Benefits of Experiential Learning: Is Your Program Cloth or Lace?

By Linda Schneider - July 31, 2017

Experiential learning programs come in a variety of formats and sizes, with many falling into the “what-to-think” domain, imparting basic, foundational, or even procedural knowledge.

These simulation training programs go a giant step further by teaching learners “how to think” by doing and applying through realistic activities.

You might say, “So what?” But if you are investing resources, money, and time in developing or enrolling in a learning and development training program, here’s something to consider. While there is a time and a place for basic learning, the distinction in benefits derived from what-to-think versus experiential learning models is larger than you might expect.

It can be as enormous as the difference between a scrap of plain cloth and a piece of fine lace.

How so? Years ago, I worked for an organization that provided distance education to professionals preparing for a certification exam. To be eligible for the exam, learners had to fulfill a coursework requirement through an educational program approved by and registered with the certifying entity. I like to think of it as my first exposure to what-to-think learning.

The materials included enormous study guides—tomes—covering numerous exam topics. We’re talking a gazillion pages, sections, appendixes, case studies, etc. Although the content was accurate, comprehensive, and rigorous, this was anything but experiential learning. Rather, it was death by study guide.

First, the volume of information was overwhelming. The course had several parts and therefore multiple study guides. How could learners effectively distinguish need-to-know from nice-to-know information?

Second, although it featured learning objectives, the coursework was devoid of mental model shifts, aha moments, critical thinking, sophisticated leadership development assessments, deep analytic feedback, and the other benefits of sound, lasting learning.

Granted, this was before the Internet and e-learning really got going. And we did have a department conducting measurement and research to “validate” the learning. So with all due respect, what we offered was state of the art at the time.

But when I think back, I wonder what the true benefit of the learning was. How much did anyone actually learn, and did they retain the new knowledge beyond taking the exam? Were we truly developing skills for business leadership?

While the materials served an informational need, the learning was cut from what-to-think cloth. The learners came away knowing what to think, but after spending a lot of time, effort, and money, how did they bridge the gap to successfully and confidently apply that knowledge and transform business?

So imagine how blown away I was years later when I started working on the experiential learning simulation training developed by The Regis Company. Just like a fine piece of lace, our leadership development training programs are intricate, thoughtfully designed, and carefully crafted with just the right amount of material and design. They weave a web of engaging, realistic scenarios that take learners on a meaningful journey of knowledge and application. These business simulations can be delicate in how they address sensitive issues, but they are authentic and enduring, savvy and strong. They create new patterns of behavior and thinking.

In other words, they make it possible for learners to actually absorb fresh concepts, embrace new behaviors, retain knowledge, and confidently apply it in real life. They close the gap between accumulating knowledge and assimilating and acting on it in everyday situations. They are the embodiment of the benefits of experiential learning.

Can you say that about the learning and development programs you’ve experienced, developed, or are about to embark on? Are those programs cloth, or are they lace?

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