We learn best through experience — so how can you make that happen?


We think a lot about experiential learning at Abilitie. Clearly, we believe in its power -- learning through experience is at the core of each of our business simulation offerings. That said, experiential learning is not a learning tool that begins and ends with simulations. There are many ways that you can begin to incorporate experiential learning methods into your organizational development programs. In this post, I’ll outline what experiential learning is, why you should be capitalizing on it in your corporate learning, and how to incorporate it seamlessly into what you’re already doing.


What is experiential learning?

Experiential learning can encompass a variety of learning systems. It includes role playing, reflection following real work, or simulated environments. Experiential learning allows the learner to take their learning a step beyond concept. When an experiential learning opportunity has been set up effectively, it allows for adult learners to be surprised. Through that surprise, they are able to learn more than if they were reading from a book or listening to a PowerPoint presentation.

One way I like to think about experiential learning is through a memory from my childhood. My grandmother was a teacher who loved children of all ages, so when my mother asked her if she were worried that my siblings and and I might fall off my grandmother’s tall porch, she was surprised by my grandmother’s answer.

My grandmother said, “Well, they’ll only fall off the porch once. Then you can be sure they won’t do it again!”

I laugh at the memory now, because we all knew we were never really in danger of hurting ourselves (we had trust, something I’ll get to in a moment!). Still, the idea powerfully represents the value of shock, surprise, and consequence that is inherent to experiential learning. Knowing that we could have fallen off the porch, we never forgot the lesson: “Be careful not to fall!”

So, how can you build these safe, but surprising moments into your programs for adult learners to fully take advantage of experiential learning?


Build trust!

You could set up a perfect experiential opportunity for your learners, but, without trust, they will tend toward what skills they are already confident in. By creating a trusting environment, your learners will have the space to make mistakes that allow for growth. Below are some recommendations to build trust:

Suggestion: As the person “in charge” acknowledge that you are vulnerable and that you trust your learners to enter the experience with openness. This is an extension of the above -- ensure that your learners understand that the only real failure is if they don’t learn from a mistake.


Embrace feeling like a fool

A big aspect of experiential learning is trying new things. As we all know, trying new things usually doesn’t go as smoothly as trying things we’ve done a million times. Think about the first time you went to your first job. You were probably not sure where to park, didn’t know what elevator to take, weren’t sure if you should look at your phone or the newspaper or your empty hands while you waited for your boss. Probably, you were worried you looked “wrong” somehow.

It’s okay to worry about looking wrong, but it’s not okay to let that worry keep you from trying.

Suggestion: Challenge your learners to do something that seems foolish at least once in their training. Chances are, that foolish moment will bring about an excellent conversation that will help everyone’s learning.


Be honest about what you don’t know yet

In one of my first jobs, I was asked if I knew how to perform a mail merge. I smiled confidently and said, “Yes.” Inside, I was thinking, “I’m going to Google that later and figure it out.”

Most people have experienced something like this in their work life. While there’s something to be said for being able to figure out new tasks, and Google is a great resource, you cannot allow this to be the approach in a training experience. This is just another example of a time when someone doesn’t trust their fellow learners enough to look foolish (have you picked up on the big theme of this post yet? trust!).

Suggestion: Always remember to ask learners to set goals at the beginning of trainings. What are they looking to practice? What do they really not know how to do yet? These are the questions they need to have answers to in order to get the most out of experiential learning. Ask them!


Think about the worst thing that could happen -- and then practice it!

We all worry about the worst case scenarios. It makes sense, we want to be sure that we won’t be surprised by something down the line. While it’s important not to waste too much time worrying about worst case scenarios, an experiential learning session is exactly the right place to think about worst case scenarios.

Suggestion: Give yourself the space to not only think about your worst case scenario, but also practice it. Take advantage of collaborative learning and utilize your fellow learners to role-play the situation.

  1. Discuss and debrief the situation

  2. Be sure you understand exactly what worries you in the situation

  3. Distill what skills you’ll need to deal with it

  4. Discuss and practice neutralizing your fears before they come into play.

What are your best practices for maximizing experiential learning in your corporate programs?


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