ATD Blog

What Is Cafeteria Learning?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Imagine a world in which restaurants gave you only one choice. “This is what you’re getting, and you’d better like it!” the waiter snarls as he places a plate of spaghetti in front of you. You used to love dining out—until now. We cannot help but cringe when we imagine a world of choice-less restaurants—not only because we like food way too much, but also because this scenario resembles today’s learning and development field.

Most organizations serve up learning programs that, even when masterfully prepared, lack an essential ingredient: choice. Enter Cafeteria Learning.

Cafeteria Learning brings together the best of the experiential, constructivist, and action learning approaches and bakes in an important brain-based twist: choice. What if instead of walking into a training event and seeing rows of chairs with an instructor waiting at the front of the room, your learners were surprised to find interactive stations stocked with hands-on materials? What if instead of sitting and listening to a lecturer read off words on presentation slides, your learners were free to explore and absorb the content at their own speed and direction? And what if instead of being given only one option for learning, your learners could choose from a variety of learner-centered activities, just like they might choose from a variety of food in a cafeteria?  

How Cafeteria Learning Works 

Think of Cafeteria Learning as a complete dining experience rather than a grab-n-go meal. With Cafeteria Learning you begin with an appetizer (priming), move on to the main course (activities), and finish with dessert (debrief).

For instance, Cafeteria Learning workshops begin with a priming activity that engages learners and gets them thinking about the content. This not only prepares learners for the learning that’s to come, but it’s also a great way to involve learners from the get-go and make use of the often overlooked first few minutes of a workshop when learners are settling in.


The workshop officially begins with the main course, during which learners spend the most time freely choosing, exploring, and engaging room where learners get to decide which learning activities they want to participate in. Each activity is designed to provide the same content for learners to discover no matter which activity they choose. For the most part, the content, or knowledge, is in these learning activities. By taking a constructivist approach to learning, Cafeteria Learning allows learners to discover and construct their own knowledge as they complete the activities and interact with their colleagues and peers.

Lastly, each workshop ends with a dessert, or debriefing activity, that helps learners synthesize the content and reflect on what it means to them within the context of their day-to-day jobs. An effective d briefing, which facilitates collaborative reflection, can bridge the gap between the workshop content and applying learning back at work.


The experience as a whole is exploratory, allowing learners to build, construct, and discover information and meaning for themselves rather than simply memorizing and reciting it. It emphasizes choice in activities that ultimately leads learners to the same learning outcome regardless of the activities they chose.

With Cafeteria Learning, we’ve carefully selected elements from each of the experiential, constructivist, and action learning theories, added in choice as a twist, and organized it all into an approach that encapsulates what we believe is the best of brain science and learning theory.

Want to Learn More? 

Our new book, Let Them Choose, shows L&D professionals how to get participants out of their seats and into station-based activities catered to distinct learning preferences, interaction types, and technology options. Over the course of the book, we present a start-to-finish guide on what Cafeteria Learning is and how to implement it within your organization.

About the Author

Jillian Douglas is co-founder and chief experience officer for Idea Learning Group. With more than 20 years of experience in adult education, Jillian has a passion for conceptualizing and delivering operational, managerial, and leadership-focused employee development programs. She also facilitates classroom learning and conducts speaking engagements on a wide variety of topics related to adult learning and development. 

About the Author

Shannon McKenzie is co-founder and chief operating officer of Idea Learning Group, where she oversees business operations, leads a talented team of learning consultants, and dishes out daily doses of wit. Shannon has a passion for ensuring that each individual’s learning needs are met clearly, simply, and effectively and helping people perform their work more efficiently and businesses excel.

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