In order to talk about experiential training in any way that truly matters, we must first talk about training itself.

What is experiential training? What do most of us think of work-related learning? Maybe sitting in a classroom while someone with their backs to us reads from a PowerPoint slide. This is convenient because then they can’t see what we’re really doing. Texting on our phones. Working on our computers. Possibly trying to look interested while stifling a yawn. At the end of the day (only one day if we’re lucky), we go back to work and do whatever has worked in the past.

So what was the ROI (return on investment) for this training? What was the cost of having someone facilitate? This includes internal or external training as well as the work-related cost of having all of those employees sitting in that room.

Unfortunately, many companies have no way of measuring this. How training is achieved or even if it met its goal. This goal is the same for any training. Change.

Some learning events do work best as a ‘lecture’ or “information download.” In particular, those that involve learning a new computer process or procedure.

However, let’s assume you’re trying to help your employees understand something like an update. What kind of training works best? What might improve employees’ understanding of information? Especially that which will improve their work-life balance? This might be an update to your companies’ culture. Maybe its leadership expectations. Perhaps even making day-to-day decisions!

Isn’t all experiential training…experiential?

Short answer?


Better answer?

Keep reading.

If you are just now hearing about this kind of training, you aren’t alone. It has been around since humans first began to learn. Every one of us has some image of an experiential training “aha! moment.” That is learning based on experience. Even sitting in that classroom we described above is an experience. So is learning that fire is hot by burning your hand. They’re both experiences, and in both situations we learn.

For me, it was learning how to swim. My great-grandfather threw me into the river.

I experienced the water and the fear of drowning, and I immediately learned how to swim.

Again, it was not the best experience, but it did help me to prepare for helping others. Because of that experience, I have been able to improve my training methods. This allows me to help others. It really helps me give my kids a better learning experience.

For them, it’s about both the journey and the destination. It’s about the experience and the knowledge transfer. This is also true of every participant in one of Training Standards International Inc.’s training events.

Isn’t Experiential Training just the latest fad?

This kind of learning is making its way into many everyday conversations. I even recently saw a national college commercial for a class on it! I think it’s important to know some of the challenges associated with utilizing this paradigm properly. In order to do that, let’s take a look at where it began.

Aristotle wrote about it in 350 B.C.

Yes, it’s that old. However, many people, link this theory to its resurgence in the 1970s. This includes trainers and people who may not have even been born then! David A. Kolb’s book, Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Upper Saddie River, NJ, Pearson Education), has been even more influential. It is here that Kolb develops this experiential learning model.

Experiential Learning Theory

Kolb’s experiential learning model follows the theory that most of us utilize one of four styles of learning. This theory says that a learning participant’s knowledge retention is heavily based upon his or her own personal style.

Kolb’s model has been updated many times. For this article, we’ll use what is probably the most widespread:

Learning styles


The segment of your participants who require visual input from sources like PowerPoint, pictures, and diagrams.


The segment of your learners who learn best through vocal or other sounds such as vocal tone, pitch changes, music, and tempo.


Those participants require tactile input in order to learn. For example, to best learn how to do keystrokes in a certain order, they need to physically touch the keyboard.


These participants require a more relaxed, comfortable environment in order to digest information. This can involve temperature, lighting, or low-stress environment.

Not every trainer is familiar with these specific learning styles. Any trainer worth his salt is familiar with the fact that there are four styles of learning, however. It’s like how most people may have heard of CBT without knowing it stands for “cognitive-behavioral therapy.” (Not to be confused with computer-based training.)

A great debate continues on learning theory. Specifically, about whether to use pedagogic or andragogic techniques. (Pedagogy refers to the ways in which children learn. Andragogy is the theory of adult learning.) The debate is over which of these theories actually have any foundation in true learning transfer. It is possible is that neither of them do, or that both of them do. Many studies show no correlation. Others reason that a combination of the four styles is probably closer to the mark.

Even these four styles are based on theories put forth by the ancient Greeks! Legendary medical thinker Hippocrates put forth that there were four “humors.” He held that these four characteristics governed the health of every individual. If one of these humors was lacking, the person would not be sound in mind and/or body.

We know a lot more now about the human body than the Ancient Greeks. That said, we can still see their influence in our everyday lives. The Hippocratic Oath is a part of medical practice. Truly, modern medicine owes much of its influence from those days. So does experiential learning.

