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Understanding Experiential Learning

Lots of people talk about experiential learning, but what is it? Isn’t all learning an experience? In simple terms, it means learning by doing and then thinking about the experience. So it’s about assimilating knowledge by trying something out.

For example, you can’t learn to bake simply by reading a recipe or seeing a picture of lots of delicious cakes. You have to decide on recipes, get ingredients, set aside time and follow the instructions. And you have to do it multiple times if you want to achieve perfection.

This example gives you a lot of information about what has to happen for experiential learning to work. A learner has to want to

  • Understand what they are doing.

  • Give it a go.

  • Get fully involved.

  • Think about the whole experience.

  • Use the information acquired.

Of course, there are implications all of these.

What are the implications?

First and foremost, there’s a lot of self-propelling to experiential learning. It’s a very hands-on way of developing knowledge, so it builds confidence, strengths and a sense of purpose. For this to happen, learners have to

  • Feel good about what they are doing

  • Feel in control of the process

  • Feel connected to the outcomes

Without these criteria, they just won’t be motivated on the journey. And they’ll give up.

But a second big implication is that if you are leading an experiential session, you’d better be good at helping others reflect before, during and after a session. Otherwise, your group may fail to understand why it is doing something and what the learning is.

How do you create a successful experiential session?

To set up a successful session:

  • Understand that the participants are central to the whole process.

  • Recognise that readiness is vital. If the group or individuals aren’t ready, they won’t actively participate or assimilate any learning.

  • Accept that the same experience can feel very different for individuals who get involved, depending on their skills, knowledge, experience and willingness to get involved.

  • Build confidence first as success leads to greater engagement with the learning.

  • Create real and meaningful learning activities that add tangible value. Remember that anything fake is a big turn-off.

  • Design several shorter activities with reviews rather than one long one; shorter activities allow consolidation and experimentation.

  • Emphasise what works and build on what’s good. It’s much easier to build on success, and it’s more motivating.

  • Give practical, actionable, timely feedforward when you can and make this a part of group reflection.

How do you encourage group reflection?

Here are some questions that will help you lead a group reflection activity. You may have to tweak them to suit your situation, but they will act as a great start point.

  • What happens when . . . ?

  • What’s that like?

  • What are your insights?

  • How does that affect you?

  • What actions can you take from this?

These pretty simple questions will help you lead a group towards understanding their experience, being open for more learning and then integrating new practices.

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