“What is the difference between an obstacle and an opportunity? Our attitude toward it. Every opportunity has a difficulty, and every difficulty has an opportunity” (J. Sidlow Baxter).

With the COVID-19 pandemic doling out more than its fair share of obstacles, it can be challenging to shift our perspectives and see the opportunities it presents. For learning professionals, 2020 was a busy year spent adapting to learners’ needs that changed seemingly overnight, from learning methods to subject matter.

There are upsides, though. Many companies are investing in their learning programs to support a remote workforce. For many organizations, this investment started as an effort to convert existing in-person courses to eLearning or to optimize them for virtual delivery. Some organizations are going beyond simple conversion and using the shift to remote work as an opportunity to enhance their courses. Therein lies the opportunity, especially for virtual instructor-led courses, to leverage experiential learning.

4 Stages of Experiential Learning

Before delving into the details, let’s begin by defining experiential learning theory. As psychologist, professor and American educational theorist David Kolb wrote in his 1984 book “Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”

Although there are variations of Kolb’s experiential learning theory in practice today, his theory serves as a common basis. According to an article by Saul Mcleod, a psychology teaching assistant at the University of Manchester, it describes a four-stage experiential learning cycle in which all four stages are required to learn effectively (though the cycle can begin with any stage):

    • Concrete experience
    • Reflective observation of the new experience
    • Abstract conceptualization
    • Active experimentation

How to Integrate Experiential Learning Into Training Programs

Learning and development (L&D) professionals often incorporate in-class exercises and group activities to serve as “experience” for learners. Since many courses are delivered as a single event, this approach is the most pragmatic way to ensure learners will practice the concepts the course teaches.

However, some programs are paced over weeks or months, which enables learners to apply new concepts in a real-world setting between sessions. This approach enables instructional designers and facilitators to guide the reflection and conceptualization — helping cement the concepts as intended.

The pandemic necessitated a shift to virtual learning, and with this shift came the desire for shorter sessions. While more research is necessary in order to determine the optimal length of a training session in a virtual environment, anecdotally, most organizations have been limiting sessions to less than half of a day — and more commonly to one or two hours. This approach is helping drive a more paced approach to learning for courses that training professionals historically designed as single events, often one or two days in duration.

For example, by segmenting what was previously a one-day, in-person course into three virtual, two-hour sessions, organizations can give learners the opportunity to apply their new skills and then reconvene with a facilitator and peers armed with relevant, real-world experience. The segmentation of single-event courses into multiple shorter sessions also enables instructional designers to use classroom time differently and take advantage of time between sessions to create new experiences and encourage active experimentation.

Here are some ideas to consider when integrating experiential learning theory into your paced learning:

Provide Structure

Ensure the course guides the facilitator and learners through the full four-stage experiential learning cycle, both inside and outside of the classroom setting.

Provoke Thought

Carefully craft open-ended questions to steer learners’ reflection and abstract conceptualization in alignment with course objectives.

Help Learners Create the Connections

Create an environment where learners can conceptualize and formulate their own conclusions (with guidance).

Maximize the Experience

“Experience” is a multifaceted concept that includes senses, feelings and thoughts. Highlight each in order to make the experience more memorable and support conceptualization.

While many designers have incorporated effective approaches to experiential learning in paced learning programs, never has there been such an opportunity to leverage these concepts to improve so many courses. As challenging as the pandemic has been, it has also been a catalyst for innovation. It’s more important than ever to take a fresh look at learning and find the opportunities among the obstacles.

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