Experiential learning – learning by doing

In studying for my MBA, one of the modules included a Production and Operations Management game. The main objective of the Production and Operations Management course was to provide us with the understanding and ability to apply theories and principles to real-world production.  We were put into competing teams with each person holding a different responsibility and we competed to win contracts to produce products, while tuning our business through the principles of operations management. We had loads of fun, but at the same time we learned about the various pitfalls, what worked and what didn’t work through experimenting with different production and operations management strategies.

When introducing learning strategies into the workplace, it is important to base these strategies on a good understanding of adult learning. This article focuses on experiential learning, which essentially means we experience something as a way of learning about it.

Experiential learning is also known as ‘learning by doing’ and the training involves a two way interaction, unlike the informational training methods which are more of one sided. Here the major focus is not just the transfer of facts and figures, but the development of participant skills, which may or not be the case in purely informational training.

What makes experiential learning so special?

The simplest way to explain this is that the approach to experiential learning utilises participants own experience and their own reflection about that experience, rather than lecture and theory as the means of generating understanding and transferring skills and knowledge.

Adult learners are attentive, interested and engaged when presented with a task or challenge to solve.  So during any group experience learners are engaged simultaneously on physical, emotional and rational levels.  This heightened level of engagement leads to increased attention during learning, improved retention and a higher likelihood of learning application.

According to David Kolb (1), an educational theorist, in order to gain genuine knowledge from an experience, certain abilities are required:

  • The learner must be willing to be actively involved in the experience;
  • The learner must be able to reflect on the experience;
  • The learner must possess and use analytical skills to conceptualise the experience; and
  • The learner must possess decision making and problem solving skills in order to use the new ideas gained from the experience.

Let’s look at some guiding principles of experiential learning: (2)

  • Experiential learning recognises that people learn best from their own experiences and their own reviews;
  • Experiential learning subscribes to the notion that what people do is more important than what they know;
  • Experiential learning renders behaviours and attitudes visible and thereby can become acknowledged and then addressed;
  • Experiential learning is built on the premise that it is not enough to explain to people what to do, they must be shown how to actually do it and then how to improve it;
  • Experiential learning moves beyond knowledge and into skill by generating a learning experience – the more experience the greater the skill;
  • Experiential learning gets to grips with the most important aspect of training and that is to achieve change in behaviour and attitude;
  • Experiential learning understands that to be remembered over a long period of time the learning process should be enjoyable, motivating and rewarding.

 Key components of success

Critical reflections, and getting students to participate in that process of analysing, reconsidering, and questioning, are key components of any successful experiential learning exercise. Critical reflection can be done individually or in groups. In Maurice Kerrigan Africa’s course on Effective Speaking and Presentation, each participant delivered several presentations in front of the group during the duration of the two and a half day course, which were all filmed. We each got one-on-one time with the facilitator where we reviewed the filmed recording and discussed the presentation. Our facilitator was able to guide us on where we could make improvements. The difference between our first a final presentations was quite remarkable!

Facilitation of experiential learning and reflection is challenging, but a skilled facilitator, asking the right questions and guiding reflective conversation before, during, and after an experience, can help open a gateway to powerful new thinking and learning. Pfeiffer and Jones’s five stage Experiential Learning Cycle (3), created a simple and practical questioning model for facilitators to use in promoting critical reflection in experiential learning. Their ‘5 Questions’ model is as follows:

  • Did you notice…?
  • Why did that happen?
  • Does that happen in life?
  • Why does that happen?
  • How can you use that?

These questions are posed by the facilitator after an experience, and gradually lead the group towards a critical reflection on their experience, and an understanding of how they can apply the learning to their own work life.

Trainer development programme

By becoming aware of individual preferences in learning, employee training and development programmes can be designed to capitalise on these preferences and help the learner to become competent in all stages of the learning process.

Maurice Kerrigan Africa offers a three day Trainer Development Programme. It is a ‘train the trainer’ course recognising that in the majority of cases, trainers deliver material that they themselves didn’t create.  In addition, adopting a ‘pull’ learning approach where delegates come to their own learning conclusions is more effective for adult training, but demands an advanced skills set from you, the trainer.

You might be interested in attending their upcoming course scheduled from 15 – 17 September, 2015 in Johannesburg.

Click here to look at Maurice Kerrigan Africa’s training schedule or to make a booking.

To find out more about the training courses offered by Maurice Kerrigan Africa or to arrange an appointment, simply call +27 11 794 1251 or email info@mauricekerrigan.com.



  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experiential_learning
  2. http://www.ventureteambuilding.co.uk/experiential-learning/
  3. Pfeiffer, W. & Jones, J. E. (1975). A Handbook of Structured Experiences for Human Relations Training. La Jolla, California: University Associates.

, , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.