The concept of experiential learning is becoming ever more popular. More and more organizations abandon traditional classroom programs when developing their employees, and invest in learning through real-life experiences. The assumption is that when employees actually experience a situation, and live through a real-life problem, the learning outcomes are greater.
The consequence is, however, that many organizations now throw their employees into complex and challenging situations they often cannot handle, because the particular experiential situation is too far removed from the prior experiences of the employees. This means that the trainees don’t have the tools for being able to begin to process the experiential learning experience. Under these circumstances, learning does not occur, because learning takes place when new entities of knowledge can be integrated into existing knowledge structures. When being overwhelmed, such a structured process becomes interrupted, trainees become frustrated, and learning outcomes get impaired.
This does not mean that experiential learning interventions should be discontinued. After all, experiential learning truly promises to bring about better learning outcomes. However, current research suggests that if trainees have the opportunity to first observe others perform in the experiential learning situation, and thereby think through their prospective experiential learning task before actually engaging in the experience, they do much better when handling the experience. This has been shown to lead to better and deeper learning outcomes.
The implication therefore is: Continue to invest in experiential learning. It is indeed a promising approach. Make sure, however, that the trainees have the opportunity to observe role models before engaging with the experiential learning situation. Therefore, at the beginning of experiential learning, there needs to be a structured approach that eases the trainees into the situation. The easing-in happens through offering opportunities to observe role models that actually engage in the prospective experience. The use of prior classroom simulations of the prospective experience might hereby be helpful . Also, starting to go into the experience with the guidance of a subject matter expert enables observation/reflection. Finally, in case a particular experiential learning experience has been conducted before, trainees who already went through the experience can be used for offering insights into how to best approach the prospective learning situation.