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The Power of Experiential Learning

The Power of Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning is simply learning by doing. It is the way we naturally learn to walk, talk and ride a bike and many other things (especially when we are young). Being in action stimulates all the key learning senses, not just the mind, and provides an active experience of the learning. In general, games and exercises are used to approximate to this way of learning and are typically used as metaphors for what happens in the real world. Broadly, they provide a safe environment to practice the new skill and maximize the learning.

Recent statistics suggest we learn about 10% of what we read, 15% of what we hear but 85% of what we experience for ourselves. This goes much further than just being a result of appealing to all learning preferences. Games are powerful experience anchors. This means that the participant is much more likely to recall the experience of a game when confronted with the issue they were learning about than they are to remember text or visual references (or recall something heard). In turn this means they are much more likely to put the learning into practice.

Debriefing an Experiential Learning Exercise is the Key

Debriefing is the key to the learning experience. Most participants will not see the effect of their action in the game until you draw it out from them. Still fewer participants will immediately draw the link between their behavior in the game and what they do in the workplace. If you are not experienced at debriefing games, follow the simple rules shown below.

What are the Ideal Debriefing Rules?

Although they can vary a little from one situation to the next, debriefing rules should ideally encompass the following:

  • Use pre-prepared exercise debrief sheets if possible. They will help participants work within a planned and comparative structure and to carefully note down what really happened for them.
  • Get participants to discuss in their teams, or in small groups, what happened in the exercise/game, what they learned and how the learning applies in the workplace.
  • When debriefing all participants together, draw out their experiences by asking open questions.
  • Never tell participants what they experienced – you cannot know what happened inside someone else’s head!
  • Get participants to tell you what they learned (even if you have to be both gentle and patient to get there).
  • Guide individuals to tell you the relevance of what they learned to the workplace or the job.
  • Use any available debriefing notes as guidelines and not as a manual to be followed exactly. Adapt the ideas to what really happened in each game and what is really happening in the workplace. All circumstances will differ.

Other Guidelines for Experiential Game Facilitators

You will get the best results if participants are open and honest with you. Be prepared to lead by being open and honest yourself. In addition, if you as a game facilitator make a mistake at any time …Admit it. Participants are much more likely to forgive you for being fallible than they are if you try and cover it up.

In general, it is always helpful to get three verbal agreements up front from any game or exercise participants in order to get the most out of the experience. Ask them to “be willing to participate”, “be willing to take responsibility for your own outcomes and behavior”, and finally “be willing to learn”. Once you have agreement to these three, it is important to address the unspoken questions in participant’s minds. The most important to cover is “why are we using a training or leadership game?” (e.g. because it is a proven, safe and natural way to learn). Participants will also need to know “what do you want me to do?”, “How do I do it?” and a range of “what If?” types of questions. Above all remember to keep the whole experience simple and fun for all concerned.

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About John Radclyffe

John Radclyffe, Founder and Managing Director of WorldGAMES in Australia, is a rare breed of facilitator, trainer and consultant who has in-depth and hands-on experience in a broad range of skills; training, financial, marketing, new business development and business management among them.

View all posts by John Radclyffe →

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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