In A Visual Guide to Experiential Learning for Organizational Development, the statistics about adult learning retention show that learning by doing is one of the top ways to convey information in a manner that lasts. Simply telling an individual how to do something results in a 5 percent retention rate, compared to a 75 percent retention rate with learning by doing. Another benefit to this learning approach is that it is effective for people of all ages and at every career level.
Learning by doing can happen in multiple ways and the types of learning fall on a spectrum that ranges from simple activities to fully immersive simulations. Experiential learning falls somewhere in the middle, combining hands-on activities with a practical link to the real world. Let’s take a closer look at the spectrum.
The Fun and Engaging: Activities
At the fun and engaging end of the spectrum, an activity is something you do that you hope you learn something from, such as a trust fall or a ropes course that requires teamwork. It’s fun, and everybody is engaged in the activity, but it’s not always clear what you are supposed to be learning. Although there is certainly some value in doing these types of activities, they do not easily translate to real-life scenarios in the workplace.
The Intense and Realistic: Simulations
A simulation is a hands-on replication of a workplace scenario. For example, pilots use flight simulators to learn new skills in a safe environment. These simulations must be as realistic as possible to have the most value, and the skills learned are directly translatable to the job. Other simulations include customer service training with the same phone and computer equipment used in the workplace or computer-based simulations to learn new skills in a manufacturing environment. This type of learning is extremely valuable for gaining technical and physical skills but is not always appropriate for training new concepts or for learning soft skills like communication or accountability.
The Happy Medium: Experiential Learning
Experiential learning falls in the middle of the spectrum. It has the benefits of fun and engaging activities but also provides some of the value that simulations offer in their realism. The key to successful experiential learning is to create a scenario that mirrors a common workplace situation but does not mimic it exactly. The separation of training and real life allows participants to safely practice new skills without the risk of failure or fear of making mistakes. After the activity is complete, a facilitator links what was learned in the experience to real-life work situations, which allows participants to clearly understand how to apply their new skills on the job.
Of course, there are times when fun activities have value (an icebreaker for a new team or to inject fun into a meeting), while simulations are also necessary for certain jobs that require a high level of technical skill. However, for skills like process improvement, leading meetings, building teams, and project management, the middle of the spectrum—experiential learning—produces the best results and offers the most potential to improve employee performance.