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Experiential Learning vs. Simulation: What's the Difference?

By John Wright on February 15, 2017

At Eagle’s Flight, we love infusing experiential learning into every aspect of our business. Experiential learning is an incredibly powerful training tool; typical retention rates for training that use experiential learning are as high as 80 percent to 90 percent, compared to a typical retention rate of, often, just five percent.

Experiential learning is a total game changer. But sometimes we hear people confuse experiential learning with another common training tool, simulation. While these two approaches to training do contain some similarities, let's discuss experiential learning vs. simulation.

The Learning Spectrum

To understand experiential learning—and how it differs from simulation—the first point is that experiential learning exists on a spectrum. On one end of the spectrum sit activities, those classic experiences (like the “trust fall” or a ropes course) that you often find at typical training events. You participate and hope to learn something from the experience.  

On the other end of the spectrum sit simulations, which mimic a real-world scenario exactly. Think pilots in a multi-million-dollar flight simulator who learn how to fly planes in an incredibly realistic setup.

Experiential learning sits in the middle of this spectrum. It has the high-energy, engaging feel of activities, but it also has the teeth and value of a simulation.

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

The 8 Components of Experiential Learning

So, what really sets experiential learning apart from both activities and simulations? While experiential learning contains components of both, every experiential learning activity must have the following eight things to distinguish itself from other training tools.

  • An immersive experience. The training quickly loses any sense of being a “training exercise” and rapidly becomes totally immersive. Participants become excited and actively involved in the experience, bringing their real skills to bear on a real situation.
  • An engaging theme. Theming experiential learning heightens the excitement and helps reinforce a training’s overall message. Themes aren’t often used in activities or simulations.
  • Fun. Experiential learning must be enjoyable, amusing, and even a little bit silly to help participants let down their guards and engage; this is where components of activities can be incorporated.
  • A compelling metaphor. Your theme must use a compelling, relatable metaphor that your participants can understand and connect with. Creating an activity around a theme that’s too obscure will make it less immersive; people can’t “lose” themselves in an experience that they can’t really see themselves in!
  • Objective results. Experiential learning, like simulations, focus on producing objective results. You should have benchmarks for what participants should learn and what the outcome should be.
  • A cause-and-effect link. Participants should learn how certain behaviors within the experience produce certain results. If they’re not happy with the result, they need to be able to make the link between what behaviors need to change to create a different result.
  • Conviction. Experiential learning builds conviction to change, so each participant takes personal responsibility for their behaviors and the accompanying results.
  • Results-based debrief. Participants listen to a debrief to learn what they need to do differently and what the experiential learning activity was a metaphor for in their own work lives.

How Experiential Learning Instills Lasting Behavior Change

In a simulation, the experience that participants engage in directly mirrors a real-world scenario. That’s not the case in experiential learning, by design. We’ve found that when we “mask” learning by using themes that act as a metaphor for real-world experiences, learning sticks much better.

Why? Well, if a training activity simply simulates a real-world work scenario, participants will bring their preconceived notions of how they’re supposed to act to the scenario. And if you’re trying to change participants’ behaviors, that’s not an optimal approach. They’ll feel too constrained by the simulation to try new behaviors. But by centering your training activity on a metaphor that parallels real-world work scenarios, participants can let their guards down to fully engage with the experience.

For example, if you want your team to learn better meeting management skills to drive action, which training do you think they’ll find more compelling?

  • A meeting simulation that feels familiar, such as roleplaying a salesperson and potential customer.
  • An experiential learning activity that casts participants as Scotland Yard investigators who must work together to solve a murder mystery quickly (before the culprit strikes again!)

With the second scenario, you’re creating a safe, immersive, and incredibly fun environment in which your participants won’t be afraid to take risks—and learn from them—which is crucial to bringing about lasting behavior change.

Have you infused any of the components of experiential learning into your own training? What were your results?

Experiential Learning: The Key to Effective Employee Development

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Since 1991, John has acquired extensive experience in the design and delivery of a diverse portfolio of programs. In addition to his executive responsibilities as President of Leadership and Learning Events, John is considered a valued partner to many executive teams. His insight and experience enable him to effectively diagnose, design, and implement complex culture change initiatives in a collaborative and engaging manner. Moreover, John’s experience in global implementations allows him to draw from a deep well of history to create unique and customized solutions. John’s passion for developing people makes him a sought after speaker, partner and coach and is evident in the high praise he receives from clients.

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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