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In creating, adapting, and conducting structured experiences, the small group leader needs both a unifying theory and a practical translation of thinking. This introduction will explore a variety of methods and design features that we can incorporate into a range of structured experiences. We can use these ideas both in developing structured experiences and in making sure that existing ones fit the learning readiness of a particular group at a particular time.


Experiential learning occurs when a person engages in some activity, looks back at the activity critically, draws some useful insight from this analysis, and puts the result to work. Of course, we all experience this process spontaneously in ordinary living. We call it an inductive process: proceeding from observation rather than from a prior truth (as in the deductive process). We can define learning (and the usual purpose of training) as a relatively stable change in behavior. A structured experience provides a framework in which we can facilitate the inductive process. The stages of the cycle are listed below.



The initial stage is the data-generating part of the structured experience. We often associate this stage with some event, game, or fun. This is the experience that must be processed through the stages of the ELC to maximize the learning applications. Obviously, if the cycle stops after this stage, all learning is left to chance. The small group leader must take the group through all stages of the ELC.

We can use almost any activity that involves either self-assessment or interpersonal interaction as the "doing" part of experiential learning. The following are common individual and group activities:

Individuals, pairs, groups of three, small groups, group-on-group arrangements, or large groups can carry out these activities. Of course, the learning objectives would dictate both the activity and the appropriate groupings.

It is important to note that the objectives of structured experiences are necessarily general. We state them in terms such as to explore..., to examine..., to study..., to identify..., etc. We cannot specify beforehand the exact things to be learned. All that we want in this stage of the learning cycle is to develop a common database for the discussion that follows. This means that whatever happens in the activity, whether we expect it or not, becomes the basis for critical analysis.

The next four phases of the experiential learning cycle are even more important than the experiencing phase. Accordingly, the small group leader needs to be careful that the activity does not generate too much data or create an atmosphere that makes discussion of the results difficult. There can be a lot of excitement and fun as well as conflict in human interactions, but these are not synonymous with learning; they provide the common references for group inquiry.


In the second stage of the cycle, people that have experienced an activity are presumably ready to share what they saw and how they felt during the activity. The intent here is to make the experience of each individual available to the group. This step involves finding out what happened within individuals, at both cognitive (knowledge and perception) and affective (emotional and feeling) levels, while the activity was progressing. You may find the following methods helpful to facilitate the publishing or declaring of the reactions and observations of individual group members:

The group can carry out publishing through free discussion, but this requires that the small group leader be absolutely clear about the differences in the stages of the learning cycle and distinguish sharply among interventions in the discussion. Group members often focus energy on staying inside the activity. The small group leader needs to nudge them into separating themselves from it in order to learn. Techniques such as those above make the transition from stage one (experiencing) to stage two (publishing) cleaner and easier. That, after all, is the job of the small group leader - to create clarity with ease.


This stage is the pivotal step in experiential learning. Group members systematically examine their common shared experience. This is the group dynamics phase of the cycle where group members essentially analyze what happened. Group members try to determine why it happened the way it did. This talking-through part of the cycle is critical. We must include it if we want to develop useful learning. The small group leader needs to plan carefully how the group will carry out processing and focus the processing toward the next stage, generalizing. Group members may experience unprocessed data as unfinished business. This may distract them from further learning. Below are several techniques we can use in the processing stage:

We should thoroughly work through this stage before going on to the next. Group members need to look at what happened in terms of dynamics but not in terms of meaning. What occurred was real, of course, but it was also somewhat artificially contrived by the structure of the activity. An awareness of the dynamics of the activity is critical for learning about human relations outside of the laboratory setting. Group members often anticipate the next step of the learning cycle and make premature generalization statements. The small group leader needs to make certain that the processing has been adequate before moving on.


At this point in the structured experience, we move from the reality inside the activity to the reality of everyday life outside the training session. The key question here is, "What is the relevance?" Group members focus their awareness on situations in their personal and work lives that are similar to those in the activity they experienced. From the processing stage, they form principles they can apply outside. This step is what makes structured experiences practical. If we omit or gloss over it, the learning is likely to be superficial. Here are some strategies for developing generalizations from the information generated in the processing stage:

The small group leader needs to remain impartial about what the group is learning by drawing out the reactions of others to generalizations that appear incomplete, absolute, or controversial. Group members sometimes anticipate the final stage of the learning cycle also. They need to keep on the track of clarifying what they learned before discussing changes.

In the generalizing stage, the small group leader may introduce information to link theory and research to the generalizing stage to the real world. This practice provides a framework for the inductive learning and checks the reality orientation of the process. However, this practice may lessen commitment to the final stage of the cycle. The group members do not "own" the outside information - a common occurrence in deductive processes.


