Experiential learning is a term that has been used since the 1930s. David L. Kolb and Ron Fry popularized the term in the 1970s when they developed the Experiential Learning Model (ELM). In the ELM, the learner goes through four steps: The learner has concrete experience, and then reflects upon the experience. The reflection gives the learner time needed to form opinions and hypothesis. Next, the learner tests his or her ideas, after which the learner will most likely change or refine the initial opinions or hypothesis.
The process is often a fun experience where the learner dictates the depth of the learning experience, but can seems rather rigid and may intimidate educators and learners alike with its research-like approach.
Examples of experiential learning often include simulations, role-play, field trips, and other means of immersing the learners in an experience where they are active participants; however, the reflection of the experience is the first instance where actual learning takes.
Planning the reflection, and also structuring it, is of utmost importance. As a simple example, after your first field trip to the zoo you most likely would have many ideas and questions about what you had just seen.
Educators must provide the learner with areas in which to focus upon. Without this focus, it would be impossible to talk about everything you saw. There would be simply too much information. Only vague generalities would be thought of and retained.
Focus is the key to success in learners’ reflection. Through knowledge and experience, the educator should have a predetermined list of questions to ask students or points for them to ponder. This will help guide their reflection without the educator providing answers.
For reflections to be successful, it is important to set aside a number to reflection sessions in a given experience. For example, it is the end of the week and a friend asks you how your week was. Could you possible provide an accurate reflection of what you did at work over the past five days? Even if you were asked how your day was, that may still be challenging. If, at the end of a meeting, you were asked about your thoughts on the meeting, you could focus much easier. This is because of the timeliness of the reflection.
In the same way, it is important to offer learners the opportunity to reflect on a regular basis or after a key experience in the activity. For example, in a simulation, this could be after the session where everything went horribly wrong. Ask the students how they feel, what they think went right or wrong and what they would change if they had the opportunity to re-take the simulation. Of course simulations are created to have student “fail” the first time because this provides the negative learning experience from which they can improve, discover, and learn from.
Reflection should always be based on open-ended questions. Closed-ended questions that require yes or no answers do not provide the learners the opportunity to form opinions or hypothesis.
Once a number of reflection opportunities have been presented, it is important for learners to have the opportunity to test their hypotheses, observations or opinions. In a simulation activity, this is fairly straight foreword. In activities such as field trips returning to the areas of main learning may be appropriate. How the learners conduct the tests will depend on the type of experience they were involved in.
Experiential learning is an individual experience. The learners’ backgrounds, previous experience, other knowledge and other factors all contribute to what they learn and how they learn from an experience.
It is often advantageous to learners in the group to share their ideas either directly after the experiential learning is completed or, if possible, the next day. Often in corporate training, colleagues will discuss their experience during the lunch break or after training has concluded at the end of the day.
While this is certainly advisable, it is also important to allow the learners to distill the learning experience over several hours. In a higher education setting, this can happen in the next scheduled class. In corporate training, the group can often share ideas the next business day.
Distilling ideas as an individual is important because it sheds the less important aspects of the experience. In addition, having personal reflection time prior to a group discussion removes some of the possibility that the individual will be affected by others’ ideas or influence. However, it is important to have the group discussion within a reasonable amount of time; otherwise the learning experience will only be remembered as a fun exercise.
The teacher, who, again, is armed with open-ended questions, and perhaps reminders of key learning elements, should guide the group discussion. This discussion will help learners turn abstract ideas into a solid learning platform.
In summary, reflection is a key element in experiential learning. However, educators must take the time to prepare the open-ended questions, focus, and guidance needed to turn an experience into a fun, enlightening, and thought-provoking experience that can provide students the gift of curiosity, reasoning, and, hopefully, a thirst for life-long learning.