What is Experiential Learning? (And other frequently asked questions!)

What is Experiential Learning? (And other frequently asked questions!)

MTa’s definition of Experiential Learning is: ‘developing personal understanding, knowledge, skills and attitudes through the analysis of, and reflection on, activity’.
In this definition ‘Activity’ can include anything from an individual explaining an idea or completing a simple task to highly complex group interactions involving a wide range of mental attributes and behaviours.

Experiential learning is sometimes referred to as activity based learning or active learning.

What’s so good about experiential learning?

+ Experiential learning is an active process which engages the learner, not a passive process that happens to the learner.
+ In ‘experiential learning’ the experience provides the platform for learning, whilst the careful analysis and reflection of the experience develops the learning.
+ Individuals are encouraged to work things out for themselves, they are guided to and through their learning rather than being taught.
+ The learning individuals develop is appropriate for them: it is implicit in the approach that there are no ‘right ways of thinking’, ‘set rules, or ‘perfect behaviours’ that anyone has to learn and apply.
+ The commitment developed by the learner to make best use of their learning: they are central to the learning process, it is their learning.

Is experiential learning a new or passing fashion?

No. Using an experiential approach to learning is innate: everyone one of us has benefited from the approach in innumerable situations (just think about how people learn to talk and walk). It is a tried and tested approach which can be used in all sorts of situations with people of all walks of life, there being no barriers due to age, education, experience, ability, background or culture.

What are the benefits of the experiential approach?

Experiential learning is learner (student) centred, i.e. it focuses on the learning needs of the student rather than the needs of a teacher or trainer. Because of this focus it is easier for the student to; understand and absorb the learning, relate to and value its potential, make links to their personal situation, commitment to testing out and subsequently applying their learning.

What does experiential learning actually involve?

Experiential learning involves learning through activity. In planned learning (courses, workshops etc.) the initial activity is usually a group task which becomes the platform for learning. This is followed by the learners becoming cognitively engaged in reflection and review: what happened during the task and why. Each individual is encouraged to develop a personal understanding of the part they played and how they could have made more use of their potential. Finally ideas

What does experiential learning achieve?

Experiential learning leads to considered and planned change which is based on changes in cognitive approaches and / or behaviour. The changes are achieved because individuals develop a personal understanding of the learning that is relevant to them. They identify and understand:
+ the changes that are possible or appropriate.
+ how these changes can be made.
+ the benefits these changes could provide.
+ the impact these changes can have.

Can you give an example of how experiential learning works?

Perhaps you think of some experiential learning from your own past? You may be able to recall a time when you were given an instruction which you acted upon, only realising when you had taken action that you had misinterpreted the instruction and had therefore done the wrong thing.

Thinking back over this situation you might have realised that failing to obtain clarification following a verbal instruction can lead to inappropriate actions. This realisation could in turn lead to ideas like:
+ thinking carefully about what is being asked to make sure it is unambiguous before taking any actions (i.e. internal questioning)
+ restating the instruction in his or her own words and asking if this interpretation is correct
+ asking open rather than closed questions when seeking further clarification or information.

How does experiential learning lead to personal improvement?

Following reflection and review, the learner’s new understanding and knowledge is tried and tested in ‘learning situations’ before being refined and developed in normal daily life.

Can anyone learn experientially?

Yes, the ability to learn experientially is innate: we have all used it through childhood. What can happen however is that as we get older our interest in learning can decline, so sometimes this interest needs to be re-awakened.

What underpins successful experiential learning?

There are two key factors:
+ appropriate tasks or learning platforms through which the learning can be developed
+ effective facilitation of the whole learning process.

What makes a task ‘appropriate’ for experiential learning?

Appropriate tasks engage, stimulate and involve the learners in a way that they can ‘be themselves’ as they work with others to achieve their goals. Typically these goals are common, but this isn’t necessarily the case.

Until learners people become very familiar with using the experiential approach it is best if no technical knowledge is required, the outputs of the task and are inconsequential and there are no ‘correct solutions’. Tasks of this nature create learning opportunities without technical issues distracting minds during the learning review, i.e. the group doesn’t have to consider how the technical outputs of the task could have be bettered.

How long do experiential learning tasks take?

Some excellent tasks take no more than 5 minutes, some over an hour, but remember the task is the learning platform, the learning being developed through reflection and review when the task is over. Typically it takes about as long to develop the learning as run the task, but with groups who are used to discussing and developing ideas this can be much longer. Consequently expect the whole activity (task and learning development) to take between 2 and 3 times the length of the task. Guide times are provided with all of MTa’s activities.

What are the pros and cons of shorter and longer activities?

Short tasks can be:
+ used to introduce simple concepts and skills (e.g. listening, expressing ideas)
+ used one after the other to reinforcing or build on the learning
+ used to add pace, movement and fun, before some serious thought and discussion!
+ dropped into working meetings to highlight process issues that are affecting the team’s performance.

Longer tasks can be used to:
+ introduce open up a wide range of topics
+ explore challenging topics in more depth (e.g. decision making, negotiating)
+ emphasise points that could be glossed over during shorter tasks and therefore make it harder for individuals to dismiss them
+ raise underlying issues that take time to surface (e.g. individual frustrations)
+ develop understanding of more complex issues (e.g. conflict management).

Is it better to use 1 long task or 2 or 3 shorter activities?

There are no hard and fast rules but:
Learning planned around a sequence of short tasks offers participants the opportunity to test out their learning from task 1 in task 2 and more flexibility for the facilitator: the choice of the second task doesn’t have to be made until the facilitator has assessed the impact of the first task and review.

The learning opportunities offered by one longer task are usually more obvious to learners than those offered by 2 or 3 shorter tasks. This is because issues within the group can be magnified with time.

Shorter tasks enable the facilitator to target learning more effectively and therefore cover more ground, particularly with more able learners.
It can be easier to facilitate the learning process following longer activities, particularly with less able learners, because the impact of ‘less helpful’ behaviour becomes more obvious with time.

Martin Thompson

If you would like to find out more about experiential learning why not come on one our MTa Masterclasses?