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3 questions to unlock the secrets of experiential learning


Experiential learning is a powerful tool for boosting workplace knowledge and performance. But how does it fit in the digital sphere? 

In this post, Julie Wedgwood, Head of Learning Design at Sponge, answers three central questions on the topic:

What is experiential learning? 

Definitions of experiential learning abound, but they all agree on two key points: 

  • Forms for learning that do not allow the learner to be involved and active as an agent in the learning process are ineffective
  • Effective learning that lasts, requires the learner to be involved in a meaningful and memorable experience 

Experiential learning is a very natural human method of learning, so the term provides an umbrella that joins multiple learning theories together. Activities and situations that challenge the learner to experiment with making the wrong, as well as the right choices and decisions, and which provide the learner with the opportunity to explore the consequences of their actions in the safety and security of the learning experience, are a bit like a dress rehearsal for life.   

Albert Einstein is attributed as saying “Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.”

We know from psychology that we as human beings are influenced and act according to our attitudes, fears, hopes and values. So, if we want to change our behaviour we need to challenge our perceptions to inform our beliefs and our understanding of a subject. Experience can be a powerful influence. Whereas, information on its own, even if we commit it to memory, is not necessarily powerful enough to change our behaviour. 

Well-designed experiential learning allows the learner to bring with them any previous knowledge and experience, and provides the opportunity to test their perceptions and responses safely, while gaining new knowledge and experience to experiment with and test at the same time.

Good experiential learning should provide a ‘scaffold’ experience that helps the learner to succeed, but also to fail with support. Ideally, the experience should help the learner to identify what they can do, and what they can’t do without help (see Vigotsky’s zone of proximal development). This links right back to the theories of American educationalist, David Kolb who stated, “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”  Learning that delivers this experience is more likely to result in demonstrable change. 

How can learning technologies support experiential learning in the workplace? 

The use of video and designs that include multiple branches and paths can create a sense of real experience within a digital learning resource which places the learner in a simulation that is as near to reality as possible. Simulations and serious games are a great way to create immersive experiences. Story is an extremely important element in the design, as the learner needs to be an agent in the story as it unfolds, and their actions in the story should influence the story outcomes. 

With virtual and augmented reality, opportunities to create fully immersive experiences are really opening up now. The value of learning this way can be optimised by giving learners the chance to discuss their learning experience with others. This is often where learners find that they had similar and yet different experiences. These discussions can motivate learners to want to go back and complete the experience again, either to improve or to experiment and discover what happens if they make different decisions. A safe place to experiment and fail is so important in developing confident decision-making. 

"Experiential learning is how we naturally learn, change and grow. But when the opportunity to gain experience is not easy to come by or rehearse, digital experiential learning can offer the next best thing."

Does experiential learning have to simulate real life? 

When the context is right for the subject the learner has more opportunity to translate the learning into action because they can see it applied in the way it is meant to be used. The aim to make the experience feel very real, so that the learner feels the consequences, as much as possible. It is common for people completing experiential learning to express gratitude for having been able to learn from the experience, particularly in job roles where decisions can impact the lives of others. 

As we go about our daily lives, we learn from experiences, such as mastering features of a new piece of software or cooking a meal using a new recipe.  As psychologist, John Heron in his ‘whole person approach’ observed: 

“People are engaging in a form of action and enquiry throughout their everyday life.  This consciousness-in-action involves, intentionally, both participatory and individuating functions: feelings and emotions, intuition and imagery, reflection and discrimination, intention and action.” 

Experiential learning is how we naturally learn, change and grow. But when the opportunity to gain experience is not easy to come by or rehearse, digital experiential learning can offer the next best thing. 

References and further reading:

  • Heron, J. (1999) The complete facilitator’s handbook, Kogan Page, London
  • Kolb, D. A. (1984) Experiential learning, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey
  • Vygotsky, L. S. (1978) Mind in society; The development of higher psychological processes, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press