Think back to what you learned at school. Do you remember any of it? What about something you recently learned at work? You may have forgotten a lot of what you learned. But it’s not a personal fault. It happens to everyone.

Indeed, scientists have discovered that forgetting is not something that passively happens over time. Your brain actively seeks to forget. For your memory to work effectively, some things need to be rewritten. It’s how you learn new things and adapt to new environments. This makes the following statistic all the more ironic: You will forget 90% of what you’ve just learned — if you don’t put it into practice.

A Way to Remember

As learning leaders, it’s tough to hear that most learning is forgotten. But if you reinforce new knowledge and skills over time, people are much more likely to remember them. That’s because the new skill eventually ends up being stored in a different part of your memory. Instead of the ever-changing hippocampus, long-term memories exist in the brain’s cortex. And the more you practice the skill, the stronger communication becomes between your brain cells. It becomes harder (but not impossible) to forget.

Practically speaking, how can learning leaders use this to their advantage? The answer lies in experiential learning.

Defining Experiential Learning

Experiential learning is a form of learning that enables people to stretch and reinforce their skills. It builds knowledge in a more comprehensive way by considering the role that experiences play in our learning — including the influence of our emotions, cognition and external factors. It teaches people to learn using several different methods, which helps people truly understand what they’re learning instead of just memorizing it.

In essence, experiential learning completes an employee’s learning experience by offering practical work alongside learning. Some examples of this are:

  • Stretch assignments empower employees to drive skill growth in a chosen area (and add practical experience).
  • Mentoring connects mentors and mentees to develop skills that are beneficial for both parties.
  • Shadowing connects those who want to develop new skills with others inside an organization who are currently practicing that skill.
  • Volunteering builds skills through opportunities like speaking at an event, contributing to a blog, teaching others or working on tasks with community and charity initiatives.

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle

Today’s version of experiential learning can track its roots back to David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, established in 1984. In it, he describes how learners go through a cyclical process to learn and remember a new skill. It begins with a concrete experience — like taking a class or learning to play an instrument.

The next stage of the cycle is reflective observation. After having a concrete experience, learners should be encouraged to think about the experience — what went well, what could be improved and what can be done differently. They can also watch others doing the same thing and reflect on it.

Next, learners should make sense of their experience by thinking about the next steps for improving and coming up with a plan for this. In the workplace, this is where further opportunities to link learning to work are vital. Managers play a critical role in facilitating this process, helping learners see the next available steps, collaborating on a plan and regularly checking on progress.

The final stage in the cycle is acting on all the above. Learners apply what they have learned from their initial experience and use the opportunity to refine their new skills. This will start the cycle over again as they have new concrete experiences. They can repeat this cycle until they feel confident about the skill.

The Benefits of Experiential Learning

The most obvious benefit of bringing experiential learning to your organization is, of course, that people gain more knowledge. But there are other benefits to building and stretching skills.

Experiential learning makes it easier to grasp difficult or abstract concepts because they are linked to a practical experience. Likewise, power or soft skills — like team leadership and negotiation — can be learned more readily through practical experiences compared to classroom-based or theoretical learning. Having experiential learning opportunities like a stretch assignment also gives learners room to make mistakes and learn from them. Offering a range of diverse learning experiences through experiential learning can also cater to the different learning preferences and needs of individuals.

For managers and senior leaders, there are added benefits to improving team efficiency, resourcing and workforce agility. If learners can be temporarily deployed to another department or project, it makes it easier for managers to find people within their organization to work on urgent or niche tasks. It also makes it easier to shift people into new roles, if their existing one is no longer suitable (because of automation, for instance, or COVID-related shutdowns).

Tracking Progress

For experiential learning to be a success, you need a clear way to track all the learning and experiential activities. Ideally, a learner will learn something new and how they learned it — reading a book, completing a course, watching a video, etc. — will be tracked. Then they would be offered experiential learning opportunities based on that information.

Selecting one, like volunteering, they will then track this activity so their manager, human resources, L&D and any other interested parties can see what skills they have built. Peers or team leaders whom they work with during the experiential learning activity can also give feedback on their performance, and this can be recorded as evidence of building a skill. They can repeat this until their skills reach a certain level (for a promotion or role change, for example). This information can also prove useful for leaders when workforce planning, projecting skills gaps and deciding on promotions or lateral job moves.

The Missing Piece

Experiential learning is the final piece of the puzzle when it comes to learning. Providing it alongside traditional learning opportunities will enable people to have more diverse and holistic learning experiences. Their knowledge will become deeper as they practice their skills. It will suit more people, as individuals pick and choose the experiential activities that meet their needs. And it ensures that learning is put to practical use — not forgotten, but actively driving the organization forward.