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How Experiential Learning Boosts Participation and Retention

You may be familiar with the idea that people learn in different manners.  Perhaps you can easily recall things you see written down (visual learning), while a co-worker has an easier time remembering things that are spoken (auditory learning) and your

manager has to experience something (interactive learning) in order to really understand it.  

These traditional categories of understanding provide a starting point to understanding how diverse your learning and wellness offerings must be in order to appeal and stick with the widest portion of your teams.

But there is another set of understanding regarding learning styles that is even more powerful when it comes to creating knowledge gains and retention.  In 1984, David Kolb introduced a 4-part cycle of learning that gave new insights into how learning really works and coupled it with 4 unique learning styles that emerge in any population.

In terms of learning and wellness initiatives, the completion of the 4-part learning cycle is essential to ongoing program success because Kolb discovered that without all elements that learners tend to regress or forget content more rapidly.  ​

Here's a snapshot of the cycle:

There are plenty of great resources that go into detail on how the four stages work together and feed each other in dynamic ways, but at the heart of the cycle is the way that humans must experiences information and learning in various facets in order to obtain the most gains.  Accoriding to Kolb's research, we must process information in four-stages in order to experience the strongest learning.

Let's take our system as an example of how Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle might look in a good learning and/or wellness program:

1.  Concrete Experience:  

Essentially, this is the process of coming across new information or encountering a situation where existing knowledge must be applied in a fresh manner.  In terms of learning, this is the 'I guess you had to be there' moment of learning.  We have an experience that causes our brains to wake up and try to fit fresh information into our neural spaces.  

In our system, the majority of participants have never experienced self defense training or striking of targets.  Even those who have been exposed to other programs and systems find our content and approach new and unexpected.  These elements spark a CONCRETE experience that starts from the moment they enter the first session and puts them well on their way to lasting change and knowledge retention.  This moment is enhanced by our interactive environment where the physical and psychological intertwine, connecting experiences in fun ways.  

2.  Reflective Observation:

This is literally a mental "look back" at what just happened and an opportunity for the individual to assess the situation and any gaps or inconsistencies that exist.  On the mind of learners in this stage is the question "what did I just experience?"  They are testing how this new concrete experience fits and adds to their knowledge base.

As participants go through our sessions, every learning experience is presented in strategic cycles.  We literally work the process of REFLECTIVE OBSERVATION into the experience.  It's that important.  During this stage we encourage questions, interaction, feedback, and examples.  

3.  Abstract Conceptualization:

As the individual incorporates the new knowledge into their memories, they are able to take that knowledge and apply it to other situations and constructs.  This process can work either as a look-back at past events and "I wish I'd known then what I know now" sense or as a future application.  The truth is, once Stage 2 has occurred, it is tough to get learners to remember what it was like to NOT know the new information.  

Muscle memory and deep learning may take time, but within the first session we actively show participants how much they have learned and how far they have come.  Not only do they run through Kolb's Experiential Cycle multiple times in every session, but they can feel and see the difference in themselves and their colleagues, creating powerful associations of achievement and knowledge gain.

4.  Active Experimentation:

The final stage in the cycle, and by far the most powerful experience for learners, is the point at which the learner begins to apply the experience, reflection, and conceptualization to other aspects of the world around them, inherently changing how they see and process the world.  The new learning becomes another filter through which they can see and understand experiences.

During our sessions, we plant the seeds of ACTIVE EXPERIMENTATION in participant minds by helping build what we call "bridges" between the experiences they have in our sessions and the stresses and situations that they encounter in the remainder of their lives.

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