Throughout my tenure in the professional learning space, I’ve seen multiple training companies with thousands of hours of video content claim they are “the definitive” learning resource available. But watching 40 hours of video content — or reading a book or framing a certificate of completion — doesn’t, on its own, prove someone’s ability to do the work where it counts: in production. In today’s constantly evolving business and technology landscape, being able to apply what you’ve learned is the new standard. And it requires experiential learning.

By definition, and as the name implies, experiential learning is the process of learning through experience — or, more specifically, learning through reflection on doing. It seems like a simple concept, but it’s a pain point for many learning and development (L&D) and training programs and organizations. Modern learning hasn’t kept up with how people learn best: by doing. The only way to truly measure someone’s understanding or mastery of a skill is to see them use it in practice.

Forms of Experiential Learning

Gone are the days of ticking a box to demonstrate that learners have completed the hours or passed the test and learned something. All that approach proves is that they have a decent short-term memory. Organizations that are committed to building knowledge that sticks and improving skills among their employees must find ways to integrate learning by doing into their existing and future training materials. Fortunately, there are several solutions organizations can implement immediately that provide the important tenets of experiential learning.

Sandbox environments are a great way to help your technical teams start learning by doing. A sandbox is an isolated testing environment where employees can run programs or perform tasks without disrupting their organization’s systems or platforms. Software developers use sandboxes for everything from testing new programming code to identifying malicious software or vulnerabilities in their system. They can explore through trial and error as needed without impacting their organization’s actual data sets or infrastructure. Plus, being able to try new approaches without risk helps foster a culture of innovation.

Interactive scenarios are another effective approach to experiential learning. They’re like guided sandboxes that walk employees through a progression of contextual steps that run alongside a live coding environment created specifically for their needs. It’s literally learning while doing — not just reviewing a concept but working hands on with it and experiencing what it does. Team members can then feel more confident overcoming the production challenges they later encounter, because they’ve seen them before.

Another form of experiential learning is live training. Wile in-person events screeched to a halt over the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, live online training can be just as beneficial — with the added perk of having no overhead travel costs. Attendees can still stop and ask their instructor a question at any point in the lesson to ensure they’re fully understanding the material. They can also download course materials to review, practice and refine the skills they’ve learned. And, many live online training courses now include an interactive component, similar to learning in a guided interactive scenario but with a live instructor. With this capability, learners can receive the presenter’s explanation and guidance as they apply what they’re learning in real time. It’s hands-on and far more effective than taking notes in a crowded conference hall … and forgetting the subject matter as soon as it’s over.

Improved Measurement and Evaluation

The best part about experiential learning is that you don’t need to measure it by hours of video watched, number of conferences attended or test scores. Like the learning itself, results are validated in the process of doing — applying those skills in the real world. No one ever learned how to ride a bike by reading a book about bikes. While the context of the book may be helpful in understanding how the bike operates, nothing’s more valuable than being behind the handlebars. Similarly, measuring training completion still has its place, but it’s also important to look beyond those metrics. Focusing on deeper-level insights into specific learning behaviors enables you to have a better understanding of how well your employees are learning.

With the rapid pace of technology and business evolution, learning is no longer a “nice-to-have” but a “need-to-have.” The skills gap, especially in technology-related fields, is a significant challenge for modern businesses, but it’s one that you can overcome by doing the most with what you already have: your employees. Investing in smart training tools and L&D practices is far easier — and more cost-effective — than hiring new talent as the demand for new skill sets emerges. Give your employees the resources they need to improve and succeed, and you’ll create a more productive, more supportive and higher-performing workforce.

Ultimately, it’s not just about implementing experiential learning but, rather, empowering your people to understand what they learn and then apply it to their work. We’ve all had a moment when something we’re learning clicks and we just “get it.” That moment only happens when you’re in the midst of actively doing — not just reading about a topic but manipulating it in real time to discover how it works.

Knowledge is power. The more businesses can foster learning, the more successful they’ll be.

Editor’s note: Don’t miss our infographic on experiential learning, which shares insights from learning leaders like this one.