Experiential Learning Theory
» Experiential Learning Overview
» The Nature of Experiential Learning
» Characteristics of an Effective Experiential Learning programme
» In Summary
The foundation of the AsiaWorks training approach is experiential learning.
AsiaWorks believes that for certain areas of human learning and behaviour
change, experiential learning is the powerful, effective and impactful
approach to learning. This document presents the theory, philosophy and
background of experiential learning for interested readers.
Experiential Learning Overview
Experiential learning is a process, which directly acknowledges, welcomes,
values and uses the existing knowledge and competence of those being taught.
Its use is particularly appropriate where the subject matter under
consideration touches on people's deeply held beliefs and attitudes,
involves emotionally charged or value-laden material, or is just plain
difficult in human terms!
To better understand experiential learning, it is useful to contrast it with
the more traditional approach to learning. Didactic teaching, where a person
presents information to others in lecture or lesson format, which results in
learning occurring solely at an intellectual level. It has been described as
being based on the 'mug and jug' theory of learning (Roger 1983; Hobbs 1986).
Put simply, the recipient of the lecture is like an empty mug waiting to receive
information poured into it from the source of knowledge, the jug. This method of
teaching involves a passive form of learning where students are not required to
examine their own feelings, thoughts and understandings in response to the
subject material. They are able to remain personally unaware either of the
intensity or the effect of their own emotional response to the subject material
on themselves or on other people.
Experiential training aims for a very different degree of learning from that
which is based on 'didactic' teaching methods. The different quality and nature
of experiential learning lies in its involving as many different aspects of the
participant's capacities as he or she is prepared to invest in the learning
process. Learning occurs at intellectual, emotional and behavioural levels in an
integrated manner, resulting in real attitude and behavioural change as influential
early learning is effectively re-evaluated.
The Nature of Experiential Learning
Experiential learning is both exciting and challenging. It includes a range of
different processes such as individual or team problem solving initiatives,
physical challenges, games, simulation exercises, structured processes, sharing
sessions, guided visualisations, and structured interactions. In all these events,
students are actively engaged in the learning process and are able to generate
meaningful, relevant insights from their experience.
The Nature of Experiential Learning has been defined as having four main
- the learner is aware of the processes which are taking place, and which are
enabling learning to occur;
- the learner is involved in a reflective experience that enables the person to
relate current learning to past, present and future;
- the experience and content is personally significant: what is being learned
and how it is being learned hold a special importance for that person;
- there is an involvement of the whole self - body, thoughts, feelings and
actions, not just of the mind. In other words, the learner is fully engaged as a
These principles result in the following propositions:
- Experiential learning is concerned with the experience of individuals, not
just with their participation. Participants are asked to consider and utilise their
own experience as the basis for self-understanding and assessment of their own needs,
resources and objectives.
- The individual participant is regarded as an active, rather than a passive,
participant in the process of defining and putting into practice educational agendas
- Through this learning process, power (locus of control) is shifted away from the
teacher and in the direction of the learner. Another way to put this would be to say
that in traditional learning the nature of the teacher-student relationship is
usually asymmetrical; the former has more power than the latter. In experiential
learning, this asymmetry is reduced. Learners are planning, carrying out and evaluating
their own learning. The 'expert' and the learner engage in a process which is
concerned, not with the former transferring facts into the latter, but rather with
facilitating an active process of learning in the student.
- The participant becomes responsible for his or her own learning. The expert is a
resource and a provider of structure, but learning is seen as taking place when the
learner is trying actively to assimilate external knowledge into his or her own internal
frame of reference.
Kolb (1984) describes a four-stage, cyclical process of effective experiential learning,
which embodies these dimensions (see Figure 1). Kolb perceives experience in the present
as the basis for reflective observation. Out of this emerges a conceptual analysis that
can then be tested in an active fashion. This testing generates a new experience, and so
the cycle begins again. The model allows for the possibility of preferred learning styles.
Some people, for example, prefer to reflect, whilst others prefer to act. The implication
is that the effective learner is able to employ a range of learning styles, while the
effective organisation embodies the whole range of skills within its workforce and allows
for the deployment of these skills at appropriate points in the organisation's work.
Experiential learning places particular emphasis on reflection by providing a model and
structure through which experience can be reflected upon and by providing an opportunity
for participants to engage in the reflection/learning process together in a spirit and
climate of mutual support.
Figure 1. Cyclical process of experiential learning (Kolb 1984)
Characteristics of an Effective Experiential Learning programme
An experiential learning programme is characterised by activity, variety and direction.
More specifically, six qualities set it apart from other programme designs.
- Moderate level of content. Experiential learning programmes have a lean curriculum.
They concentrate on the critical learning areas - those elements that provide the
essential basis on which to build later. When the content level is kept moderate, the
trainer has time to design activities that introduce, present, apply and reflect upon
what is being learned.
- Balance between affective, behavioural and cognitive learning. Experiential learning
involves a three-pronged approach: fostering attitudes, developing and practising skills,
and promoting understanding of concepts and models behind the subject. Some training
programmes tend to focus on one of these areas to the exclusion of the others but the
experiential trainer wants participants to not only know about something but also to be
able to do it. Furthermore, the trainer wants them to look at themselves in relationship
to what is being taught and consider how it works for the participants.
- Opportunities for group participation. Group participation has advantages in any
experiential learning programme. Involving the group moves training from the passive to
the active stage. Group activity engages participants in the learning process and makes
them working partners with the trainer. Lecturing is held to a minimum as highly
participatory methods such as games, role-playing, simulated exercises and case discussions
- Utilisation of participants' expertise. Each participant in an experiential learning
programme brings relevant experiences to the classroom. Some of these experiences will be
directly applicable; others may involve analogies from previous jobs or situations. In
either case, much of the learning in a training programme comes from one's peers. You can
build into your design many opportunities for participants to learn from each other.
- Real-life problem solving. Experiential learning emphasizes the real world.
Opportunities are set up for participants to utilise course content to address and help
solve actual problems that they are currently experiencing. Application is not just something
that happens after training; it is a major focus during training. Participants learn best when
they get to work on their own material, cases and examples. This gives the information
immediacy and enables participants to assess its utility on the spot.
- Allowance for re-entry planning. At the conclusion of any training programme,
participants will naturally ask, "Now what?" The success of an experiential learning
programme is measured by how that question is answered - that is, how what has been learned
in the course is transferred to the job or back home. An active training design ends with
consideration of the next steps that participants will take and the obstacles that they will
face as they implement new ideas and skills.
The environment of an experiential learning programme is unique and special. It is
dynamic, engaging, energetic, fun and rewarding. At the same time it can provide an intense,
deep and profound learning experience for its participants. AsiaWorks believes that learning
can and should be an enjoyable process. Experiential learning has proven itself to be a
powerful, successful learning tool that is personally fulfilling, meaningful and fun.
This document was compiled and written using information from the following sources:
- Hobbs, T. (1986) 'The Rogers interview', Changes: Journal of the Psychology and Psychotherapy Association
- Hobbs, T. (1992) Experiential Training: Practical Guidelines, London and New York, Routledge.
- Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential Learning, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Rogers, C. R. (1983) Freedom to Learn for the '80s, Columbus, Ohio: Merrill.
- Silberman, M. (1990) Active Training: A Handbook of Techniques, Designs, Case Examples and Tips, New York, Lexington Books.