Why Experiential Learning Matters

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The session started off like every other university class. A series of dull announcements about upcoming events, delivered by a teaching assistant with a bit of an impatient edge, set the stage with a series of mundane (but necessary) instructions. I was introduced (“Here’s Chris”).

The circumstances were less than ideal.  Unfortunately, so were the results – and here’s why.

Joining me for my session was the student’s professor – but not only was he their professor, he was also their employer. You see, these students were receiving a stipend for participating in this engineering course, for the summer. My job was to help them to learn how to present more effectively.

But, picture this: These students were presenting in front of their teacher and their boss, simultaneously.

I didn’t realize I had a teaching partner, until class started. Everything was different in the room, on this particular day, and I couldn’t understand why.

Chris Westfall coaching students - experiential learning at Texas A&M University

The scene of the crime.

My coaching (no, not teaching, coaching – I’ll explain in a moment) for students is different than what typically goes on in the classroom. My job is to help student entrepreneurs (in this case, engineering students) to understand how to pitch and present on their business ideas. So, the work I do is referential (lots of demonstration) followed by experiential learning. “Experiential Learning” isn’t based on my experience; that doesn’t really matter.

Because, if I can do something, who cares?

The students have to do it – experience it (whatever “it” is) and grasp the concept in action.

Experiential learning is the exact opposite of lecture-style coursework. I provide some context and guidance, of course, and lots of demonstration, but always in this context: “What would happen if you tried x…?” leaving the discoveries to the students.

That way, I keep my intellect in a box where it belongs.

(I’ll leave it to you to make decisions about how big or small that box might be).


I don’t know if I have a “methodology” or not; I certainly don’t have a lesson plan. I show up with a focus on the students, and an understanding that retention, transfer and understanding can only be seen in action – the actions of the students, not the words of the “teacher”.

Central to my “secret sauce” is this concept, which actually comes from the world of video games:

Failure is a teaching tool.

You pick up the weapon, but it’s not the right one. You talk to the Oracle, you ignore the Elf, you face the dragon. You are learning – you, and you alone – as you have the experiences that lead to insight.

Failure leads to discovery. Perhaps a discovery of your own incompetence, which is a great internal motivator …especially when you make discoveries in front of a room filled with your colleagues and friends.  And then, you discover that no one dies.  You get to try again, and find new ways of reaching a new conclusion.  Not my ways. Yours.

I begin the presentation with a question: “How should I open my presentation?”

I wanted the students to be thinking about how they are going to open their presentation. Instead of the wild participation I usually get (and yes I do find a great deal of participation)…

I get blinking.

Silent stares.

More blinking.

“Lecture us, Sensei!” their silence was silently screaming at me. “Bombard us with the words, we need the words! Teach us like all the others have done before! Our expectations don’t really serve our needs, but they are still our expectations nonetheless!”

What was going on, I wondered? Just two days before, I couldn’t slow anyone down when I asked the group a question – the participation was off-the-charts! What had changed?

It wasn’t until the break, when another staff member explained what I couldn’t see:

The professor who had joined me was more than the student’s evaluator: the students were being paid to participate in this summer class. So he was the guy who passed out grades…and also, paychecks.

Right or wrong, he was quick to judge and comment on the students work. It was his prerogative to interject.  To “teach”, as it were. and it changed the entire dynamic in the classroom.

Now this gent is a friend of mine, and I have a lot of respect for him. He is a brilliant educator, with an expertise in engineering that far exceeds anything I could ever hope to accomplish.

But his presence was like a specter in the room that everyone (except me) could see. The students couldn’t forget about the judgmental eyes and ears, pressing a different agenda than my own, in a much more powerful way.

I tell pretty good stories, I guess…but money talks.  This guy was had the power of the paycheck – and that means: he set the agenda, whether he intended to or not.

When you have to make discoveries in front of your teacher/employer, a willingness to fail is replaced with hesitation. Reservation. Consternation.

Expectations had changed.

The students didn’t control the expectations. The employer did.

In coaching, the “student” always controls the expectations (for me, “student” is not the right word). The outcomes rest with the individual being coached. The results I have achieved are 100% attributable to the expectations that my clients set for themselves.

But today, my agenda didn’t matter. The students’ expectations didn’t matter. There was a greater expectation, and it nearly destroyed what we were trying to accomplish.

When your teacherboss says, “What you need to say is this…” well, You must comply!

