Experiential Learning

Today, workshop participants have limited attention spans, so facilitators have to bring in games and accessories to  keep everyone entertained. Some workshop facilitators toss out small candy bars when participants answer questions. But using experiential activities should be more than just “games trainers play”.

Properly administered experiential activities offer an opportunity for learning through reflection on doing; this is  contrasted with rote or didactic learning. As stated by Confucius, “Tell me and I will forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I will understand”.

Let’s not discount an important reason that games are popular: the “fun factor.” Learning through fun activities helps  the learner retain the lessons for a longer period. A fun learning environment, where there is plenty of laughter and respect for the learner’s abilities, encourages learners to take the risky step of admitting their deficiencies and trying new ideas.

The role of experiential learning is to create opportunities for participants to develop insight into their own  performance and then create action plans for improvement.

According to David Kolb, educational theorist, effective experiential learning goes through a four stage cycle: (1)  immediate experiences, then (2) observation and reflection, which are distilled into (3) abstract concepts, which can  then be (4) actively tested, in turn creating new experiences.

Ideally, but not always, experiential activities will touch all the bases of experiencing, reflecting, thinking and acting.

An effective experiential activity should provide an opportunity for learning with as few distractions as possible. It can be great fun to run “big activities”, and “rope courses” can definitely generate real learning opportunities; but take  care. Big events can overpower their intended lessons, and valuable incidents can get lost in the complexity of the event. Although less memorable, running several short activities (10-30 minutes) can have far more impact than one big activity.

Here are four tips to help you bring experiential activities to your next workshop.

  1. The observation and reflection part is essential to the learning process. This needs to be planned out as part of  the activity design, and not left to chance.
  2. Concentrate the reflection on positives more than negatives. It is normal and human to focus on the negatives,  but this can undermine participants’ confidence and interest in growing. If something goes wrong, there is  benefit to correcting the problem. But it is even more beneficial to debrief what has gone well. Focusing on  success is inherently motivating and will insure these behaviors are repeated.
  3. Use questions to stimulate learning and move from reflection to abstract thinking and finally action planning.  Your role as facilitator is to draw out the lessons from the participants. Ask questions that stimulate discussion  about the relevance of this concept and how it can be applied to their world.
  4. Finally, resist the temptation to answer your own questions. Forget your ego. The experiential activity is not an opportunity to show how smart you are. Your success is marked when your participants have their own “aha”  experiences. And these experiences are sure to happen when you use experiential activities.