Experiential Learning Theory and Mental Health…Is There a Connection?

As a therapist, one of my professional goals is that the people I work with will leave therapy with a greater understanding of the issues that brought them to see me, as well as tools to cope if the challenge should occur in the future.  As a way to work towards this understanding and skill development, I often ask clients to complete homework assignments.  The assignments may be to reflect on part of our discussion, practice a new skill or write a letter (not to be sent) to a difficult person.   Over time, I have found that clients’ willingness to complete homework outside of our sessions has a positive influence on their therapeutic success.  Because of a presentation I recently heard on Experiential Learning Theory, I now have a clue as to why.

What Is Experiential Learning Theory (ELT)?

Simply put, the theory is based on the idea that people learn through “discovery and experience”.

Imagine that you want to learn how to ride a bike.  If someone told you how to ride a bike or you read “Bike Riding for First-timers”, you could gain theoretical knowledge about physical balance or types of bikes. You may even get an idea of how to fix a bike, but would this information be useful in fulfilling your desire to race through the neighbourhood on your own steam?

Instead, now imagine that you are standing beside your ‘new-to-you’ bike.  You are brimming with determination to start riding.  My guess is that you would be using a process of ‘trial and error’ to figure out how master this new skill.  Learning would involve finding ways to sit on the seat, pedal, turn and stop–while not falling off.  It would take time, and while a book or lecture could be helpful, their content may make more sense after your had the experience of actually playing with your bike.  This is experiential learning!

David Kolb and the Experiential Learning Cycle (Kolb Learning Cycle)

In 1984, David Kolb (social psychologist) coined the term “experiential learning” when he published Experiential Learning:  Experience as the Source of Learning and Development.

Kolb’s cycle has four parts:  experience (doing something), reflection (review what was experienced), conceptualization/generalization (making sense of what happened and the relationships between these elements, and experimentation (putting what was learned into practice).  When we see how what we learned is useful in our lives, we’re more likely to retain the knowledge.  The gift of this cycle is that it is a cycle–we can keep repeating the process as a way to fine-tune our knowledge when learning a new skill.

Let’s return to the bicycle example–you want to learn how to ride your bike.  To begin (experiential stage), you straddle the bike, sit on the seat and put a foot on a peddle.  So far, so good.  However, as soon as you start to lift your second foot off the ground, you feel a loss of balance and find yourself on the ground!  The reflective stage starts as you think about what just happened (one second sitting on your bike, the next lying on the ground).  As you make sense of this experience (conceptualization/generalization) you may be thinking about how unsteady you felt as you moved for the second peddle.  You may decide to go back to “Bike Riding for First-timers” and re-read the section on balance–this time with a new perspective.  Finally, after your bruises have healed, you will return to your bike and apply what you have learned (experimentation).  As you repeat this cycle, you will roaring around the streets in no time!

What Does ELT Have To Do With Mental Health?

As I was listening to the presentation, I was thinking not only about how this could explain the success of therapy homework, but also how it could affect the development of phobias and be used in their treatment.

Phobias are learned behaviours–based on previous experiences.  Common treatments for phobias are Exposure Therapy (treating the avoidance behaviour by helping individuals to slowly become acclimatized to the phobic trigger) and Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT)(exploring thoughts around the feared object, as well as develop alternative beliefs about the phobia and its effects on their life).

If we bring in the Experiential Learning Cycle, can the Learning Cycle help to explain the creation of a phobia?  There was the original experience (for example being bitten by a small dog).  A time of reflection–“I was just bitten by a small dog!” followed by conceptualization/generalization–I put my hand out and a small dog bit me, so small dogs bite.  Finally, experimentation when we put what was learned into practice–“I’m staying away from small dogs!”… and a phobia may be born.

On the other side, does CBT and  Exposure Therapy use ELT concepts to help people explore and unlearn the basis of the phobia–especially when used together?

I’ll Keep Suggesting Homework

Experiential Learning Theory has confirmed for me the value of therapy homework, as the homework is assigned based on a specific client experience.

Let’s take the example an argument with a co-worker.  In therapy we would reflect on the argument, look at past incidents with the co-worker, and talk about emotions connected to this event.  We would explore possible ideas of what could be done differently in the future.  We may move into role-playing a specific communication skill or conversation.  The resulting homework would be to practice the skill, and perhaps, have the conversation with the co-worker.  The cycle continues at the following session when we debrief the homework, fine-tune and explore where to move from that point.

Experiential Learning Theory In Practice

Here’s a great example of experiential learning.  Thankfully, most people don’t have this experience on network television!  Warning…there are lots of bleeps due to language.  Enjoy!

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