How to Rock Experiential Learning in Corporate Training
Corporate learning for skill development generally falls into the formal training category. Formal training isn’t going away, but have you ever considered incorporating experiential learning into your training programs?
Experiential learning is a strategy commonly found in K-12 and higher education programs, but it doesn't always lend itself well to the workplace. This is because it's often expensive, takes more time to implement and is hard to track and manage, a requirement for most Learning and Development (L&D) teams, and necessary for proving Return on Investment (ROI).
However, more organizations are gravitating to this learning approach because by merging two traditionally separate aspects of training, learning and hands-on experience, learners are generating skills which they can immediately use back on-the-job.
This article will introduce Experiential Learning as a viable strategy for workplace learning, and identify strategies that ensure meaningful learning occurs when incorporating these ideas into corporate training.
1. What is Experiential Learning?
In its simplest form, experiential learning means 'learning by doing'.
Experiential learning is built upon a foundation of interdisciplinary and constructivist learning. Learning isn't compartmentalized, rather, students learn by applying knowledge to experiences to develop skills or new ways of thinking.
The first theories of experiential learning appeared in the mid-nineteenth century as attempts to move away from traditional formal education, where teachers lectured to students, towards a more immersive method.
According to Scott Wurdinger (2005), traditional or "compartmentalized learning doesn't reflect the real world, but the experiential classroom works to create an interdisciplinary learning experience that mimics real world learning". Therefore, experiential learning is any learning that supports learners in applying their knowledge to real-world problems or authentic situations (Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010).
For learning to be experiential, it must include these components (Chapman et al., 1995):
- Mixture of content and process: There must be balance between the experiential activity and the formal, theory-based information learned in the classroom.
- Immersive activity that mimics a real-life workplace challenge: Learning must have purpose and be personally relevant to the learner.
- Teaching moments that allow learners to practice, make mistakes and improve by applying new skills.
- Emphasis on reflection: Learners should be able to reflect on their own learning and make the connections between the activity and real-world applications.
In experiential learning, it is necessary that the experience is not simply seen as a simulation. Phil Geldart, founder and CEO of Eagle's Flight, said in a news release that the activity is "deliberately themed to mask connections to [a learner's] day-to-day activity".
2. What Does Experiential Learning Look Like in an Organization?
When we talk about what experiential learning looks like in an organization, we generally think of field-based experiences (i.e., out in the real world).
However, experiential learning can also happen in a classroom or at work, on-the-job. Let's take a look at some examples:
- Role play: Role playing provides a safe environment for employees to encounter different scenarios and make mistakes. This approach builds confidence, develops listening skills and engages learners in creative problem-solving.
- Games: Gaming is a popular way to help employees learn by doing. Games can be organized in a way that individuals and groups play with each other, by either collaborating or competing, like in the real world. This process can teach them valuable lessons about how to deal with on-the-job situations. As part of this experiential training approach, motivation tools such as points, badges and certificates can be awarded to make the game more engaging for participants.
- Case studies: Case studies are based on real-life situations that have occurred. We know that many people learn better from examples than from basic principles. Cases come in many forms, from a simple 'what would you do in this situation?' question to a detailed description of a situation with accompanying data to analyze. Most case-based assignments ask learners to answer open-ended questions or develop a solution to an open-ended problem.
- Simulations: Simulation-based training is popular in the healthcare and aviation industries, however, with the advancement of technologies like Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality (VR), simulation-based training is being adopted across all types of industries. A simulation uses electronic or software-based activities to simulate a real-world situation to which a learner must react. Leaners have the opportunity to practice certain skills and make mistakes in a safe environment.
- Problem solving: The objective with this approach is to design activities that require learners to come up with solutions - ways of dealing with issues or challenges that they can then use back on-the-job. Problem-based learning is "an instructional method of hands-on, active learning centered on the investigation and resolution of real-world problems". With this approach, the process of determining a solution is where deep learning occurs, forcing learners to think outside of the box.
- On-the-job training (OJT): The day-to-day interactions we have with our bosses and peers influence the kinds of behaviors we have - this is the core of experiential learning. By designing experiential activities for groups of trainees, based at the actual location where they will be working, "OJT exposes staff to 'business as usual' situations - real customers, peers, supervisors, real products, and services" - that they will continue to deal with once training is completed.
3. Who Benefits from Experiential Learning?
Research has identified certain groups of learners who benefit from experiential learning (Cantor, 1995), of which adult learners are included. This is not surprising because experience provides the basis for adult learning.
- Adults need to be involved in the planning and evaluation of their instruction.
- Experience provides the basis for the learning activities.
