Learning as an Adult - the Adult Experiential Learning Cycle

Learning occurs only when a person changes his or her behavior. That's the end goal, the only measurement that matters. So what does that look like for an adult?


When an event happens, what process does the learner go through that ends with a change in his or her behavior?

The process of learning through experience for adults is called, not surprisingly, the adult experiential learning cycle. It has four stages, which I refer to as: describe, explain, generalize, incorporate. When something happens, we process what we experienced through these four stages.


Describe is literally that: laying out all of the facts of the event. These are, like actions, visible things that we can describe. These include environmental factors that surrounded the event, the behaviors that other people performed, and the visible results. Again, these things should be visible facts - if someone involved couldn't see it, you probably shouldn't include it here. As you are processing the event, lay out all of the facts in your head. If you don't know because you personally didn't see something, go find out - there is often more to the story than what you saw. Once you feel like you've gotten all of the facts laid out, go on to the second step.


Explain is the process of putting feelings and causes/effects to the visible actions from describe. That's why we stuck to the facts at first - so we can get them all out before we start jumping into opinions. Here is your chance to think about what might have caused the events - why did things go the way they did, and how did that affect the people involved? What did they feel as the event was taking place, and which of the facts from describe show us that? Once you get the whole picture put together - facts and opinions; what happened, why, and the impact - you can move on to the third step.

Generalize is when we take the results of the previous two steps and try to apply it to other situations. Every event and situation is unique, but sometimes the general outline is repeated. Have we been in a position like this before? What was the same, and what was different? Is this a common thing, or is it a very specific situation that isn't likely to occur again? Were these other situations better or worse? Why does this happen across different situations? This is also the time when we ask ourselves, "what does a better outcome look like?" In doing so, we create a hypothetical or imaginary situation that is similar except for a more productive outcome. The big question here is, "what does this event tell me about events I am likely to experience in the future?" Once we've considered how this event - its' facts and its' causes/effects and impacts - relates to others, then we can move on to the final stage.


Incorporate is when we push everything we've just done into the future. This is when we decide what behavior we need to change, and what it looks like in practice when we do change it. We can make this decision now because we have all of the facts laid out, we've made some educated assessments of why the event took place and its impact, and we've compared the event to other similar events to see how it could be better. Only now can we ask ourselves, what specific behavior or behaviors should we do differently to avoid or do better in this kind of event? The more concrete here, the better