Learning by doing is an intuitive concept widely accepted in learning theory — but too often, the reality is “learn slowly by struggling.”

We can think of experiential learning as solving learning backward: Where formal learning involves learning information and then completing a task, experiential learning involves completing a task to learn information.

In general, “learning by doing” has a number of benefits:

    • Motivation: Trainees become motivated to learn, because they see the reward (completing the task at hand).
    • Efficiency: They learn only what they need to complete the task (reducing the overall effort spent on learning).
    • Retention: They instantly associate learned information with activity (which improves their ability to remember information in future).
    • Reward: They are rewarded for their learning effort by successfully completing the task immediately.

This approach seems superior to formal learning, but it’s not as simple as throwing learners into a task and hoping they figure it out. Without careful thought, experiential learning can result in a dangerous cycle of failure and frustration. Learning to swim is a helpful analogy; without coaching or swim aids, being in the water is tiring and confusing. The learner mostly worries about not drowning.

How can we improve experiential learning? Game theory offers some ideas.

Game Design Gives Us Clues

While the learning and development (L&D) industry has discussed gamification for years, the concept of game design includes other powerful characteristics that haven’t been as widely touted. Great game design incorporates elements that make playing enjoyable:

    • Goals: Games are goal-based, with clear objectives and journeys in mind. They are challenging but not overwhelming.
    • Creative license: Games have guardrails in place but otherwise give creative autonomy to players.
    • Flow: Games are immersive, reducing distractions and making next steps clear.

These characteristics have important implications for leaders of training programs who are thinking about implementing experiential learning.

Applying Game Design Principles

Thoughtful and transparent sequencing of goals helps create achievable yet motivating learning journeys. Experiential learning should also feature difficulty progression based on learners’ job tasks and responsibilities. Great games pace learners, enabling them to grow their skills through the challenges they overcome. One practical approach to incorporating difficulty progression is gradually removing learner dependencies throughout the experiential learning program.

Training should also encourage learners to use their own work style and creativity when performing tasks by rewarding work outcomes instead of prescribing inputs. Research on self-determination theory suggests that this autonomy creates a more engaged and motivated mind.

Finally, reduce unnecessary context switching. Side quests are fun but can distract learners from accomplishing their mission and unlocking the next level. Inducing flow means making it easy for learners to understand where to go and what to do next. For experiential learning to succeed, learners must be able to retrieve specific information in the flow of work, with easy navigation of resources and responsibilities.

Improved experiential learning design will produce training results that flatten the learning curve and lead to more confident and engaged teams. Game on!

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