A Deep Dive Into The Experiential Learning Cycle: The Experience

Erika Petrelli
Erika Petrelli
Copy of ELC

“A Deep Dive Into The Experiential Learning Cycle: The Experience” is part two in a six-part series

In the first edition of this series, I introduced a specific questioning process called the Experiential Learning Cycle (created by David Kolb) that we use at The Leadership Program 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 first step of the Experiential Learning Cycle: the Experience itself. Because what exactly are we talking about when we say “experience”? The truth is, the experience can come in almost any format, and can be planned or unplanned. Here is a list of a few experiences you might encounter with your participants:

  1. A structured activity that you have pre-planned for your session.
  2. A game that you play with your participants.
  3. A video that you watch with your participants.
  4. A performance by your participants.
  5. A book or article that your participants have all read.
  6. A conversation on a specific topic that has your participants debating differing perspectives.
  7. A “trending topic”: an awards show from the night before, a current event, or anything your participants might be buzzing about.
  8. An event that occurred just before your session: perhaps a fight broke out between students in the hallway, or maybe your participants had to battle treacherous weather to arrive at your session.

The point is, you can ask your participants questions about nearly anything, if you’re paying attention. Why? In nearly every experience we have, we have thoughts, we feel feelings, and we take actions. And thoughts, feelings, and actions are the stuff of the Experiential Learning Cycle.

Let us take the “experience” of a structured activity as an example. Perhaps you have led your participants in a brief activity to warm the group up and make them comfortable with each other. Maybe it was as simple as asking them to say their name and one fun fact about themselves. You might think there is no meat there, that it’s not a full enough experience to utilize the Experiential Learning Cycle. But even in a simple name game, participants will be thinking thoughts, feeling feelings, and taking action.

Thoughts: Why can’t I ever think of anything? I’m just not creative! Oh, no—it’s almost my turn! People are going to be so surprised by my fact! I can’t believe I’m about to share this.

Feelings: I hate these kinds of activities. I feel so nervous! I’m excited to share my fact! Suddenly I feel so stupid.

Actions: Do some of your participants look more intently at each person as they are answering than others? Do some mumble their answer while some tell a whole story to go with their fact? Do some look visibly irritated?

These thoughts, feelings, and actions are things just waiting for you to uncover, and the way to uncover them is by asking questions. Once your participants are able to start articulating how they were thinking, feeling, and behaving during the simple opening activity, they can start to reflect on other areas of their lives where they have similar thoughts and feelings, and identify ways to positively alter their future behavior.

So, when trying to define for yourself whether you’ve got yourself an Experience worthy of the Experiential Learning Cycle, simply look around. Are your participants thinking about the experience? Are they likely feeling feelings about the experience? Are they expressing any behaviors or actions related to the experience? Yes? Then dive in.

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


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“A Deep Dive Into The Experiential Learning Cycle: The Experience", 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.