Best Practices in Experiential Learning

Lessons learned from 18 years of experiential learning and what science has taught us. 

Absolute-North has been a pioneer in experiential learning with its founders practicing heavily experiential learning methods for more than 18 years across the globe (Takala, Winegar, Kuusela 2009).  Experiential learning is a great tool and one that can be very effective in the important goal of transferring learning from the classroom to the workplace.  I would like to share what we have learned from science and my insights about how to use it to assist people in applying what they learn to their everyday work.

Skill and Will

The goal of training should always be for people to put into use what they have learned to improve their performance and the business.  This is always the starting point we have at Absolute-North when developing programs for our clients.  There are two factors to consider when implementing training.  One, does the training develop a skill where specific knowledge or an ability can be put to use to increase performance, and two, does it create the will to change behavior.

To enable a behavioral shift, it's important to connect learning with our personal experience.

Embedded Patterns

An employee may be taught the benefits of better collaboration and why it is important to high-performance teams.  Logically and conceptually they understand that this is important and the right thing to do, but often there are embedded patterns and systems that prevent them from bringing that understanding into practice in their work.

Psychology and cognitive neuroscience tells us that our brains are wired to look for patterns and to rely on our past experiences to create shortcuts.  Recognizing patterns allows us to predict and expect what is coming (Mattson 2014).  The impact of this on learning is that it is difficult for our brains to accept new things.  We feel comfortable in our patterns and connections that have served us in the past.  No matter how many times we are told, and even shown, that those patterns do not work or are counter-productive, it is still very difficult to break them.  When you add stress to the equation, it becomes even more difficult.

We have seen this time and again in our training programs over the years.  We see participants who are viewing a challenging roleplay of a colleague and will provide poignant and insightful feedback on how to handle a situation better.  However, when it is their turn to roleplay a situation that is similar, they default back to “bad habits” that are so embedded in their brains and triggered by stress.  Many times, when the roleplay is over, the person will laugh and comment on how they just did all the things they told their colleague not to do.

How to Change Patterns

How do we make the behavior switch?  How do we break the patterns of our brains and create new ones?  The key is to connect the experiential learning to each person’s personal experience, therefore connecting new ideas with the experiences that already exist and providing an avenue to “replay” the experience to facilitate a better outcome, creating new brain patterns.  The research into learning strongly supports our conclusions in what we have observed.

Kolb (1984) defines learning as a human adaption process.  “It is a process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (p. 38). He cited Lewin’s (1951) work as the empirical evidence for supporting a learning cycle theory that begins with the experiences of the learner. Lewin’s formula for learning describes human behavior as a function of a person and the environment [B=f(p, E)]. Learning takes place, according to Lewin, when a learner (person) interacts with or is stimulated by, an environment. Others adopt the same ‘human adaptation process’ explanation for learning but cast it in different ways.  Jarvis (1987), for example, put it this way: “…there is no meaning in a given situation until we relate our own experiences to it” (p. 164).

From the neuroscience side, we know that the hippocampus is important for some type of pattern completion (Guzman 2016).  It deals with episodic memory, the memory of events that happened to you in the past, especially recent events.  The main neurons in the CA3 area of the hippocampus not only connect onward to the next part of the hippocampus (CA1), but also to each other and these connections are excitatory.  What this all means is that a small number of neurons firing can potentially ignite a large set of neurons all firing together, completing a pattern.  This has a profound impact on our method of experiential learning.

Our Approach

Our experiential method, Artificial Experience Building, centers on first taking existing experiences from participants and then working to build an alternate reality that helps them to apply a theory of leadership, management, or sales to affect a different outcome.  By first triggering the memories that a person has already associated with a prior experience, we are then firing a whole set of neurons and building on those existing patterns.

Own Experiences as a Starting Point

The starting point of using people’s own experiences is the key here.  Most experiential programs start with completely unfamiliar situations, or only vaguely familiar ones.  Instead of connecting the participant’s focused experience they ask them to imagine an entirely new experience and try to make sense of it within the context of their own brain patterns.  The danger is that it does not trigger the neurons that are needed to make the connections that support learning.  The situation might transport the participant to a whole other, completely unrelated experience, and then the learning outcome is lost.  Our method asks the participant for an experience from their past that is directly related to the learning and the objectives of the training.  We then connect that experience to the learning outcome instead of the other way around.  This way there is much less chance for the learning to be disassociated.

