Create Experiential Learning Activities

Why Experiential Learning?

Adult learners are attentive, interested and engaged when presented with a task or challenge to solve.  During any group experience learners are engaged simultaneously on physical, emotional and rational levels.  This heightened level of engagement leads to increased attention during learning, improved retention and a higher likelihood of learning application.  We are physiologically wired to attend to and remember more of what we do than what we think about.

Sessions That Lend Themselves to Experiential Learning:

  • Any skill building or process awareness session where you need buy-in and engagement.
  • Any session that deals with behaviors participants resist or find challenging. Examples: dealing with problem performers, handling objections or handling change or conflict.
  • Any session where participants lack awareness of their performance gaps. Examples: team building, accepting feedback, or adapting to cultural differences.
  • Any session where you want to explore the challenges of consistently exhibiting a skill. Examples:  listening, giving effective feedback or setting clear expectations.

Instructional Design for Experiential Learning:


You are creating an experience that participants will complete, so there is no way of knowing exactly what will happen. What is to be learned cannot be precisely defined. Generally, an experiential learning activity will have two objectives: one for the experience, and one for the debrief discussion. Consider the dialogue you are trying to create, and use that to describe the discussion objective. For example:

  • Complete an assigned task that requires high degrees of collaboration to succeed, where timeline and performance goal pressures feed the tendency to ignore collaborative action.
  • Discuss the tendency to focus on task during deadlines and other times of stress.


  • Clearly describe the goal of the activity for participants and facilitator.
  • The simpler the instructions to participants and to the facilitator, the better. If instructions are overly complex, find ways to simplify while keeping the experience intact.
  • What the facilitator does not say before the experience is as important as what he/she does say. Script 2 or 3 sentences for the facilitator to say, and let the facilitator know not to say more.
  • Clearly describe participant roles and the task each role is responsible for.
  • Materials: again, simpler is better.

Steps in creating an experiential activity:

  • Avoid the common mistake of identifying an interesting activity and then "making it fit".
  • Go backwards! Starting with the end in mind, "reverse engineer" by going backwards along this process: Activity -> Experience -> Outcome
  • Describe the desired outcome in general terms. What insights should the experience achieve?
  • Next, define the characteristics of the experience:
    • Who is it for? Describe the audience.
    • How many participants per session?
    • How long should it last?
    • What experience/dynamic should it mirror?
    • What group dynamics or constraints should be represented in the experience?
    • What skills/knowledge should it engage?
    • What factors should make the task easier/more difficult?
    • How should it feel?
    • What other characteristics can you describe?
  • List all characteristics you can think of. Add to and refine these. Spend time here. Sample set of experience characteristics:
    • Participants are Sales Managers; Groups of 25 at a time.
    • <15 minutes to complete the activity. About 15 minutes to debrief.
    • Uses methods/tools familiar in the workplace.
    • Includes the manipulation of numbers or words.
    • Success requires influencing and communicating with peers.
    • High performance is the goal.
    • There is limited time and trade-off decisions must be made to meet the deadline.
    • Uses competition as a way to increase tension and stress.
    • Demonstrates the tendency toward task focus (and away from people focus) when faced with a performance deadline.
    • Includes a clear choice between doing it yourself or delegating it.
    • Shows the quality and time implications of doing it yourself versus delegating it.
    • Performance would improve with people focus.
    • Some participants are uninvolved observers who use an observation checklist
    • Includes "manager" and "report" roles.
    • Could use a reality TV theme.
    • A cash prize will create commitment and engagement.
  • Let the list sit.  Do something else.  Take a walk.  Sleep on it.
  • Generate 2 or 3 likely activity options.
  • Again, let it sit.  Sleep on it again.  Await the arrival of an inspired idea for the activity.
  • Elegant simplicity is the goal.
  • Many of the best indoor experiential exercises use a simple task with a "twist": a complicating factor.
  • The task should be achievable so participants remain engaged.  Avoid a “gotcha!” at the end.
  • If the task requires major muscle movement, so much the better.





Whole-System LearningEngaging head, heart and hands.