Experiential Learning Theory: Learning by Doing
[feat-img-left] Let’s say you want to teach someone to drive a car. You, as the instructional designer of Driver’s Ed, might choose to assign a hefty textbook—perhaps the manual to the car—as well as a pamphlet about traffic laws. You may quiz your student on the contents of the reading material and find that he can answer all the questions correctly. So you give him an A, and hand him a set of keys. But when he gets into the car, he is dumbfounded. After all, he has never put keys in an ignition before. Perhaps a better model would be to have the student get in the car from the beginning, to have him practice driving in a quiet neighborhood, shifting gears and parallel parking on an empty street. The student becomes able to coordinate his muscle memory with concepts he’s learned from the text: this is how you steer, this is how long it takes to check your blind spot. Because it offers the learner hands-on experience, the second method is called experiential learning, and many say it’s the best way to deliver new concepts effectively. It’s not just driving where experiential learning can help: many on-the-job skills, such as conflict management, customer service, and medical practice have to be practiced in order to be perfected.

A four-part model

Educational theorist David A. Kolb developed the following four-part model of the experiential learning process: For example, in the scenario above, the student applied his brakes at a stop sign (DO). Upon reflection (and a slight case of whiplash), he realized that he pressed the brakes too hard (OBSERVE). So he thought about what he might be able to do differently next time (THINK), and at the next sign, he applied less pressure and came to a smooth stop (PLAN). The new driver’s ability to make a gentle and effective stop is now a fully engrained experience in his mind—on its way to being an automatic habit.

Experiential eLearning

One question you may be asking yourself is: how can experiential learning translate to the eLearning environment? One example is case-based scenarios that offer learners a chance to make decisions and see the results. Many health-care training opportunities offer such tools, allowing learners to try out different responses to virtual patients’ questions and make clinical diagnostic decisions in a safe and risk-free environment. Here are some tips for creating opportunities to enact all four of Kolb’s stages of experiential learning in your online course or training: Do Have learners watch a video and make a decision via an interactive tool. Examples might include selecting responses to offer an angry customer or deciding how to handle an on-the-job emergency (such as choosing a fire-escape route). Since experiential learning is about enabling learners to enjoy the “beginner’s mind” experience of trying something for the first time, you may not want to offer them context before they undergo the experience. Skip the explanatory text and throw them right in the driver’s seat. Observe Offer learners an open-ended reflective question about what happened. (Questions like, “What happened? What effects did you notice?” work best). These questions make excellent fodder for discussion in online forums, synchronous “chat” sessions, and independent essay responses. (These are what questions.) Think Design questions that give students the opportunity to analyze the situation. Targeted questions like “Why do you think this happened?” and “How could you have done things differently?” allow learners to begin to develop a conceptual model for what they’ve just observed. (These are how and why questions.) Experiment Do the initial activity again, so that learners have a chance to make a new choice based on what they have just observed (e.g., selecting a different response to the angry customer). Having the learner immediately implement what he or she just learned through doing, observing, and reflecting can complete the cycle of experiential learning.

Contact Clarity

For over 30 years, we’ve managed projects touching every element of learning and talent development.