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Why experiential learning is so important in the workplace

This post has been updated on April 7, 2020.

Experiential learning is the process of learning through experience. Simply said, it's learning by doing. We all learn better when we are directly involved in a learning experience rather than when we are simply recipients of ready-made content, like formal training courses. Experiential learning comes with interactivity and participation and is much more effective than traditional learning approaches.

The experiential learning theory

The theory of experiential learning provides a holistic model of the learning process, based not only on the cognitive and behavioral side but also includes the subjective perception one experiences while learning. Personal interest in a given subject matter affects how the adult learner interacts with the learning materials and the efficiency of the learning process.

According to psychologist David Kolb, the top name behind this theory, experiential learning is a process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. The experiential learning theory is based on four factors:

  • Concrete Experience - the learner must be actively involved in the experience;
  • Reflective Observations - the learner must possess and use analytical skills to review and reflect on the experience;
  • Abstract Conceptualization - the learner must be able to reflect on the experience, make conclusions and actually learn from that experience;
  • Active Experimentation - the learner must plan and try out what they have just learned, using their decision making and problem solving skills.

These four elements form a cycle or process through which learners are able to observe, understand, grasp, practice / experiment, and learn.

Experiential learning in the workplace

In a workplace environment, people learn new things through various methods, but they all seem to come down to the same path of observation, understanding, grasp, practice, and learning. In front of a new task, employees learn by shadowing others who are more experienced at first — observation, asking questions, receiving feedback, and doing individual research — understanding of the task, performing the task (probably in a less than perfect manner) — grasp, repeating the performance and continuously getting their questions asked — practice, until they no longer need assistance in performing that task — learning.

Formal training, no matter if we're talking about face-to-face or online courses, can't possibly cover this whole path. In fact, formal training is said to count for 10% of workplace learning — an important 10%, but still, only 10%. Another 20% is covered by social learning, and the great majority of 70% falls in the realm of on-the-job experiences. The 70:20:10 model of learning and development has flipped the idea of rote learning on its head, and let's admit it: it make better sense.

Read more: What’s in a name? Quite a lot! I’m looking at you, 70:20:10

Learning experiences at work vary greatly, from attending formal training courses and taking the corresponding tests, to having a casual conversation with a colleague during a break. Every little learning experience can contribute to the development of the much-needed problem-solving skills and innovative thinking, which are catalysts of business progress.

Taking on new responsibilities, being part of various projects or working groups, or trying a new approach to an old problem, force employees to take their learning experiences and apply everything to real-life situations.

Supporting experiential learning with an LMS

The role of any business LMS is to ease the learning process of all employees. It's easy to see how it supports the formal learning part, but what about experiential learning?

Well, the use of an LMS can help with the optimization of employee's performance support. Having all company policies, handbooks, and other such files in the same place and sharing them with employees will help improve overall productivity costs. Also, it can host interactive content and learning scenarios, which immerse employees in their online learning experiences.

Read more: 5 Steps to take when designing scenario-based training courses

In order to improve something, one must measure and analyze. Improving the learning process makes no exception from this principle. So, how can L&D professionals measure the impact of all learning experiences over business success? How can they connect the dots from a conversation between an employee with their team leader on a certain task and the actual performance of that task?

Read more: Best practices on measuring the impact of organizational learning

While it may be easier to do this in the case of small businesses, how can it be achieved in medium and large businesses, with hundreds or thousands of employees?

The answer has three names: xAPI, or Experience API, or Tin Can API. In fact, the answer is the integration of xAPI within a company's learning management system. xAPI makes it possible to track and analyze all sorts of learning experiences in the workplace, by collecting digital information from small real actions and connecting them with the business outcomes.

Read more: Building a learning ecosystem that works with xAPI

Over to you

What's your opinion on experiential learning and its importance in the workplace? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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