Experiential Learning Vs. Learning from Experience

We are adding a garage onto the front of our house. Being a telecommuter, and with warmer weather starting to appear off and on, I have been keeping the front door open and as such, I catch the occasional discussion going on between my good friend Phil aka Da Boss and Lanny, his trusty sidekick.

Phil providing some just in time training on loading a nail gun

Last week, they were starting to close in the walls and Lanny was happily tapping away with the nail gun making that shhht-thunk noise when Phil hollered “Lanny! There’s no nails in that gun!” I wondered how Phil knew that when they were working at opposite sides of the “site.” Lanny looked puzzled because he had just loaded the gun and had no idea why the nails weren’t coming out. A quick bit of troubleshooting by Phil determined that an adjustment of the thingymajiggy had to be made because he was using longer nails. Phil showed Lanny the fine art of thingymajiggy adjustments – rapidly tapped three nails into the top plate and passed the gun back (which is when I snapped the shutter.)

That brief exchange set me off thinking about experiential learning vs on-the-job training (OJT), apprenticeships and the likes and my own preference for learning by doing. If I spent a tenth of my green fees on golf lessons and half the time I spend on a course at the driving range instead of just whacking that darn ball, I could probably break 90.

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I will learn.
~ Benjamin Franklin

Experiential Learning has been around for a long time. Kolb (1984) proposed a four stage learning cycle, shown below. Simply put, it’s learning that is designed so that students are directly involved in the learning experience. Korth & Levya-Gardner (2006) note that while the model was designed for educators (read – in the classroom), it  has also “been applied to a variety of professional, organizational and managerial situations” (pg. 1124).  These different applications are represented by the different groups in the center of the model below.

From Multi-Stakeholder Partnerships Knowledge Portal. http://www.mspguide.org/tool/experiential-learning-cycle

When Kolb’s theory is applied, the learner starts by (1) having a concrete experience followed by (2) observation of and reflection on that experience which leads to (3) the formation of abstract concepts (analysis) and generalizations (conclusions) which are then (4) used to test hypothesis in future situations, resulting in new experiences.

So this has been a bit of an epiphany if you like big(ger) words – or an ah-hah moment if you prefer the shorter ones. I have been misusing the term experiential learning for quite awhile. My scenario with Phil and Lanny is not an example of experiential learning. Lanny did not have the opportunity to reflect on his experience with the nail gun thingymajiggy and definitely did not conduct any analysis or arrive at any conclusions to test hypothesis in the future. I have been incorrectly attributed learning from any life experience as experiential learning. My bad!


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

Korth, S. J. & Levya-Gardner (2006). Rapid reflection throughout the performance-improvement process. In Pershing, J. A. (Ed.), Handbook of Human Performance Technology (1122-1146). San Francisco: Wiley.