A Case Study

When Holly was in her junior year of high school, she took a psychology class with an unusual teacher. Mr. Dolven taught using immersive and experiential methods to capture attention, help students immediately assimilate new ideas and provide recall. Back then, this type of instruction was unheard of.

One day, Mr. Dolven was talking about a topic that had all of the students absorbed in his discussion. Suddenly, the right rear door of the classroom burst open, and an adult man ran into the classroom. He ran all the way up to the front of the classroom, saying, “Where can I hide?” and, “I’ve gotta lose this guy…”

He ran out the left rear classroom door just as another man ran in through the right rear door. The second man asked, “Where did he go?” and, “How far behind him am I?” as he ran through the classroom. Then, almost as quickly as he entered, the second man ran out the left rear door, and all was silent – except, of course, for the pounding hearts of 18 high school juniors.

Mr. Dolven immediately let the students know that they had experienced a simulation. He instructed them to take out a piece of notebook paper and recount everything they had just witnessed. They were to write down the men’s ages, race, height, weight, hair color, clothing style and color, shoe type and color, the path that each man took through the classroom, exactly what each one said, and anything else they could remember from the incident. He gave them 20 minutes to complete this activity. The results were astonishing.

The students were all able to identify the race of both men as Caucasian, but the accuracy of their observations went downhill from that point. They all saw different hair color; different heights and weights; and drastically different ages, clothing style and color. Did the men even have shoes on? There was extreme disagreement. What did they say? They all heard different statements. Draw their path through the classroom? More confusion and disagreement. When the “actors” rejoined the classroom, the students were shocked at just how wrong they were.

What was the lesson? The class was studying communication and the importance of body language. The instructor asked the students to describe the body language of the actors and explain how they correlated with the emotions they displayed. The students were also studying perception and how unique it was for each person. Finally, the class had recently studied human stress and what being in a stress mode does to the body. The 18 students were shocked and scared during this experience, lending to the varied witness statements. This lesson drove all of these Psychology 101 points home – and Holly never, ever forgot the day, the lesson or the experience.

As learning and development (L&D) professionals, we know that reiterating the words on a slide in a monotone will not produce results for transferable knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs). For the students in the psychology classroom, the immersive, visceral experience of the drama employed both the amygdala for emotions and the medial temporal lobe for memory. An event that activates both of these areas of the brain concurrently successfully encodes KSAs to memory, leaving the door open to positive workplace KSA transfer.

Differentiating Immersive and Experiential Training

Immersive and experiential training methods are successful because they involve all of the senses and provoke a visceral response. The experience enables learners to assimilate new information quickly and retain it much longer than they do when we use other training methods.

Some people use the terms “immersive” and “experiential” interchangeably, but while there is some overlap, they are different. They are much like bourbon and whiskey. Bourbon is a type of whiskey, but many whiskeys are not bourbon. Likewise, immersive training is a type of experiential training, but not all experiential training is immersive.

Immersive learning is used to bring about a change in behavior. It involves learning within a highly interactive simulated or artificial environment. This environment seems so real that it allows the learner to become completely immersed in the learning. Immersive learning optimizes how the brain learns by rousing emotion, enabling participation, providing context and giving control to the learner. Types of immersive learning include 360-degree photos and videos, 3D simulations, virtual and augmented reality, and gamification.

Experiential learning is used to develop a skill or a set of skills. When developed properly, it engages learners to the extent that they become active participants in their own development while interacting with the facilitator and their colleagues. It usually involves a fun, themed activity whose main goal is to engage participants and keep them interested in solving a problem or overcoming a challenge. Types of experiential training include apprenticeships, role-play, games, case studies, internships, simulations, problem-solving and on-the-job training.

The Advantages of Immersive and Experiential Training

There are many advantages to using immersive and/or experiential training. They can both produce real, transferable results more rapidly than traditional classroom training. The fact that learners can assimilate new KSAs more quickly translates directly into cost savings for their organization.

Additionally, both types of learning provide industry-specific, real-world situations rather than concepts that might not apply to the job that participants are trying to learn or improve upon. This benefit allows learners to be more immediately effective and efficient with their new KSAs and the organization to retain a competitive advantage in its global work environment.

Designing Experiential Training

One of the quotes attributed to Confucius is, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” Corporate trainers have seen proof in the training environment that learners do, indeed, learn better when they are “doing.”

They also learn better when they have a visceral involvement with the training. When they are fully immersed and engaged, learners form the strongest memories and absorb the most knowledge. Experiential and immersive training provide a vehicle by which trainers can make sure that learners experience all four parts of experiential learning identified by psychologist David Kolb in his book “Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development”:

Active involvement in the training experience --> Analysis of the training experience --> Drawing conclusions from the training experience --> Applying what was learned in the training experience

Fortunately, it is easy to design experiential and/or immersive training with these five steps, suggested by Jeffrey A. Cantor in 1995:

  1. Decide which parts of your training would be more effective with a form of experiential learning.
  2. Look for interactive exercises that match the learning objectives.
  3. Make sure the exercises you select complement the higher-level skills and/or behaviors learners will develop through the training.
  4. Analyze your learner population to make sure that the activities you choose are appropriate for the group.
  5. Brainstorm any potential issues that might detract from the experience.

In his 2005 book, “Using Experiential Learning in the Classroom,” Scott D. Wurdinger also suggests seven guidelines to use when integrating experiential learning into training:

  • Use a major project or experience to guide learning across the entire span of training.
  • Use smaller projects, activities and exercises to keep the training interesting while adding value to the training topic as a whole.
  • Tie everything together to create a complementary, holistic opportunity for learning and understanding.
  • Ensure that activities are challenging but manageable.
  • Provide clear expectations for participants.
  • Allow learners the necessary time to assimilate, reflect on and incorporate the new concepts.
  • Allow learners to change direction when necessary.

Experiential learning has the power to deliver results. Experiential training, when done well, produces a visceral reaction. This feeling remains with participants and becomes a point of reference for future decision-making and further skill development. It can help learners make lasting change in behavior and develop refined and much-needed workplace skills. For the organization, these changes can then lead to improved performance, productivity, profitability and competitiveness in the global marketplace. This type of training is smart, and it works. Just ask Mr. Dolven.

Want to learn more about experiential and immersive learning? Come to TICE 2019, and see Holly and Brian present on the topic.