The five-step adult-learning process is an approach to experiential learning, often called discovery learning, which creates an environment where learners realize, for themselves, what they need to know and/or do differently. Some learners will get more out of an activity than others. This experiential learning model helps all learners begin from where they are and grow from a shared experience. Because experiential learning actively involves the learner, it is possible to use the same activity with a diverse audience.

The process is a set of steps to follow for each learning experience and can be used to design and deliver content on any topic.

1. Instructor Sets the Learning Activity:

The purpose of the first step in the adult learning process is to introduce and set up the learning experience. The set up (number of steps and the importance of doing them in a particular order) and/or the skill level of the facilitator will dictate how detailed the plan needs to be for this step. There are four typical ways to accomplish this:

a. The purpose or objective of the activity. In a participative lecture this step isusually: “What we’re going to talk about today is…” For a true “discovery learning” experience the objective may be a part of what is discovered, so it would not be revealed in the set-up.

b. An explanation of what you, as the instructor, will do. In a participative lecture you may give information, show graphics, or ask and answer questions. For a small group discussion you may divide people into groups, give assignments, and be available to coach and help groups as needed.

c. An explanation of what the participants are expected to do. In a small group discussion the participants may be asked to explore a situation, brainstorm ideas or solutions to a problem, and report to the group at large. In a video or virtual presentation the participants may be asked to watch for key points, answer specific questions, or take notes for further discussion. In a practice session with a particular software program, participants may be expected to create a document that matches specific criteria.

d. The ground rules that accompany the learning experience. In an ice breaker/session starter activity the rules may be that each participant gets into a group with three other people whom they do not already know. In a technical lecture the ground rules may include when to ask questions, e.g., ask clarifying questions as they occur; hold other questions until the end of the presentation.

2. Learners Participate in the Learning Activity:

The purpose of the second step in the adult learning process is to actively involve the participants in the learning experience. Types of learning experiences include:

  • participant lectures
  • role play
  • practice sessions
  • case studies
  • videos
  • structured experience
  • computer assisted learning
  • demonstrations
  • questionnaires/inventorie
  • hands-on experiences
  • exploring on-line material
  • decision making groups
  • small group discussions
  • films
  • discussions
  • self-study
  • session starters
  • giving and getting feedback

The learning activity may be learner-directed or instructor-led. The more independent the learner and the more motivated to learn, the more learner-directed the experience can be. The novice learner will need more instructor direction to facilitate the learning.

3. Debrief – Learners Share and Interpret Their Reactions to the Activity:

The purpose of the third step in the adult-learning process is to help learners discover and share their reactions and experiences during the learning experience. The focus of the debrief is on the content of the learning experience. It is very important that you do not let the learners jump to concepts and learning principles too quickly. The trainer’s role in this step is to facilitate a discussion that asks the learners what happened to them (not what was learned) during the activity. Course designers need to craft process questions to accomplish this.

If the learning experience was a structured experience, a game, role play, or another participant activity, this step is meant to help the participants conclude the activity and get ready to move on to the learning points. This is a critical step when the activity generates feelings, explores beliefs or values, or involves personal reactions. Some participants become involved in the topic or details of an activity and really need time for discussion these before they are ready to move to the next step.

It is most effective to use structured discussion as the instruction method to facilitate debriefing a learning experience. To do this, you explore what actually occurred during the activity, discuss issues specific to the content, and ask questions to generate reactions. In addition, there are several other instruction techniques that can help facilitate the debrief discussion. You can:

a) have each participant write down his/her reactions or thoughts and then discuss them

b) have small groups generate common reactions and share them with the whole group

c) have partners interview each other and report on their discussion.

4. Learners Identify Concepts From Their Reactions:

The purpose of the fourth step in the adult-learning process is to help the learner identify and discuss broader concepts and principles discovered during the learning experience. It is the “so, what?” step. “So, what was the point?” “So, what did I learn?” “So, what does it mean?”

It is critical that the thoughts and ideas generated in this step come from the learners. If you reveal and explain the concepts and principles to the learners they will still be “owned” by you rather than “discovered” by them. This is the “Inferential Leap” necessary for the learners to move from the experience to learning - the point when they move from the specifics of the activity to the concept the activity was designed to “infer”.

