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Adult learning theories for instructional designers: Experiential learning

Reading is good for the brain. Having decent knowledge about several fields comes in handy, especially if you strive to be an excellent conversationalist. However, knowledge is not the same as being able to do something.

Take driving, for example. No amount of studying engines, mechanics, or traffic laws will turn you into a skilled driver. It takes practice — and no small amount of it. Some people may have a natural inclination towards driving, while others may struggle a bit, yet we all need to practice.

We can also say this about adult learning.

Back in Antiquity, Confucius said, “Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand." Centuries of human experience have proved him right.

Continuing our series about adult learning theories series that instructional designers should know before creating training courses, we'll explore experiential learning today.

The Theory of Experiential Learning

The theory of experiential learning was created by psychologist David Kolb, who defined this type of learning as

The process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combinations of grasping and transforming the experience.

This differs from cognitive and behavioral learning theories in that it acknowledges both elements as important in the process while also advocating the importance of personal experience.

The researcher named abstract conceptualization and concrete experience as the two ways adults make sense of experiences. A transformative experience includes active experimentation and reflective observation.

These four elements work together and are often seen as a cycle: concrete experience provides information that serves as a basis for reflection. From these reflections, learners assimilate the information and form abstract concepts.

Concrete experience

Concrete experience is naturally the first stage of the experiential learning process. Adults learn better when they are told or shown when they get to experiment with new knowledge. Realistic simulations, cause and effect exercises, situations that evoke strong emotions are all great in this first stage.

For example, AR and VR allow instructional designers to make experiences even more believable. Creating lifelike environments and designing relevant content does wonders for learner engagement.

Read more: 4 Benefits of using VR in training

Reflective observation

Reflective observation is the next logical step. When discussing organized corporate learning, there must be enough time and opportunity for the learners to process initial prompts and scenarios.

There is often the need for relevant questions and discussion points. This can be easily guided by the facilitator or the instructional designer if the course is remote. Either way, participants need to come to their own conclusions instead of being fed the "main takeaways".

Abstract conceptualization

Abstract conceptualization can make or break the success of the learning process. Training reaches a new level once learners transform their own conclusions into general concepts (to be applied in similar situations).

Formulating concepts requires critical thinking, and once more, it is up to the learning specialists to encourage this and provide the appropriate context. This is the point at which adult learners see how the new knowledge applies to their own realities and not just to isolated learning scenarios.

Read more: Designing online training that focuses on experiences, not events

Active experimentation

Active experimentation closes the circle (and the cycle), bringing the newly acquired information back into the realm of real-life experience. This step is often overlooked in traditional corporate learning programs because it is more difficult to implement. That's because it usually takes place after the training is over.

Back to the driving metaphor – a person can be amazing on a simulator, but the true test is getting into the car and going into traffic. Whatever the new knowledge or skill is, it needs to be used after the learning intervention is over. This has to happen often enough so that it becomes a habit. That’s the measure by which a learning intervention is truly successful.

Closing thoughts

We are still learning about learning. It’s important to note that learning preferences shift over time, so running learning needs analysis and audience surveys is always a good idea.

Experiential learning goes hand in hand with immersive technologies. It's a relevant model with excellent success rates, especially for younger, more tech-savvy learners.

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