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Adult Learning Theory and Experiential Learning: A Recipe for Success

By Dave Root on June 20, 2017

The success of organizational training programs depends on busy adults learning new information, retaining it, and applying it on the job. While it might seem that teaching adults should be easier than teaching children, the fact is, it requires a much different approach. The Association for Talent Development published an article that addresses three adult learning theories in the context of e-learning. At Eagle’s Flight, we apply these same theories to the widely successful approach of experiential learning.

What Is Experiential Learning?

Experiential learning is a training method that employs a shared immersive experience that is a direct metaphor for a set of challenges commonly faced in the workplace. The experience requires participants to solve a problem or achieve a common goal by using newly learned skills and behaviors. After inevitably performing more poorly than they expected, participants are eager to learn from their mistakes and successes. An expert facilitator then guides a group discussion that links the lessons learned in the experience to real-life challenges in the workplace.

The result is a deeper understanding of how certain behaviors can influence outcomes and a desire to apply those new behaviors on the job. Now let’s take a look at how these three adult learning theories can be employed.

Theory 1: Drawing on Prior Experience

The underlying tenets of this theory, also known as andragogy, are that adults differ from children in that their bank of prior experiences significantly influences how they learn, and their learning is largely self-directed. These factors contribute to six key principles that must be considered when developing training programs for adults.

  1. Adults must know why they are participating in training.
  2. Prior experiences should provide the basis for learning activities.
  3. Adults want to participate in the decisions surrounding their learning.
  4. The topics that have immediate relevance are the most engaging.
  5. Adult learning should center on solving problems and not on absorbing content.
  6. Internal motivation is stronger than external motivation for adults.

Experiential training harnesses many of these principles.

  • The experiences themselves are based on problem-solving.
  • Building conviction sparks internal motivation.
  • Participants learn by making decisions based on their prior experiences.

Executing the remaining principles depends on a smart organizational development strategy that provides training when it’s most relevant and solicits feedback from participants so that they are able to play an active role in their own learning.

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

Theory 2: Creating “Aha” Moments

Everybody has experienced an “aha” moment, but not everybody knows that these sudden revelations are a result of the theory of transformational learning. This adult learning theory proposes that learning occurs when new meaning is conferred on a previous experience or when old understandings are transformed to have new meanings.

The three stages of transformational learning theory are:


  1. Realizing that previous knowledge was misunderstood or that key information is missing
  2. Identifying the personal relevance and what will be gained from the new learnings
  3. Critical thinking that allows learners to come to their own conclusions

Experiential learning applies transformational learning in multiple ways. The immersive problem-solving experience quickly highlights that participants do not have the necessary inherent knowledge to succeed. Based on this understanding, they realize that they must learn new skills and behaviors in order to improve performance. The aha moment most often occurs during the debrief. This is the point when participants are still feeling excited about the shared experience they just had and a facilitator helps them make the link between what they just learned and how those new skills can improve performance in the workplace.  

Theory 3: Learning by Doing

This experiential learning theory suggests that adults learn best when textbooks and memorization are removed from the equation and replaced with experiences. The four cyclical stages that make up the experiential learning theory are:

  1. Concrete experience – Simulations and scenarios that demonstrate cause and effect
  2. Reflective observation – Analyzing demonstrations and case studies
  3. Abstract conceptualization – Decoding abstract concepts and applying them to reality
  4. Active experimentation – Role-playing and interactions that lead to concrete experience

The type of training provided by Eagle’s Flight relies heavily on this theory, as the immersive experience provides a safe environment that enables participants to:

  • Understand how their behaviors influence outcomes
  • Analyze why specific actions produce certain results
  • Connect the lessons learned to real-life challenges
  • Experiment with new behaviors to test the outcomes

The result is longer retention of new concepts and long-term behavior change as participants test their new knowledge in the workplace and see the positive outcomes.

Putting Theories into Practice

Experiential training is an excellent tool for adult learning, which is why it is such a valuable component of any organizational training program, especially when used in combination with other tools like e-learning and digital reinforcement. When considering any type of training program for your organization, look at it through the lens of these three adult learning theories to determine if it is likely to achieve the desired results.

Experiential Learning: The Key to Effective Employee Development

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Dave joined Eagle’s Flight in 1991 after having spent a number of years with a Toronto-based accounting firm. Since that time, he has held a number of posts within the company, primarily in the areas of Operations, Finance, Legal, and IT. In his current role as both Chief Financial Officer and President, Global Business, Dave is focused on ensuring the company’s ongoing financial health as well as growing its global market share. In pursuing the latter, Dave’s wealth of experience and extensive business knowledge has made him a valued partner and trusted advisor to both our global licensees and multinational clientele.

About Eagle's Flight

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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