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Experiential Learning vs. Traditional Training: How to Choose

By Ian Cornett on June 26, 2017



The objective of company-provided training—and most training of any kind, for that matter—is to improve performance and results. The way that training is provided, however, varies between organizations with different objectives, products, and employees. Over the past decade or so, many business leaders have relied on traditional training approaches as a first line of defense when they need to improve performance to achieve a desired outcome. However, experiential learning is now seen as an effective method that conveys information and encourages lasting behavior change.

While both training methods are valuable, they differ in their approach. When deciding between experiential learning and traditional training methods to employ across your organization, it’s important to know that, often, a combination of training techniques works most effectively. To see the benefits of both experiential learning and traditional training, let’s review the pros and cons to determine how each aligns with your company goals.

Traditional Training

Traditional training methods have been used for decades and have been proven as constant and dependable. Who hasn’t read a manual, watched a video, or listened to a lecture at one point in time? Because these approaches are more than familiar, and often affordable, it’s easy to gain buy-in from executives and participants. Once materials or curriculum have been developed, traditional training is relatively economical and painless to execute.

Why choose experiential learning? Discover everything you need to know about  this powerful training tool.

There are numerous traditional training options, many of which strengthen learning skills by disseminating information and facilitating learning. For example, role-playing scenarios allow participants to practice new learning and are especially beneficial in situations where learning is expected to be applied in predictable scenarios. Case-study work is an excellent way to get participants to reflect on information to make it their own. Case-study work can also generate discussions on how information can be applied to real-life situations. Finally, traditional training approaches are most often effective at utilizing numerous exercises and activities to mimic workplace situations.

While traditional training has its benefits, in many situations, these methods do not resonate with learners on a deep, understanding level. In role-playing activities, participants pretend to be in situations or use skills that they may not yet be comfortable with, as they have not had time or practice to become familiar with them. Or, conclusions gathered from case-study discussions may be difficult to apply to team members’ real-life work situations. It is important to carefully think through where and when you will use traditional training approaches, as often the retention rates are unfavorably low.

Experiential Learning

Created with these limitations in mind, experiential training is rooted in active participation. Through immersive experiences, participants work together to solve a themed challenge, such as racing for gold across the desert, or building a bridge to save an endangered turtle population. While experiential learning sessions may feel like a game, they actually parallel real-life issues faced by participants. After these immersive exercises, a facilitator leads a debrief session in which the metaphor is revealed and strategies are explained. This allows participants the chance to not only practice skills in a low-pressure environment, but to reflect on their behaviors.

Whereas retention rates from traditional learning can be as low as 5 percent, experiential training can boost these rates to as high as 90 percent. This type of training can lead to changed behavior and engaged staff, and can impact organizations over the long term. By linking the lessons learned in these entertaining, engaging immersive sessions with real-life challenges, participants are able to successfully apply their new knowledge and practiced skills to their jobs.

As with any learning methodology, experiential learning has pros and cons. Now that you are aware of the pros, sometimes the fact that experiential learning is unfamiliar to management means that it can be dismissed as expensive or unproven. However, these events come with a proven ROI, and often, any uncertainty from participants is quickly eliminated when they become immersed in an experience.

Combining Training Methods for Maximum Effect

The good news? You don’t have to decide between these two training approaches to generate the best results. In fact, combining traditional training approaches with experiential activities offers organizations the best of both worlds. When paired with familiar methodologies such as traditional training, experiential learning can optimize the potential impact of training sessions.

While traditional training such as role-playing and case studies simulates real-world situations, experiential activities deliberately mask any connection to participants’ day-to-day reality. Instead, these activities present participants with unique challenges in unfamiliar environments. In turn, engagement is high, and experiential learning becomes less of a “training exercise,” and more of a comprehensive experience in which real skills are applied to solve a challenge.

Using a combination of experiential training and traditional training approaches can help organizations accomplish their end goals. To get the most from your training efforts, it’s important to consider what’s best for your company. Because culture permeates every aspect of your organization, it’s important to outline your company’s culture and develop a plan that incorporates the most suitable training methodologies.

Ultimately, your training efforts should be designed to support lasting behavior change. A comprehensive organizational development strategy should consider combining experiential learning and traditional training, so you can leverage the strengths of both techniques to maximize performance and 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.

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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