Experiential learning is the process of learning through experience. It is more specifically defined as “learning through reflection on doing”.
We’ve all gone through an education system: primary and secondary schooling; college and / or university; corporate workshops – and we all have different educational experiences.
One of the common issues with education is simple: unless the experience is engaging, meaningful and embedded, then it isn’t retained.
When you consider the return on your corporate training investment, education that isn’t retained (and applied) is a waste. In dollars and cents, it’s simple: measure your ROI and expect to see it.
Our approach to this is through Active Learning which includes ensuring that the education is tuned to individual requirement (this is the foundation for our Tailored Learning Intervention), dialogic facilitation, peer learning, action learning, serious games and mentoring.
Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve
In 1885, Hermann Ebbinghaus collected data to plot a ‘forgetting curve’. He ran a limited, incomplete study on himself and then published his hypothesis, “Über das Gedächtnis”. This was later translated into English as Memory: A Contribution to Experimental Psychology.
As well as identifying the amount of information forgotten over varying periods of time, Ebbinghaus also came up with the effects of “overlearning” (e.g. if you practice something more than what is usually necessary to memorize it, the information is more impervious to being lost or forgotten).
Causes of forgetting & remembering
Whilst Ebbinghaus hypothesized that the basal forgetting rate differs little between individuals, he proposed that the speed of forgetting depends on such factors as:
- The difficulty of the learned material (e.g. how meaningful it is)
- Methods of how the knowledge is remembered
- Physiological factors (e.g. stress and lack of sleep
He went on to suggest that basic training in mnemonic techniques can help overcome those differences in part as well as repetition based on active recall (especially spaced repetition).
His premise was that each repetition in learning increases the optimum interval before the next repetition is needed (for near-perfect retention, initial repetitions may need to be made within days, but later they can be made after years).
Later research suggested that, other than the two factors Ebbinghaus proposed, higher original learning would also produce slower forgetting.
The example we tend to use relates to programming in C++ whereby two of our directors attended a series of training sessions in the language in 1991. Whilst the training included some basic exercises, neither director actually did any coding in between lessons. Needless to say, this disjointed and ‘light’ training with no relevance or reinforcement led to zero capability in C++ !
In 1984, the American educational theorist David Kolb published his book, “Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development” which introduced a four-stage cycle of learning and four separate learning styles.
Kolb’s ‘preference dimensions’
Kolb has defined one of the most commonly used models of learning. As in the diagram below, it is based on two preference dimensions, giving four different styles of learning.
The perception dimension is how people perceive things (ranging from ‘concrete experience’ where we look at things as they are, without any change, in raw detail through to ‘abstract conceptualization’ where we look at things as concepts and ideas, after a degree of processing that turns the raw detail into an internal model).
This spectrum is very similar to the Jungian scale of Sensing vs. Intuiting.
In the processing dimension, people will take the results of their perception and process it in preferred ways along the continuum between ‘active experimentation’ (take what they have concluded and try it out to prove that it works) through to ‘reflective observation’ (take what they have concluded and watch to see if it works).
Working on the point that there are different learning styles in the workplace, experiential learning is based on:
Divergers (Concrete experiencer / Reflective observer)
- Take experiences and think deeply about them
- Diverge from a single experience to multiple possibilities in terms of what this might mean
- Like to ask ‘why’
- Will start from detail to constructively work up to the big picture
- Enjoy participating and working with others
- Prefer a calm & stable environment to one driven by conflict
- Generally influenced by other people and like to receive constructive feedback
- Like to learn via logical instruction or hands-one exploration with conversations that lead to discovery
Convergers (Abstract conceptualization/Active experimenter)
- Think about things and then try out their ideas to see if they work in practice
- Like to ask ‘how’ about a situation
- Like to build an understanding how things work in practice
- Prefer facts
- Will seek to make things efficient by making small and careful changes
- Prefer to work by themselves, thinking carefully and acting independently
- Learning through interaction and computer-based learning is more effective with them than other methods
Accomodators (Concrete experiencer/Active experimenter)
- Have the most hands-on approach
- A strong preference for doing rather than thinking
- Like to ask ‘what if?’ and ‘why not?’ to support their action-first approach
- Do not like routine and will take creative risks to see what happens.
- They like to explore complexity by direct interaction
- Learn better by themselves than with other people
- Prefer hands-on and practical learning rather than lectures
Assimilators (Abstract conceptualizer/Reflective observer)
- Have the most cognitive approach, preferring to think than to act
- Ask ‘What is there I can know?’
- Like organized and structured understanding
- Prefer lectures for learning, with demonstrations where possible, and will respect the knowledge of experts
- Learn through conversation that takes a logical and thoughtful approach
- Often have a strong control need and prefer the clean and simple predictability of internal models to external messiness
- Prefer to learn through lectures that start from high-level concepts and work down to the detail
- Like reading material
- Prefer to ‘stay serious’ and do not enjoy to learn through play
Regardless of what type of Learning & Development you go through, ‘one size does not fit all’.
In our experience, the majority of corporate learners are assimilators (we can point to many observations in our feedback forms where learners have strongly disliked learn through play) and the hands-on learning of accommodators has been historically low.
Our learning & development programs build capability in leadership, strategy, and wider organizational development all focus on the question, “how will you apply this back into the workplace?” With over forty different workshop exercises (of different complexity and length), we design build & deliver activity-driven workshops with activities, comprehensive workbooks with a huge amount of supplementary information, exercise books for assessment towards CPD Credits and also post-workshop mentoring (1:1 and virtual classrooms) – all with an ambition to satisfy Kolb’s four learning styles.