Let’s use Socrates as an example. His classroom was people sitting around outside. The kind of philosophical approach he used is called “the Socratic method.” It consisted of asking question after question. These days, we can see the big difference between that and sitting in an actual classroom. In that modern space, someone like the teacher in Ferris Bueller drones on and on. Right?

Ask yourself which you would rather do. Be at work all day and try to find work to keep yourself busy? Or pursue a project or innovative idea that you’re passionate about? The first uses you as a tool for others’ goals. The second allows you to use your knowledge and experience. It also lets you use as much or as little experience as you need to satisfy goals you feel are important.

For most of us, the answer is the same. We’d choose passion and enthusiasm.

How Training Standards International Inc. uses experiential training

The “good old days” were often not that good in reality. For example, it was believed that someone from an organization could train others in the same organization simply because they had been with the organization for a longer period of time. However, most of us learned the hard way that we almost never actually got the ROI we were hoping for. In most cases, the fact that the instructing employee had been with the organization for a while was actually a major obstacle. Over the years, that tenured employee had built up a lot of opinions. These could be about the organization’s culture. About its leadership. Maybe even the training itself.

These opinions interfered with the transfer of knowledge to the new employees. In a lot of cases, this was due to a “challenged” trainer trying to get the new learner to “forget” any earlier experience. I’ve seen situations that led to a never-ending cycle of higher attrition rates. This was not only among the new employees. Even some seasoned ones fell out due to this. However, we as trainers have learned from those missteps.

We now know that everyone brings with them their own unique experiences and knowledge, so instead of spending time trying to get a new-hire to ‘forget’ their old experiences, we learn about those experiences at other companies, (where possible). We can then use them as a way to expand the learning experience for the participants, while at the same time learning what the individual participants are passionate about in their work-lives. We can begin to guide their career paths within a specific organization using our proprietary experiential training methods and activities.

Follow the Yellow Brick Road

Taking a look at all of this information, it would be easy to become overwhelmed. There are many theories and methods that go into true experiential training. It’s best to examine some ways to make it more accessible.

First, understand that the best experiential learning will always rely on the knowledge of the participant.

This is the first tenet of experiential learning. This would be a good place to see all the major tenets. These are the foundation for learning here at

  • ANY ACTIVITY THAT DOESN’T RELATE TO THE LEARNING IS NOT A GOOD ROTI. (It must provide a return on the TIME invested by the participants and organization.)

It’s like Dorothy on her famous journey to see the wizard. each step taken on the path of discovery is absolutely necessary in order to learn, and this is especially true of Experiential Learning examples.

I recently saw a news report about the one-of-a-kind Tony Robbins. The reporter was talking about an event that took place last weekend. Participants were given the opportunity to walk across burning coals at the end of the night. According to the newscaster, the activity was a “disaster.” There were headlines such as “Tony Robbins Burns Dozens.” Then the actual participants were asked what they thought. Every one of them said that it was a “life-changing experience.” They also said that they would do it again.

That’s the real point of training, isn’t it? None of them were seriously burned. All of them were seriously changed.

I have been honored to put together some fun and informative events. The organizations have told me they’re the best they’ve ever seen. Such as:

  • Obstacle courses
  • Laser Tag
  • Balloon Rides
  • Water Balloon fights
  • Tight-rope walks
  • Bungee Cord jumping
  • Treasure Hunts
  • Pottery

The list just goes on. It will continue to grow. This is especially true now that we have such a large multi-generational influence in our workforce. People who leave companies in order to have new experiences definitely appreciate them. They want organizations that helps them get those experiences “in-house.”

Is experiential training right for every company?

We ask about the kind of training an organization’s employees have responded to in the past. The answer we almost always get it is the following. “The kind that engages them so they don’t have to just sit there.” It’s an answer that lets us know that we are on the right track. Not every activity works for every organization or participant, but gone are the days of “training in a box’, where the participants or group is expected to be molded to the same old “training in a box.” It’s been done over and over. (And over.)

Each organization is different. Thus, it’s up to the Experiential Trainer to use his or her experience. That blends with the needs and experiences of the organization and its employees. This allows an experiential learning event that will have direct-to-value effects immediately. It will encourage long-lasting change.

Does every event work for everyone? Of course not. If someone says that theirs does? Don’t just walk in the opposite direction. Run! On the other hand, trainers will field a LOT of questions. Employees will want to understand that the change that occurs with Experiential Training and the information retention it brings, will be well worth the effort.