The Benefits of Connecting Past Memories

There is evidence that the consolidation of new memory that is stimulated by emotionally arousing experiences can be enhanced through the modulating effects of the release of stress hormones and stress-activated neurotransmitters associated with amygdala activation (Cahill and McGaugh, 1998; Sharot and Phelps, 2004; McGaugh, 2006).  When a participant is put through a challenging roleplay experience, it is almost universally a stressful situation that releases a flood of chemicals including cortisol, dopamine, adrenaline and oxytocin.  The level of stress when experiencing completely unconnected and unassociated experiences is not the same as the stress that comes from one’s own past experiences.  To get the same chemical reactions that occur from recalling a difficult conversation with an overbearing colleague who social criticized your abilities cannot easily be recreated with a completely unassociated experience (such as one that comes in gamification training).  It just would take too long to recreate and completely impractical for a training situation.  Using participants’ own past experiences allows the associated emotions to be recalled almost instantly.

Impact of Emotion on Learning

The triggering and use of emotion has a long-term impact on learning.  It has been found that emotions are now thought to influence the formation of a hippocampal-dependent memory system (Pessoa, 2008), exerting a long-term impact on learning and memory.  The hippocampus plays a crucial role in hippocampal-dependent learning and declarative memories. Numerous studies have reported that the amygdala and hippocampus are synergistically activated during memory encoding to form a long-term memory of emotional information, that is associated with better retention (McGaugh et al., 1996; Richter-Levin and Akirav, 2000; Richardson et al., 2004).  More importantly, these studies strongly suggest that the amygdala’s involvement in emotional processing strengthens the memory network by modulating memory consolidation; thus, emotional content is remembered better than neutral content.  Substantial evidence has established that emotional events are remembered more clearly, accurately and for longer periods of time (Chai M, Tyng et al,. 2017).


The connection with learning is clear and profound with our programs.  Participants find it difficult to stop discussing and dissecting their what they experienced because it is wired to their brains.  There is no need for exhaustive debriefs or explanations of what they “should have learned” from the experience that you see many experiential training organizations doing.  When the learning is built directly on their past experience and connected to the emotions that are a part of that experience, then it becomes part of their long-term memory.  The alternate reality that we have helped them experience in the context of our training, becomes a memory that is connected to their real-life experience.  New patterns are created, and those patterns are triggered when recalling that experience in the future.  Their brains have been rewired to associate new information with that experience.

There is a flood of new science coming out about how to better develop people and at Absolute-North understanding and incorporating that science into how we approach developing people has been a part of the company ethos from day one.  We continue to explore and refine our approach to developing people to help both the individual and the organization get the maximum benefit.  Please explore some of the research papers cited in this article to understand more deeply the science.

Takala, M., Winegar, D. & Kuusela, J. (2009). Leadership developmental needs – a system for identifying them. Australian Journal of Adult Learning. 49, 1, p. 126-147 22

Kolditz, (2009). Why the Military Produces Great Leaders. Harvard Business Review. Feb 06. 2009.

Mattson, M. P. (2014). Superior pattern processing is the essence of the evolved human brain. Frontiers in neuroscience, 8: 265.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.

Jarvis, P. (1987). Meaningful and Meaningless Experience: Towards an Analysis of Learning from Life. Adult Education Quarterly, 37, 164-172.

Lewin, K. (1951). Field theory in social science. New York: Harper & Row.

Guzmann et al., (2016). Synaptic mechanisms of pattern completion in the hippocampal CA3 network. Science09 Sep: 1117-1123

McGaugh et al., (1996). Involvement of the amygdala in memory storage: interaction with other brain systems.Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. Nov 26; 93(24):13508-14.

Cahill L, McGaugh JL (1998). Mechanisms of emotional arousal and lasting declarative memory.

Trends Neurosci. Jul; 21(7):294-9.

Sharot T, Phelps EA., (2004). How arousal modulates memory: disentangling the effects of attention and retention. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. Sep; 4(3):294-306.

McGaugh JL. (2006). Make mild moments memorable: add a little arousal. Trends Cogn Sci. Aug; 10(8):345-7.

Tyng et al,. (2017). The Influences of Emotion on Learning and Memory. Front Psychol. 8: 1454.