learning and development

How to Use Experiential Learning Cycles in Mentoring

Learn how experiential learning combined with mentoring can lead to a continuous learning culture in your organization.

Samantha Gross

Mentorship expert at Together

Published on 

March 28, 2024

Updated on 

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In simple terms, experiential learning means “learning by doing.” Traditionally used to give students hands-on experiences, experiential learning has taken center stage in workplaces in recent times.  

When you combine experiential learning with the power of mentoring, it’s a win-win situation. Employees learn through practical experiences and benefit from the support and guidance of their mentors. 

However, to truly maximize its potential, mentors and mentees alike can benefit from embracing structured frameworks that facilitate effective learning. 

Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle is a framework for navigating the complex journey of learning from firsthand experiences. Let's explore how this framework can transform mentoring relationships into catalysts for growth and development, especially for current millennials and the incoming wave of Gen Z professionals.

Understanding Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle

Kolb's Experiential Learning Cycle comprises four interconnected stages: 

  • Concrete Experience 
  • Reflective Observation 
  • Abstract Conceptualization and 
  • Active Experimentation 

Each stage plays a vital role in the learning process, contributing to a holistic understanding of experiences and facilitating continuous growth.

Concrete experience: Immersion in real-world situations

The journey begins with Concrete Experience, where individuals dive into real-world scenarios or hands-on activities. Think of it as rolling up your sleeves and getting directly involved. Whether it's tackling a challenging project at work, engaging in community service, or pursuing a personal hobby, this stage lays the groundwork for learning by providing firsthand encounters with the complexities of the world.

For example, imagine a marketing intern tasked with developing a social media campaign for a new product launch. Through hands-on experience, they interact with target audiences, analyze market trends, and grapple with the nuances of digital marketing platforms. These experiences serve as the building blocks for subsequent learning and growth.

With Gen Z's inclination towards on-the-job learning experiences, this intern can gain relevant skills through internships or apprenticeships. Considering that Gen Z will comprise 27% of the workforce by 2025, organizations that support and encourage on-the-job learning will be successful in creating a learning culture

Reflective observation: Mining insights through introspection

Following the Concrete Experience, comes Reflective Observation—a phase characterized by introspection and analysis. This stage encourages individuals to pause and reflect on their experiences, exploring the emotions, challenges, and outcomes encountered along the way.

Gen Z, with 62% starting to explore potential career options in high school, demonstrates a proactive approach to career planning. Reflective practices become essential for them to distill insights from their early career explorations, aiding them in determining their career plans before graduating from high school, as valued by 78% of Gen Z individuals.

Imagine our marketing intern taking time to journal about their campaign efforts, reflecting on what worked well and what could be improved. They might engage in discussions with peers or mentors, seeking different perspectives on their experiences. Through these reflective practices, they gain deeper insights into their decision-making processes, strengths, and areas for development.

Abstract conceptualization: Making sense of experiences

Armed with insights from reflection, learners transition to Abstract Conceptualization—a stage where they distill overarching principles and theoretical frameworks from their experiences. This involves synthesizing observations, drawing connections, and formulating generalizations that transcend individual encounters.

Millennials and Gen Z employees, who make up a majority of the current workforce, abstract conceptualization is a crucial step in aligning their aspirations with concrete action plans. Mentors can guide them in this stage by helping them connect their career goals with broader concepts and industry trends, fostering strategic thinking and planning skills.

Continuing with our example, the marketing intern might delve into marketing theories and concepts, exploring how their campaign aligns with broader marketing strategies. They may analyze consumer behavior models, seeking to understand the underlying motivations driving audience engagement. Through abstract conceptualization, they deepen their understanding of marketing principles and refine their approach to future campaigns.

Active experimentation: Applying knowledge in real-world contexts

Finally, learners move on to Active Experimentation—a phase where they translate conceptual understanding into action. This stage encourages individuals to test hypotheses, explore innovative approaches, and apply their newfound knowledge and skills in practical settings.

65% of Gen Z employees prefer learning on the job through programs like internships, skill workshops, and job shadowing programs. Mentors play a pivotal role in facilitating active experimentation by providing opportunities for hands-on learning and skill development. Mentors can empower mentees to apply their knowledge in real-world contexts, fostering confidence and adaptability.

Our marketing intern, now equipped with theoretical insights, returns to the drawing board to refine their campaign strategy. They implement new tactics, experiment with different messaging techniques, and monitor campaign performance metrics. Through active experimentation, they refine their marketing prowess, adapt to evolving market dynamics, and drive tangible results for their organization.

Applying the experiential learning cycle in mentoring relationships

In mentoring relationships, mentors play a crucial role in guiding mentees through each stage of the experiential learning cycle. Mentoring begins with mentors orchestrating immersive experiences tailored to the specific learning objectives and developmental needs of their mentees.

For instance, a seasoned marketer mentoring our intern may provide opportunities for hands-on project management, encouraging them to lead cross-functional teams and navigate real-world marketing challenges. Following each experiential encounter, mentors facilitate reflective discussions, helping mentees extract insights and lessons learned.

Together, mentor and mentee embark on a journey of continuous learning and improvement, leveraging the power of experiential learning to unlock new possibilities and realize their full potential.

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The role of reflection in learning

Reflection serves as a cornerstone of the experiential learning cycle, bridging the gap between experience and understanding. Mentees engage in reflective practices to critically examine their experiences, identify patterns, and gain deeper insights into their strengths, weaknesses, and areas for growth.

By fostering self-awareness and introspection, reflection enables mentees to extract maximum value from their experiences and enhance their learning outcomes.

Translating learning into actionable steps

A key objective of the experiential learning cycle is to translate learning into actionable steps. Mentors collaborate with mentees to identify practical applications of their learning in real-world contexts, developing concrete action plans and strategies for implementation.

This empowers mentees to take ownership of their learning journey and effect positive change in their lives.

Iterative learning and continuous improvement

Experiential learning is inherently iterative, emphasizing the importance of ongoing reflection, experimentation, and refinement. Mentoring relationships provide a supportive environment for mentees to engage in continuous learning and improvement.

Mentors encourage mentees to embrace challenges, learn from failures, and adapt their approaches based on feedback and experience. This iterative process fosters a mindset of continuous improvement, enabling mentees to achieve their goals and aspirations.

In conclusion, leveraging experiential learning cycles in mentoring relationships offers a structured and dynamic approach to learning and development. By guiding mentees through each stage of the cycle—from reflection to action—mentors empower them to harness the full potential of their experiences and achieve meaningful growth and success.

Book a free demo to see how Together’s mentoring platform can unlock experiential learning opportunities.

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