The final stage of the experiential learning cycle is actually the purpose of the structured experience. The central question here is, "Now what?" The small group leader helps group members apply generalizations to actual situations which they are experiencing. Ignoring such discussion jeopardizes the probability that the learning will be useful. It is critical that we design ways for group members to use what they have learned during the structured experience to plan more effective behavior. Below are some strategies to use in this stage:

Individuals are more likely to implement their planned applications if they share them with others. Volunteers can report what they intend to do with what they learned. This can encourage others to experiment with their behavior also.

It is important to note that on the diagram of the experiential learning cycle (below) there is a dotted arrow from "applying" to "experiencing". This indicates that the actual application of the learning is a new experience for group members to examine inductively also. What structured experiences teach, then, is a way of using one's everyday experiences as data for learning about human relations. We sometimes refer to this as re-learning how to learn. Actually, there are other ways to learn. For example, we learn skills best through practice toward an ideal model, knowledge of results, and positive reinforcement. Also, structured experiences do not easily develop large-scale perspective. Lecture-discussion methods are probably superior for such a purpose. What experiential learning does accomplish, though, is a sense of ownership over the learning that occurs. We achieve this most easily by making certain that we develop each stage of the learning cycle adequately.


We can better understand the experiential model by comparing it with traditional classroom lecture or conferences (didactic model).

Experiential Compared To Traditional

In the experiential model, learners participate and are actively involved in learning. They are more responsible for their own learning. In the didactic model, however, the focus is primarily on the teacher while the learner's responsibility is to take notes, listen, think, memorize or duplicate the content of the course on an examination.


The focus of the experiential model is on content and process. The group members experience the issues as well as identify them intellectually. In contrast, the didactic model concentrates on content. The didactic leader gives the examples and students accept them on faith. They do not experience the examples.

Another basic difference is that a small group leader and the group members in an experiential setting, more readily identify a group member's learning stance (interest, involvement, motivation, attention span, readiness, etc.) than in a didactic setting. A group member in an experiential setting explores his or her learning stance overtly. But in a traditional didactic model, members do not need to interact. No one declares, challenges, or even vaguely knows the learning stances.

"Nothing is more relevant to us than ourselves." Experiential learning is based on this concept. In other words, experiential learning provides a forum for self-knowledge. Regardless of the content under consideration, group members must see, hear about, and examine their own uniqueness in action. The experiential model, then, allows both cognitive (knowledge) and affective (emotional) behavioral involvement. The didactic model usually makes most things outside the presentation seem inappropriate. Experiential learning combines a personal reference point, cognitive and affective involvement and feedback, and theoretical and conceptual material for a more complete learning event. Evaluation in experiential learning is usually more continuous and more internal than the evaluation procedures traditionally used in a didactic model.

The experiential group leader and group members will be more aware of their reactions to the experience, whether positive or negative, since commenting on the process is a legitimate thing to do. The didactic leader, by contrast, may often be left wondering how he or she is doing.


In an experiential model, group members usually initiate issues themselves. Therefore, the individual will probably be able to repeat the behavior he or she learned outside the group setting. This may be because the individual changed on his or her own, without expert help. The learner has strong ownership of his or her decisions to change behavior.


One of the major strengths of the experiential learning model is that we can adapt it to many situations or content areas. Once we identify a particular topic, issue, concern, or learning objective, we can design activities or structured experiences. Many types of activities lend themselves to this model. We can use them in the development of personal growth, communication skills, interpersonal relationships, life/career planning, leadership, decision-making, problem-solving, creativity, group roles, group dynamics, conflict resolution, bargaining, individual and group competition, collaboration, planning and organizing, and interviewing techniques.

Factors To Consider In Experiential Learning

Group Leader Responsibility

The group leader must consciously avoid assuming responsibility for others. Group members will often try to shift responsibility or blame to the group leader or the situation. Yet the greatest potential for learning rests in group members becoming fully aware of their responsibility for their behavior.

Task Focus

We must not focus the structured experience too exclusively on the task. Members can experience many of the activities at a games level, but the group leader must always focus on the process and related issues and not focus on only the content. The process of understanding the content (experience) will allow students to maximize learning.

Group leaders must also realize that there is considerable skill involved in working with people and in conducting these structured experiences. Explicit directions for conducting a particular experience by themselves do not guarantee even minimal success. Group leaders have to know much more about the model than simply its step-by-step instructions.

Group Leader Vulnerability

In the experiential model, group leaders are much more vulnerable in terms of feeling and behavior. They are no more visible in this model, but since it provides a vehicle for them to receive feedback, they must be ready to confront action and feelings directed toward them. They may be unaccustomed to dealing with these behaviors. Group leaders should remember that the use of the experiential model takes time. They should take care not to crowd the experience, leaving sufficient time for discussion and summarizing. Effectiveness depends on thorough planning.

If group leaders understand the basic components of the experiential model, the most important skills they can bring to the situation are their ability to be sensitive to people; to know where they are and what they expect, fear, or anticipate; and to select the appropriate leadership style, experience, content presentation, and timing sequence to fit the diverse needs of the situation.

