the company’s growth and strategic direction.

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Founded in 1988, Eagle's Flight has earned its reputation as a global leader in the development and delivery of business-relevant, experiential learning programs that achieve specific training objectives and lasting behavior changes.

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