If you’re looking to transform your training so that participants are fully engaged, motivated to apply new skills on the job, and able to remember and perform those skills long after training has ended—then experiential learning is your answer. As you explore your options for experiential training, though, keep in mind that true experiential learning must meet a rather specific set of criteria to be successful. We’ve developed four priorities that experiential learning must address each and every time for optimal results:
What Is Experiential Learning?
Before we dive into the four priorities, here’s an idea of what experiential learning in action looks like: An experiential learning session is an immersive, hands-on training experience that reflects the real-world work scenarios that participants often find themselves in. Crucially, however, these experiences don’t directly mirror real-world scenarios. Instead, they mask the similarities between the learning activity and a participant’s day-to-day reality by using a fun and engaging theme—like a journey through the jungle or an expedition through the Wild West. Having participants engage in an activity that parallels the real world without directly mirroring it creates a safe, supportive environment that encourages participants to take thought-out risks and try new strategies to solve problems.
Experiential Learning’s Four Core Priorities
To make these priorities easy to understand and remember, we’ve branded them thusly: Heart, Head, Hands, and Harvest. Here’s what each priority means and why it’s crucial for success through experiential learning.
1. Heart: Building conviction to engage all participants
It’s hard to care about something that you don’t feel personally invested in. That’s the problem with many traditional training programs, particularly those of the “lecture” or role-play variety. When trainees aren’t fully participating, they’re not necessarily invested in the learning outcomes. In experiential learning activities, however, every trainee participates—and the outcome of the learning activity hinges on the participant’s behavior. There’s a direct correlation between what a participant does and the result of the activity, which builds real conviction and personal responsibility to want to explore new behaviors.
2. Head: Transmitting knowledge so that participants understand
At its heart, any kind of training program is essentially about transmitting knowledge. What sets experiential learning apart in this priority is much higher success rates when it comes to retaining that knowledge. Too many training programs—like those that rely on PowerPoint presentations, for example—attempt to transmit knowledge passively. With this approach, learning goes in one ear and out the other, so participants may never fully understand the material. Experiential learning is different because it allows participants to both learn and practice new skills all in one go. This way, participants “learn by doing,” which study after study has revealed leads to greater, longer-lasting learning outcomes.
3. Hands: Understanding what actions to take to put new knowledge to use and see real behavior change
In other words, the information learned during training must shift from theoretical to practical—and this is where a lot of traditional training programs fall short. Participants may learn about new skills during a training, but they’re often left to figure out how to apply those new skills to their actual jobs by themselves.
With experiential learning, a debrief session connects the dots between learning and action. After participants have completed their themed experiential learning activity, a training facilitator guides a debrief session, where they discuss and reveal how to “win” at the activity. For example, the facilitator engages the participants in a discussion about what behaviors, skills, and strategies the participants would have displayed to have achieved a better result in the activity. But here’s the truly crucial part: The facilitator then links the participant answers to business relevance. They show that the principles necessary to win in the activity are directly applicable to “winning” at work. Participants walk away from the experience knowing exactly how to change their behaviors at work in order to bring about new results, and they have some practice already under their belts, thanks to the immersive nature of experiential learning.
4. Harvest: Producing results
Every experiential learning activity should have clear, measurable, objective expectations about how the new behaviors should be applied back in the workplace and what results those new behaviors are expected to produce. When you invest in an experiential learning training program, it’s important to know what the learning outcome should be and what success looks like. For lasting results, experiential learning activities should be paired with retention programs that reinforce learning for participants with fun games, testing that measures the impact and retention of learning, and development programs that build in support from leadership and managers.
When taken together, experiential learning’s four priorities bridge the gap between knowledge and action. Participants not only learn new skills, but they reinforce those skills with real-time practice, link the skills to real work outcomes, and commit to changing their behavior by taking personal responsibility for results.
Does your current training method address the four core priorities above? If not, what’s missing—and how do you think that’s impacting your training?