The Basics of Experiential Learning and Adult Learning Theories
Multi–disciplinary training sessions are often a component of the work of problem–solving collaborative teams. Regardless of the issues under consideration, teams often convene or attend training sessions to inform themselves and others about the work they will undertake. For example, a team considering how to implement or strengthen gender responsive programming in their jurisdiction might seek out or deliver a training program on emerging best practice in working with female offenders. Whatever the topic, teams need to be mindful of the most effective ways to conduct training sessions so that all team members—regardless of their learning styles—can benefit from the information that is presented. There are two influential theories—Adult Learning Theory and Experiential Learning Theory—which suggest important considerations when planning and delivering training events for a diverse audience of adult learners.
Core Principles of the Theories
As Malcolm Knowles, known as the “father” of Adult Learning Theory suggests, the following principles are key to understanding adult learners and providing them with the type of training that will meet their diverse and individual needs:1
- Adult learners are goal–oriented. Therefore, training sessions should include a clear definition of the goals and objectives of the training, early in the learning experience.
- Adult learners are relevancy–oriented. They must have reasons for learning things and feel that the material that is being presented is relevant to them and will help them to improve their own performance.
- Adult learners are autonomous and self–directed. The learning environment should involve learners in the process, and facilitators should be on hand (or trainers should be prepared to facilitate) the audience’s active involvement and participation.
- Adult learners are practical. They must be provided with a rationale as to how the lesson will be useful to their work. They should be provided with examples of how to apply and operationalize abstract concepts that may be presented to their own work.
- Adult learners have significant life experience that they bring to the learning environment. As such, they must be given opportunities to see and make the connections between their own experience and the topic at hand.
- Adult learners deserve respect for their experience and accomplishments. The training must acknowledge their experience and they must be treated as equals and allowed a voice in the training.
Likewise, understanding another popular theoretical framework—the concept of experiential learning theory and learning—is also particularly important in working with adult learners. This framework suggests that individuals learn by first being taught abstract concepts and then having the opportunity to reflect upon and test out those concepts. In other words, “Experience is used to test out ideas and assumptions rather than to passively obtain practice. It is active exploration.”2
Different Types of Adult Learners
Kolb and his colleagues suggest that there are four categories for adult learners, who process information in very distinct ways, and that trainers should be sure to accommodate these various styles of learning in order to be maximally effective.3
- Diverging (feeling and watching). These are individuals who are able to look at things from different perspectives. They typically prefer to watch rather than do, tending to gather information and use imagination to solve problems. They are best at viewing concrete situations from several different viewpoints. They perform better in situations that require generating ideas (for example, brainstorming). People with a Diverging learning style have broad cultural interests and like to gather information. They are interested in people, tend to be imaginative and emotional, and tend to be strong in the arts. People with the Diverging style prefer to work in groups, to listen with an open mind, and to receive personal feedback.
- Assimilating (watching and thinking). The Assimilating learning preference is for a concise, logical approach. Ideas and concepts are more important than people. Learners who fall into this category require good clear explanation rather than practical opportunity. They excel at understanding wide–ranging information and organizing it in a clear and logical format. People with an Assimilating learning style are less focused on people and more interested in ideas and abstract concepts. People with this style are more attracted to logically sound theories than approaches based on practical value—important for effectiveness in information and science careers. In formal learning situations, people with this style prefer readings, lectures, exploring analytical models, and having time to think things through.
- Converging (doing and thinking). Individuals with a Converging learning style can solve problems and will use their learning to find solutions to practical issues. They prefer technical tasks, and are less concerned with people and interpersonal aspects. People with a Converging learning style are best at finding practical uses for ideas and theories. They can solve problems and make decisions by finding solutions to questions and problems. People with a Converging learning style are more attracted to technical tasks and problems than social or interpersonal issues. A Converging learning style enables specialist and technology abilities. People with a Converging style like to experiment with new ideas, to simulate, and to work with practical applications.
- Accommodating (doing and feeling). The Accommodating learning style is “hands–on,” and relies on intuition rather than logic. These learners use other people's analysis, and prefer to take a practical, experiential approach. They are attracted to new challenges and experiences, and to carrying out plans. They commonly act on 'gut' instinct rather than logical analysis. People with an Accommodating learning style will tend to rely on others for information than carry out their own analysis. This learning style is prevalent and useful in roles requiring action and initiative. People with an Accommodating learning style prefer to work in teams to complete tasks. They set targets and actively work in the field trying different ways to achieve an objective.
Regardless of mode, learning usually varies between the concrete and the abstract, and between the reflective and active.
How Can Training be Tailored to Meet the Needs of Adult Learners?
Trainers should attempt to accommodate this variety of learning styles and to meet the learning needs of their audience. The following are suggestions for creating an adult learning environment that accommodates learning styles:
- To the degree possible, seek input about the training goals and agenda from participants in advance. Try to meet their needs for information as much as is reasonably possible.
- Provide a comfortable learning environment; and honor the fact that participants will be taking valuable time away from their jobs to attend the training.
- Set clear goals for the training and an agenda that details the work that will be done and what will be expected of participants.
- “Teach around the circle,” or vary the styles of teaching, on a continual basis throughout the training. Provide opportunities for “intake” as well as opportunities for “active engagement.” Didactic lecture has its place, but allow participants to also ask questions, and engage in structured learning activities (e.g., the use of case studies, development of action plans) and other interactive activities (e.g., teambuilding exercises) to put into practice the information that was presented and to allow for interaction with other participants. Vary the method of presentation (e.g., lectures, videos, panel presentations) to try to meet the different learning styles of the audience.
- Throughout the training, be clear about how the information that is being presented is relevant to participants’ work.
- Provide a forum in which participants can offer feedback about the training and offer ideas for how to improve future events.
3Kolb, D.A. (1981). Learning styles and disciplinary differences. In A. Chickering (ed.), The modern American college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass; Kolb, DA (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice–Hall.