Central Issues Confronted

The experiential learning model has power and impact because it confronts basic psychological issues with which people have to deal every day. This adds to the interest and involvement of the members during an activity, and it contributes significantly to the transfer of learning. Once members see the relationship between these issues and their demonstration in the experience, the relevance of the model becomes clear.

The model gives group members an opportunity to examine their feelings and behavior when they interact with other individuals. The issues of intimacy, anger, and aggression are central to most people's daily interactions, and group members gain an increased awareness of these issues through focused experiences. They also begin to identify their own personal styles in relationships. Group members not only confront their personal responses to different emotions but also participate in situations that generate a broad spectrum of feelings. Examining these feelings identifies and legitimizes individual differences and helps to expand group members' awareness and understanding of the function their emotions play in their behavior.

Rationale for Use

There are five major reasons for using the experiential learning model:

Role of the Group Leader

Group leaders have a central role in the implementation of the experiential model, but in many ways their duties and responsibilities are much different from what they would be in other models. The following five steps describe these responsibilities in terms of process and content.

Group leaders must identify and prepare all the materials they need for the experience and ensure that the physical facilities are adequate.

Group leaders should spend time reviewing the material and the sequence of events for the experience. They must anticipate any consequences and develop contingency plans. They should complete all preparation before the session begins.

In order to maximize the learning that occurs and the chances that it will transfer, the time spent in the Publish and Process step and the Generalization step should at least equal the time for the Introduction and the Activity steps. Inadequate time for these steps is perhaps the most common design error that group leaders make.

Experiential learning techniques offer great benefits for both group members and group leaders. Some hazards do exist in the implementation. But if group leaders are careful in choosing the activities and consider the rationale and uses of the experiential learning model, they will have an extremely practical technique to use with their groups.


Usually in stage one, the experiencing phase, group members participate in an activity to generate data. Processing the data does not actually begin until the second (publishing) stage. However, since group members sometimes resist beginning and/or completing an activity, the group leader may find the following questions helpful in stage one. They are usually "no fail" questions because (1) they tend to break down the group members' resistance by encouraging involvement in the activity; (2) if they do not break down the resistance, then processing this resistance becomes the learning; and (3) we can use them at any stage of the experiential cycle. They are key questions which the group leader can use along with summarizing and reflecting to help the group move either more deeply into the stage at hand or on to another stage.

In stage two, the publishing phase, group members have completed the experience. Questions focus on generating data.

In stage three, the processing phase, group members now have data. Questions focus on making sense of that data for the individual and the group.

In stage four, the generalizing phase, group members work toward forming principles which they derived from the specific knowledge they have gained about themselves and their group. Questions focus on promoting generalizations.

In stage five, the applying phase, group members discuss using what they learned in their real-world situations. Questions focus on applying the general knowledge they have gained to their personal and professional lives.

We can add a final stage here, that of processing the entire experience as a learning experience. Questions focus on soliciting feedback.

Many of these questions may elicit similar responses, thereby offering the group leader several avenues to achieve the same goal.

Questioning Disadvantages

One disadvantage in using processing questions is that the group leader may come to rely solely on these questions without becoming knowledgeable about the concept, issue, or theory the experience is illustrating. A second disadvantage is a more philosophical one: questions are actually indirect statements that hide one's own reactions to the experience. The group leader can do one or both of the following to overcome this disadvantage: (1) turn each of the questions into statements such as, "I'd like to know what you're feeling," and (2) share his or her own experiences during the processing of the learning cycle ("What happened for me was..."; "What I learned was...").

Both of these disadvantages emphasize the fact that questions in themselves are neither good nor bad; it is how the group leader uses them that is the object of evaluation.

Questioning Advantages

The advantages in using processing questions are several. If the experience is going as planned, the group leader has a tool for guiding the experiential learning cycle at the pace, depth, breadth, and intensity that he or she deems appropriate. If the experience is not going as planned, the group leader has a tool for deriving learning from what is occurring, so that group members gain something beneficial regardless of their attitudes and reactions. The greatest advantage is that we can use these questions with virtually any experience in nearly any situation with the vast majority of group members. They are generalizable and transferable, and they are guaranteed to evoke learning. A group leader's nature and skills of sharing, empathizing, and listening are most important to the appropriate use of this technique. However, armed with these questions, the consciously competent group leader can be sure and make sure that something always happens in the experiential learning process.


2 "Introduction to the Structured Experience," adapted from Jones and Pfieffer, Editors, The 1980 Annual Handbook for Group Faciliatators, San Diego, CA: Pfieffer and Co., 1980.

3 "The Experiential Learning Model and Its Application to Groups," adapted from Jones and Pfieffer, Editors, The 1975 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators, San Diego CA: Pfieffer and Co., 1975.

4 "Processing Questions for Each Stage of the Experiential Learning Cycle" adapted from Jones and Pfieffer, Editors, The 1979 Annual Handbook for Group Facilitators, San Diego, CA: Pfieffer and Co., 1979.

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