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 - is there a certain marker or trigger that will tell you to start your new behavior? Do you need to write it down somewhere? There's nothing worse than going through the process of learning and then forgetting to actually do the new behavior when the appropriate time comes. Once this step is done, we are at the point of moving from an event we experienced to a new behavior - we've learned something.


These stages are a cycle, so hopefully we take what we incorporate in our behavior and assess it the next time we perform that behavior in a similar event, starting with describe. Learning is a process of building on past learning, and recognizing the cycle allows us to continuously improve.


So how does understanding the adult experiential learning cycle help us be more effective learners? It's a tool to walk us through analyzing an event so that we get to a behavior change. When something happens and we know we need to learn, we can ask ourselves questions related to each of the stages.


If you really think about it, you probably run through these stages each time something happens that you just can't let go. However, the stages are probably jumbled up. You are assigning blame before you know all of the facts, and deciding what you are going to do differently before you know how this situation is similar or different from other situations. The more firmly we can stick to the order and nature of each stage, the more effective we are at learning and therefore the more likely we are to change our behavior. If we skip a step, or don't get through all of the steps, or otherwise break the cycle, we aren't likely to be able to accurately decide which behavior to change.


For example, we might misunderstand what happened (describe), mistake the actual cause of events or how they affected people (explain), fail to see other situations where we could apply the learning (generalize), or fail to make a plan to actually change our behavior (incorporate). Any of these mistakes prevents us from getting from the event to the change in behavior.


I also use the model to help others learn. Just like I ask myself questions in my head, I also ask the same questions of other people. This is one way we can help others in our organization without being in a position of authority - when we ask questions along the model, the other person feels like we're having a very effective conversation about the event. If we do it right, we might be able to help them change a behavior for the better through a simple conversation. Being able to walk through the stages completely also helps us feel like we've resolved or overcome an event that might otherwise bother us, and so we feel relief.


Understanding the adult experiential learning cycle is critical to being an effective learner. Here's your task: the next time something happens and you feel anxious, angry, or afraid, take a deep breath and start with describe. By the time you get through explain, generalize, and incorporate, I'll bet you feel better and have an idea of how to do better next time.

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