Why Experiential Learning doesn’t feel like studying, and why that’s a good thing!

Why did I learn more Spanish from the corner newspaper kiosk owner than in years of classroom activities? Why can’t you learn to play soccer online? Why is it easier to understand fractions if you think of a pizza than the numbers themselves?

The answer to all of these questions is that we learn more effectively in context. We, people, are designed to learn what we need to know, quickly. The rest comes later. What we need to know most is: the cost of the newspaper is one dollar and ten cents; when Roberto heads straight for you accelerating, you need to spin toward his left side; and, I can eat 5 of the ten slices of pizza before someone gets mad.

The lessons that we learn in a context stick with us. We call it “learning by doing” and it is the principle behind apprenticeships and internships and many other common learning situations. In business, and especially in sales or management training – soft skills – we also need to learn in a context. Experiential learning is a variation on that theme that fits best with adult learning in a business environment. Despite the academic sounding title, Experiential Learning is, broadly speaking, really just learning by doing with some thoughtful coaching thrown in.

In experiential learning as presented by David Kolb, the following four steps are followed. First there is the experience itself, let’s say that a new middle manager (Sharon) has to motivate a low-producing employee (Bob). In the course designed with experiential learning in mind, Sharon brings that experience to the classroom for discussion. An instructor facilitates a useful and constructive discussion about motivating employees, and what tools Sharon and the other employees may have at their disposal in this corporate context. Sharon is thinking about Bob and how to get him going, while the other participants in the class are thinking of their own teams.  The instructors then present current research on the topic – how people are motivated, what are successful companies doing to motivate employees, which of those techniques can be used here.


Once discussion and the presentation of theory take place, there is in-class experimentation in role-plays, and then experimentation with techniques back in the office. And then the cycle begins again with another experience.

During the experience, the discussion, the reflection and the experimentation, Sharon can legitimately feel like she is “not really studying.” In fact, in our experience using this technique in the developing world where traditional teacher/student roles are still very strict, we have even heard some initial grumbling along the lines of “we are actually doing this ourselves, why do we need the instructor?” When we start with the esoteric presentation of theory we get satisfied looks of “Ah-hah! Finally we get to the lesson!”  Yet we know that the learning is actually happening most in the other parts of the course. The participants are learning so much, absorbing it so deeply, that it doesn’t feel like study at all. We know that those are the lessons that will stay with them.

Experiential learning combines experience, reflection, theory and experimentation to make the lessons really hit home and thus effect positive change in the workplace. So, the next time that you feel like you aren’t really studying in a course, maybe you are learning more than you thought!

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