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How To Facilitate Experiential Activities

Many courses focus on simply telling participants “the facts,” and then rely on learner’s listening skills of to enable the transfer of knowledge. This reliance on telling ignores the reality that many people do not find it easy to learn from hearing information, but prefer to learn through involvement and active engagement. 

Experiential activities are an alternative to traditional teaching and can also support it. They can motivate and promote interest, and put fun into learning. They can provoke attitude change and lead to greater understanding and participation. They can also aid in the acquisition of critical thinking, information analysis, questioning skills, interpersonal communication, and problem identification and solving.

When conducting experiential activities, there is no need to be the sole expert—the participants will also teach, and learn, from each other. The two most important things to understand regarding an experiential activity are logistics and debrief. Logistics includes how to explain, set up, and run the activity. Debriefing is a method of questioning that brings out participant realizations as to the deeper meaning of the activity and how it relates to their own experience.

To ensure your participants get the most out of experiential activities, use the following three step process to conduct them: briefing, action, debrief.


• Introduce the activity.
• Describe the roles. 
• Describe the overall process.
• Ask what questions there are regarding roles and the process

During setup, describe the general characteristics of the activity, but never state what will be learned as a result of taking part in the activity.


Stay out of the way unless there is a specific role for the facilitator during the activity. If something goes wrong, such as participants appear lost or are not obeying the rules of the activity, you may step in to review the information from the briefing. Otherwise, your role should be to observe and listen for comments that can be pointed out during the debrief.


The debrief is where you draw the learning out of the participants. This is usually done by asking a series of reflective questions (created by John Driscoll and popularized by Terry Borton) that fall under the headings, What? So What? Now What?  Each phase is important for maximum absorption of the learning, so don’t rush ahead. 


What? The first step is to have the participants reflect on what happened during the activity. Encourage participants to describe the action from their own point of view. If there were multiple roles in the activity, ask the participants to explain what happened from the viewpoint of each of the roles. 

Now is also the time to answer any questions about the process of the activity. Allowing the participants to reflect on and discuss the activity helps clear the excitement of the activity and lets them start the realization process. Typical questions include:

• What happened?
• How do you feel? 
• What challenges did you encounter?
• What successes did you have?

Avoid describing the process for the participants. If you are having trouble getting participants to open up, repeat back some of the comments you heard during the activity that described the actions and attitudes of the participants. For example, “I’m trying to tell you!” or “No, that’s not the way to do it!”

So What? In this step, the goal is to get the participants to identify the learning of the activity. Again, avoid moving into the next step without fully exploring the learning of the activity. Although you may be tempted to offer your opinion or explain the realizations that should come out of the activity, refrain from doing so. Again, any comments that participants made during the exercise can be shared. Also, don’t be afraid of silence. After asking a question, allow participants time to consider their answers. Question you might ask include:

• Why do you think things turned out the way they did?
• Folks in role A, knowing what you now know, what would you do differently or the same? (Repeat for other roles.)
• What conclusions can you draw from what happened?

Now What? Now that what happened has been thoroughly explored, it is time to make connections to the real-world work environment. Again, it’s best for the participants to make this connection rather than the facilitator pointing it out. This will cement the learning in the minds of the participants. Questions to ask include:

• What are some parallels between what happened in the activity and your work environment?
• Ever have a similar challenge or success at in life or at work?
• What will you do differently at work as a result of what you learned in this activity?
• What will you continue to do at work as a result of what you learned in this activity?

By searching online, you will find many suggested debrief questions; however, you must be able to conduct the debrief based on what happens during the actual activity, and those actions may vary. By using the What? So What? Now What? method of debriefing, you will facilitate the completion of the learning process begun by the activity.

© 2017 ATD, Alexandria, VA. All rights reserved.

About the Author
David has more than two decades of experience as a training leader, instructional designer, facilitator, e-learning designer, and project manager with world-class companies including Disney, Merck, and Assurant. He is an experienced consultant to senior leadership with deep experience in learning strategy, curriculum development, corporate cultural transformation, leadership and executive development, and team alignment. Adelman's experience includes creating comprehensive, branded, measurable training processes for organizations that are integrated with the talent management process, address performance gaps, and minimize costs while maximizing return on investment. He is currently a relationship manager with TrainingPros, president of Adelman Training Solutions, and a director of community relations with Atlanta ATD. 
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