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How to reinforce learning through practical experiences

Annee Bayeux, Chief Learning Strategist - Degreed

Your brain was designed to forget. If a piece of information doesn’t help you then eventually your brain will delete it. Forgetting isn’t a passive process either, it’s actively happening in your head every single day. 

The forgetting curve suggests that 90% of the new things that you learn are forgotten within the first month. Understanding this, and how to mitigate it, is essential if you want your people to retain information long after a learning event. As HR and learning leaders, you want to ensure every investment adds value to your business. But if your people are forgetting what they’ve learned almost instantly, their new knowledge and skills won’t be helping the business. 

Remembering your learning

The answer comes in the form of experiential learning. This is a form of learning that deepens and reinforces learning through on-the-job activities like stretch assignments, mentoring, volunteering and shadowing. It complements traditional, formal learning as well as more informal learning experiences like reading a book or listening to a podcast. 

Experiential learning enables people to learn about something from many different angles so that they truly understand what they are learning. For example, a salesperson might complete a video series on digital marketing but have little real-world experience of what the job entails. Shadowing their organization’s digital marketing team or completing a stretch assignment with them will enable the salesperson to stretch and apply their new knowledge. The practical application adds greater detail to what they’ve learned, enables them to make (and learn from) mistakes, and also adds some work experience to their resume. 

The experiential learning cycle

The current form of experiential learning can be traced back to David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. This theory looked at how people learn, develop and change their skills. HR leaders can look to it as inspiration for setting up their own experiential learning processes.

  • Concrete experiences

Learners have a concrete experience when they learn something new or experience something familiar in a new way. For instance, they may watch a webinar, take part in a class or complete a course module.  

  • Reflective observation

The next stage of the cycle is vital, as it enables learners to reflect on their learning experience. In this phase, learners spend time thinking about what has happened, what went well, where they could improve and how their work will change as a result. Another activity that can be done in this phase is to observe a colleague doing the same thing and reflecting on what’s occurring.

In this stage, managers can facilitate their team’s reflections with a learning debrief session or by offering shadowing opportunities related to the learning. 

  • Abstract conceptualization

After reflecting, it’s time for learners to make sense of their experiences and reflections. This is the time to consider how the learning experience will improve their work and the next steps to build on this. Again, managers are crucial at this stage in providing feedback and offering new learning opportunities. At the end of this stage, a learner should have a clear action plan of what they’re going to do moving forward based on their own reflections, manager and peer feedback, and input from other influences like mentors.

  • Active experimentation

Finally, learners will act on their reflections and plans. They will apply what they’ve learned from their initial experience and this is where the bulk of the experiential learning will take place. This enables them to refine their learning and test new ideas. 

As a result of this phase, the learner will have a new concrete experience and therefore the cycle will begin again. The cycle can keep repeating until it’s felt that someone has mastered a skill to the required level (set by the learner and their manager/other stakeholders). 

This application and repetition help individuals to retain and build on their new skills, moving the knowledge from their short-term memory to long-term and making it less likely that their brain will forget the information. 

The benefits of experiential learning

The number one benefit, naturally, of experiential learning is that learners get to apply their new skills and therefore won’t forget them as easily. For HR and learning leaders, this means learning investment is put to work in the organization and doesn’t get wasted when memories fade. 

Beyond this, however, there are a host of extra benefits that experiential learning offers:

  • Greater confidence as people build real-world experiences.
  • Learning from mistakes and refining skills.
  • Easy to learn ‘soft’ skills and abstract concepts as there are practical applications for them.
  • Prepares people for future experiences, roles and tasks.
  • Offers more learning diversity to meet all individuals’ needs and learning styles.
  • Considers the role that all of our experiences play in learning (emotional, cognitive and environmental). 

There’s an added bonus for business and HR leaders too. With people able to mobilize their skills more effectively across the organization, they can quickly move into new roles or projects when they or the business needs them to. This has a knock-on effect on workforce agility and responsiveness, as well as employee retention as people can simply move internally to keep their work interesting. 

Tracking what’s achieved

When implementing your experiential learning plan, you’ll want to find out if it’s been a success. Tracking everything that’s happening is extremely important, as it will tell you and your stakeholders exactly how experiential learning has contributed to the organization. Plus, it’s useful for individuals too as a way of showcasing their skills and work experience. 

Some of the areas to track, apart from experiential learning activity completion, are peer and manager feedback (if someone has worked with or shadowed a colleague during the activity), extra skills learned, and the time taken in the activity. In some activities there may also be a tangible output, like a marketing campaign, that can be recorded as part of someone’s experiences. 

The next big thing

Experiential learning is the next big thing for HR and learning teams. As more organizations are realizing the urgent need to upskill their people, experiential learning is coming to the forefront as a way to act on those new skills and ensure they’re not forgotten. It offers a win-win for employers and their people. By providing tangible experiences that deepen and reinforce theoretical learning, with the added bonus of improving agility and the skills used in the workforce. 

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