A Deep Dive Into The Experiential Learning Cycle Application

Erika Petrelli
Erika Petrelli
Girl Thinking

"A Deep Dive Into The Experiential Learning Cycle: generalizing" is part five in a six-part series

As I have said in previous articles, at The Leadership Program we use a specific questioning process called the Experiential Learning Cycle, with students and adults alike. The basic idea behind this process is that greater learning and meaning can come out of ANY experience, if only you take the time to reflect on it. 

Our use of the Experiential Learning Cycle follows five steps Experience, Publishing, Processing, Generalizing, and Applying.

Here we are going to focus in on the fifth and final step in the Experiential Learning Cycle: Application. In Application, participants are challenged to think about how they can actually put in practice, or “apply,” the things they learned and discovered during the shared group experience somewhere else in their lives.

If you remember, in the publishing phase participants are only reflecting on themselves, and in the processing phase they are reflecting on what they noticed happened with others, and in the group as a whole. These two steps are considered the “What?” portion of the cycle, charging participants to think about what happened. Then, in the generalizing phase, participants are asked to take their reflections out of the room, so to speak, and to the world at large. This is considered the “So What?” portion of the cycle, charging participants to think about why what happened actually matters. In the final application phase, participants are asked “Now What?”—now that you thought about all this stuff and learned about all this stuff and discovered all this stuff… now what are you going to actually do about it? If the cycle has followed a self-group-world cycle up until this point, consider the application phase as taking everyone back to “self,” but hopefully a somehow “better” self.

Some examples of questions we ask during this phase of the cycle, to prime the conversation, include:

  • Is there anything you might do differently as a result of what you discovered today? What? Where will you try that?
  • How can you take what you learned today and apply it back at … (ex: your job, your class, with your friends)?
  • Is there someplace in your life that would benefit from you__________ (ex: taking a risk/sharing your ideas/trying something new)? How?
  • What’s one thing you can do today, based on what just happened here?
  • Where else in your life can you practice________________ (ex: effective communication)? When will you try that this week? What will you do?
  • So the next time you’re in a situation where ______________________ (ex: you are faced with a task that you don’t know how to solve), how can you handle it, based on what happened here today?

As the facilitator, your goal during this phase is to get participants making as specific applications as possible, thinking of where, when, and how they might actually put into practice the discoveries made during the session’s group experience. The more specific the better, so this is the phase that usually involves the most amount of follow-up questions. As the facilitator you want to try and challenge participants to really think of specific actions they will take. So, for example, here is the type of back and forth you might expect:

Facilitator: Where else in your life could you practice risk taking, do you think?

Participant: You could take a risk by raising your hand in class even if you feel scared.

Facilitator: Is that something you might try this week?

Participant: Yeah, I guess I could try that.

Facilitator: In what class will you take a risk by raising your hand?

Participant: I will take a risk by raising my hand in my history class.

Facilitator: When is your next history class?

Participant: Tomorrow.

Facilitator: Okay! So you will take a risk tomorrow in history class by raising your hand?

Participant: Yes.

Facilitator: That’s great!

As you can see, participants will often answer an application question with “You could…”. Your goal as the facilitator is to get them closer to an “I will…” answer. Additional follow-up questions to help your participants get there include:

  • Is that something you might try?
  • Is there something happening this week that might be a good opportunity to do that?
  • What’s going on later today that might give you a chance to try that?
  • Do you have a____________ (ex: job or activity) that also requires you to ___________ (ex: work on a team)? What could you try this week, based on what happened today?
  • How will you specifically practice this this week?
  • What’s one thing you can try this week, based on what we discovered today?

You did it! You had the Experience, you gave your participants the space to Publish their thoughts and feelings about the Experience, and you allowed them time to Process their observations about the group dynamics that showed up during the Experience. Then you challenged them to Generalize their experience, thinking about other places in their lives where they might think/feel/believe similarly to how they are thinking/feeling/believing about the current experience. And finally you asked participants to Apply all of the things they Experienced, Published, Processed, and Generalized to their lives, challenging them to make positive behavioral changes that might have a positive impact that far outreaches the shared Experience of the group. Well done!

And as you embark upon this cycle, please remember what I said at the beginning:

In a world that celebrates the fast-paced, get ‘er done, movement-oriented, checklist-accomplished, forward-momentum way of living, pausing for reflection can seem counter-intuitive. It can feel awkward. It can feel like a waste of time. This can particularly be true when you first attempt to use the Experiential Learning Cycle with a new group. Answers might come haltingly or not at all. You might be met by blank stares. It can be tempting to toss it aside and move along to the next EXPERIENCE. But I urge you to persevere. Even in silence. Asking the questions and allowing space for the answers will give your participants time to think; even if they don’t answer you right away (or ever), giving them the space to think is giving them the time to reflect, and giving them the time to reflect is giving them the opportunity to grow. And if you have the great honor to be with a group more than once, and you persist in asking them the questions every time, they will come to expect it, and, more: count on it. Reflection, like just about everything else, is a muscle that grows stronger with practice. Don’t give up on it!

If you are looking to take your facilitation skills to a level that fosters expanded group learning and exponential growth, we recommend the Experiential Learning Cycle as an essential tool to help you do just that.

Questions? Thoughts? Please post me in the comments below or



"A Deep Dive Into The Experiential Learning Cycle: Application", The Leadership Program, Inc. 2016


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Erika Petrelli

By Erika Petrelli

Erika Petrelli is the Senior Vice President of Leadership Development (and self-declared Minister of Mischief) for The Leadership Program, a New York City-based organization. With a Masters degree in Secondary Education, Erika has been in the field of teaching and training for decades, and has been with The Leadership Program since 1999. There she has the opportunity to nurture the individual leadership spirit in both students and adults across the country, through training, coaching, keynotes, and writing. The legacy Erika strives daily to create is to be the runway upon which others take flight. If you enjoy these blogs, you should check out her interactive journal, On Wings & Whimsy: Finding the Extraordinary Within the Ordinary, now available for sale on Amazon. While her work takes her all around the country, Erika calls Indiana home.