- Adults are more interested in learning subjects that have immediate relevance to their job or personal life.
- Adult learning is problem-centric rather than content-oriented.
These four principles are engrained in experiential-based learning activities; tying reality to training in order to create meaning.
As human beings, we are shaped by our experiences. For adults, no amount of textbook learning can take the place of knowledge that comes from experience. Adults inherently learn best when they are doing or experiencing something that they feel is valuable.
4. Why Incorporate Experiential Learning into Your Organization?
We know that adult learners benefit from experiential learning, but it has other benefits too:
1. Increase learners' motivation to learn.
When employees are engaged in learning experiences that they see the relevance and significance of, they are more likely to learn and acquire the desired skills being taught.
Furthermore, experiential learning is fun and engaging. It instills personal conviction about the value of changed behaviors and provides shared experiences that employees can refer to in the future.
2. Produce More Autonomous Learners.
To solve problems and complete tasks in unfamiliar situations in a real-world context, employees need to figure out what they know, what they do not know and how to learn it; in many cases, new behaviors need to be developed.
These behaviors or skills are acquired by engaging in experiential learning activities.
3. Increase transfer of knowledge/skill to the workplace
The literature on learning transfer indicates that, in many situations, training fails to help learners retain their knowledge between the learning environment and application (Wick, Pollock & Jefferson, 2010). Experiential learning can help bridge this gap because the theory learned or knowledge gained in the classroom is applied in the real world.
Further, for transfer to occur, skills need to be practiced in many different settings, something experiential activities facilitate.
Produce more meaningful learning.
One of the key components of experiential learning is reflection. Reflection ultimately deepens learning and helps employees to:
- Transfer their previous learning to new contexts.
- Master new concepts, principles and skills.
- Articulate how they developed this mastery.
As a result, experiential learning often generates positive feedback from learners -- this is something you don't often get with traditional approaches to training and learning in organizations.
5. How to Incorporate Experiential Learning into Corporate Learning Programs
Your experiential learning strategies should include activities that address all four phases of the Experiential Learning Cycle: Experience, Reflection, Thought and Application.
Fig. 1. Kolb and Fry’s Experiential Learning Cycle
You decide that as part of your training program you are going to offer coaching on handling dissatisfied customers.
Experience: In a workshop setting, you could present some content on steps to follow when handling customers who are upset, followed by role play or a demonstration.
Reflect: Participants could be asked to discuss what they observed in the demonstration, how the steps for handling upset customers compare to their current way of coping, etc.
Think: Participants then might be asked to think about how they can use the information provided to improve the way they currently deal with upset customers.
Apply: Participants could be walked through a simulation or similar situation in order to practice responding to upset customers.
The above is an example of a classroom-based activity, but remember this process can easily be adapted for on-the-job based activities or even eLearning.
Tips for Supporting Experiential Learning in the Workplace
There are many ways experiential learning can be supported in the workplace. Consider the following five questions:
- Are employees being encouraged to learn from, and reflect on, their day-to-day experiences?
- Do employees have easy access to learning resources that provide support for all phases of the Experiential Learning Cycle (learning by doing, reflecting, thinking and applying what was learned)?
- Do managers and supervisors encourage their teams and support on-the-job learning activities?
- Is there an effective feedback loop?
- Does your learning management software effectively manage and track experience-based learning events?
- Work towards changing your organizational culture rather than your LMS platform. It is important that you assess the readiness of your people to adopt experiential learning. Begin by looking for projects that need social interaction and collaboration, and slowly integrate experiential approaches from there.
- Apply experiential learning to group collaboration projects, moderated group discussions (in-person and online), lunch and learn sessions, knowledge share sessions, and through polls and surveys.
- Identify champions who can advocate experiential learning; these employees create awareness around the office, and encourage uptake among other users.
This article defined experiential learning, discussed why you should consider experiential approaches to your current training programs, and identified strategies to help you incorporate these ideas into your organization.
Incorporating experience-based learning events into the corporate culture takes some effort, but the tips and strategies discussed here are a great starting point. Remember, there's no benefit in completely overhauling your strategy, so gradually integrate these suggestions into your current training programs.
Do you want to incorporate experiential learning into your organization, or are you looking for an LMS or learning experience platform that supports experiential learning? Contact a SkillBuilder® LMS team member, or start your trial run today at no cost.
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Sarah is an Instructional Designer at BaseCorp Learning Systems and is currently completing a PhD in Educational Technology. Her research focuses on implementing competency-based learning systems in all types of organizations. When she doesn't have her nose in a book you can find her at the gym, on the ice, on the ski hill, drinking wine or in a coffee shop … with her nose in a book.