Under the rule of the teacherboss, experiential learning turns to rote memorization.  Not discovering new pathways – you have to regurgitate the teachers’ words. Or you FAIL! “The sage on the stage has spoken!” was the new law. “DO THIS – say your lines exactly as the professor told them to you!”

Instead of failure as a teaching tool, now failure was an outcome. An outcome to be avoided. Which meant withdrawal. Fear.  A lack of engagement.  A lack of progress.

Doesn’t that sound like a traditional teaching model, for learning communication skills? You hear from a “communications expert” and you take on the body language and external advice as best you can, but it’s not yours. It’s not internal. It’s not intrinsic. It’s not something you create.

And maybe the external strategy works.

Until it doesn’t.

Because someone else’s ideas are not your ideas.  You don’t own them, so you don’t really care about them.

What’s wrong with this traditional, “do as I say” model? In a word: Everything.

“Say it like I tell you to say it” is an edict. Never mind that the advice was wise counsel; my professor friend is an absolute genius, and what he was saying was right on point.

His advice was well thought out – but the delivery method destroyed its value.  Remember “the medium is the message“?

We went from synthesis to memorization – a backwards trail down Bloom’s taxonomy that drained the air out of the room, and the life out of the students.

My friend, the teacherboss, recognized this fact (after a brief conversation during a break). He moved to the back of the room, out of sight – and out of mind.

And a new thought process took hold for the students. During that portion of the class, participants made mistakes and discoveries.


Nobody had to do anything – which is why the students ended up discovering everything.

When I work with any clients (and yes I consider college students to be clients, because I don’t have a dial that I can adjust from “Juniors” to “Grad students” to “C-level Executives” – I meet each client where they are and reject the labels that don’t serve either of us), I like to see what shows up. And I start there.

I believe that the most effective communication responds to where people are, right now – not to an agenda, a curriculum or (teachers, brace yourselves) even a lesson plan. Because, in my experience, no one gives a sh!t about a well-thought-out agenda.

Here’s my mantra on why coaching is different than teaching – and also, in my experience, why coaching is more effective and more meaningful, for anyone seeking new skills:

  1. Students today want to be recognized for who they are, and where they are. What if they aren’t ready for Chapter 4…or if they need to start on Chapter 7? Are we “locked in” to a plan that doesn’t always fit? Why? Do you really believe that all sophomores are at the same learning level, for any subject you choose? Of course not. But personalization is outside of the toolkit for teachers and professors alike (and I’m not exactly sure why). For some reason, educators believe that a pedantic model (“we have to go step by step”) is what is best. I talk about the origins of this model, and its failures, in my book, BulletProof Branding. It’s time to find a new way of learning – a methodology that focuses on what the students are doing, not what the teacher is saying.
  2. Ask a room full of students, “How many of you value non-traditional teaching methods, and want to be taught in new ways?” and 100% of the lecture-weary students will raise their hands. However, the inmates don’t run the asylum – especially at our venerable institutions of higher learning, where these inmates are institutionalized. Teaching takes place via traditional methods. The same methods that have been in place for centuries. Hmmmm…is it time for an upgrade? We cling to tradition not because of its value; we cling to tradition because we don’t have the ability to access new ways of doing things.
  3. People support what they help to create. Jack Stack said that, in his best-selling book, The Great Game of Business. If students don’t create their own experiences, you are peddling in the land of memorization, not retention.
  4. Students want new experiences, more than ever before. Traditional teaching focuses on what’s gone before. In essence, most lessons are always history lessons. Here’s what Deming discovered. Here’s what Montaigne said about philosophy. That context is important for understanding. But to internalize new ideas, the teaching method is action and experience. That method means, “You try it.” You put new ideas into action – onto paper, or into words at the front of the class. What do you discover?

Perhaps what is discovered is that you are finding the tools to create the future. You build on the past but it is your experiences – your unique experiences – that makes the future come to life. Traditional teaching focuses on the past, and the stories of the Sage on the Stage.  (yawn)

Coaching helps to create an experience that is your own synthesis of what has gone before, with an added element: YOU.

Without your unique experiences, your unique input, your willingness to learn from failure, the best you can hope for is rote memorization. Perhaps learning lines is best left to actors on stage; why not create a real learning experience that goes from memorization…into insight?

You can – all it takes is a different kind of experience.

Photo credit: Camille King. Used under creative commons, some rights reserved.

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