If this step is omitted, the learning will be incomplete. Participants may later say that they enjoyed an activity, the lecture, or the discussion and may understand the specific points of the learning experience, but be unable to report what they learned from it in broader terms. Some learners easily move from the specific to the conceptual; others will need prompting and coaching to discover broader concepts and principles. Diverse learners can learn different things from the same activity. The trainer’s role as a facilitator is to be sure each learner takes away something of value from an activity. Again, it is the course designer’s job to write process questions to elicit, from learners, the learning that meets the instructional objectives.

Your role in this step is to guide the discussion so that it focuses on the learning points and moves away from the specific activity. In a discussion of a case study activity, for example, it is important that the discussion move to the concept taught by the case study rather than stay with the details of the “story.” After a participative lecture, ask questions of the learners to get them to summarize the main points and paraphrase the key concepts.

This is the best time to chart answers, ideas and concepts. It will help the learners remember the main points and will reinforce the concepts. You can prompt the generating of concepts by asking: “What did you learn from this activity (this discussion, this practice session, this case study) about ____________in general?” fill in the blank with the general topic, the objective of the learning experience: for example, leadership, managing your time, the timely reporting of excess claims, work place communications, creating a product etc. When you are charting concepts, avoid writing words or phrases that are specific to the activity. Get the participants to move to a more general, conceptual level. In the discussion of a case study, for example, rather than writing: “Joe – needed to give clearer directions” write “Give clear directions.”

5. Learners Apply Concepts to Their Situation:

The purpose of this final step in the adult learning process is to help the learner identify what to do with the new information or skill. This is the “so, now what?” step. Without this step some participants will not be able to apply the new learning in real world situations. It will remain a theoretical, classroom idea. This step is the purpose for which the entire learning experience was designed.

Your role in this step is to, again, lead discussion without generating the content. This step often involves an action question such as, "How will you use this questioning technique the next time a subordinate asks you for help with a procedure?" or "In what situations would you be more effective if you used this technique?" Diverse learners definitely take something different from the lesson, since different jobs require different applications. The trainer’s role is to be sure enough questions are discussed so application of the concept is possible for all learners and the course designer should strive to provide a variety of questions to choose from.

Additional instruction techniques that can help facilitate the application of the learning include:

a) have each participant write down how they will use this new information and generate a personal action plan

b) have partners contract with each other about action items

c) have like-interest groups discuss common applications and share them with the large group

d) role play using real situations to practice newly learned techniques. (The role play restarts the “discovery learning” process. It will need debriefing, identifying any additional concepts and discussion of how to apply what has been practiced.)

Using the discovery-learning approach with diverse learners:

When you use this approach to adult learning with experienced learners, i.e., those for whom the knowledge and/or skill has been a part of their daily work for some time, you often will find that they move quickly from the learning experience to steps 4 and 5, identify concepts and apply the learning. Novice learners have a tendency to get stuck in step 2, the learning experience, and may have a difficult time recognizing the broader concepts and principles, and their application. Your role as a facilitator is to see that the concepts and principles are understood by all learners.

Facilitator expertise:

In addition to experience with adult learning principles, conducting effective experiential learning activities requires basic facilitation skills, such as how to ask and respond to questions, how to give learner feedback, and how to encourage dialogue and discussion. Complex learning objectives require more advanced facilitation skills, such as how to address conflict and how to recognize and customize for various learning styles. The same is true when participants will be learning about difficult issues involving risk, motivation, resistance to change, etc. Facilitators also need presentation skills that include recording on a chart effectively and the ability to efficiently use audiovisual equipment.

Maria Chilcote & Melissa Smith

The Training Clinic


©2014 The Training Clinic. Adapted and updated with permission by Linda Ernst from work originally published by The Training Clinic and in an article by Linda Ernst and Lori Silverman, An Effective Approach to Experiential Learning, published in The 1999 Annual: Volume 1, Training © Jossey-Bass/Pfeifer 350 Sansome Street, 5th Floor San Francisco, CA 94104