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The Trifecta that Unlocks Great Experiential Learning

Think about one course that changed your life. How did it make you feel, think, and act differently? If you had to put it into a few words, how would you describe that great learning?


Typically, it’s hard for people to narrow life-changing experiences down to a word or two. More often, in response, we hear emotionally rich stories such as:

  1. I learned a lot about myself; how my thinking and style impact and inhibit my strengths. My learnings and self-commitments came in handy this morning during a client conversation - I found myself much more effective and skilled in areas I usually stumble.

  2. We pulled together. The decisions we needed to make were so realistic that many perspectives surfaced - many were things I’ve never thought about, and I’ve been doing this role for a long time. I feel like we created a meaningful friendship, and that will go a long way in helping each of us cope in these turbulent times.

  3. It [simulation] started simple, and then it wasn’t. Decisions had tradeoffs and long-term consequences, and often there was no clear path forward. The wonderful thing is we learned from each other, we built on each other’s experiences, and as a result, we finished strong.


What made these learning experiences so influential? If we examine these personal descriptions and others like them, they reveal a direct connection to three powerful learning strategies: Reflective, Social, and Generative learning. We call them the trifecta of great learning. Why? Because when properly designed into a training experience, it creates learning conditions which are life-changing for many participants.


Reflective Learning. The first participant description above illustrates reflective learning. This involves more than just looking back on what’s been done or said and how it made you feel. Rather, Reflective Learning is an active process of identifying patterns in thinking, understanding their impacts, and outlining changes to improve future outcomes. This essential strategy helps individuals become aware of limiting mindsets and beliefs so that they can transform them into ways of thinking that serve themselves and others. Imagine working with a team of individuals who took the time to reflect on their behaviors and actively explore more inclusive and productive ways of thinking?


Social Learning. The second participant description above describes what many people are desperately looking for - healthy, educational, and social connections. Quite frankly, the last few years have taken their toll, and the need to make learning social is critical to reducing attrition and improving engagement. Going a step further, from a neuroscience perspective, social learning has several more benefits. It activates the brain’s reward system, which reinforces learning and encourages us to repeat behaviors associated with positive outcomes. Learning socially also enhances the formation of long-term memories, making it more likely that they will be able to perform a behavior in the future. All fancy words aside, making learning more fun and engaging is just the right thing to do.


Generative Learning. Lastly, the third participant description above exhibits an active process of connecting and constructing innovative ideas during a team-based learning. For the instructional designers reading this, generative learning is based on the constructivism theory. Many essential skills are practiced when teams generate ideas while working on problems together - asking questions, seeking out information, making connections, and thinking systematically and critically. The best part, like social learning, is that multiple brain regions are activated, leading to improved retention and retrieval.


Participants learn, retrain, and apply more through practicing together. Reflective, social, and generative learning makes that possible through team-based experiential learning programs. Similar to great athletic teams, individuals become better through learning from other each, growing their perspectives, and evaluating results together. This virtuous cycle not only lifts the performance of the entire team, but participants also have more fun -- something we could all use more of.


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