by Matt Minahan
September, 2004


An immediate form of experiential learning is the Laboratory setting. One might argue that this form of learning is closest to the experience our clients have when working with an OD Consultant!


Traditional learning methods assume that one person (the teacher) has some knowledge, and the job is to transfer this knowledge into another person (the student). The teacher lectures and explains and gives tests; the student listens, takes notes, goes through the drills, and takes the tests so the teacher can see whether s/he has learned.

Laboratory learning methods assume that knowledge has to be discovered by the learner, if it is to mean anything to her, make a difference in her behavior. Here the teacher's job is to set up conditions where the learner can experiment, try things out, see what works, and generalize for himself. The test of learning is not responses on a test, but whether the discovered learning makes any difference in the learner's life.

The learning process doesn't always proceed smoothly or logically, but usually has these features. She or he:

1. Observes -- looks at what's happening in the group.

2. Figures out what may be needed in the way of behavior that will be helpful to the group or herself.

3. Takes action, get involved in what's going on. Such actions are not usually as calculated as this implies. They may be anything from frowning to suggesting a group activity to telling a joke.

4. Gets feedback, or report of how her action affected others in the group.

5. Generalizes what was learned: the learning may be of many kinds -- how an effective group works together, how I effect a group, how a group effects my own feelings and reactions.

This learning process is basically experimental, thus the name "laboratory" for what we are doing. Learning proceeds as above in a repeated cycle, as the learner, over and over again, tries out things in the group to see what works and why.

A good atmosphere is essential if learning is to proceed effectively - an atmosphere which makes it easy to try things out, easy to get feedback that is helpful and teaches us something. Such an atmosphere is often difficult to achieve on the job, as our guards are up, and comments from other people about our behavior are taken as attacks or jokes. Here are some essential features of the laboratory atmosphere:

1. Not for keeps. but for real. At the lab, the chips are not down as they are back on the job. Yet the situation is not artificial. It' as real as the other people sitting around the table.

2. Understanding not evaluation. Here we are trying to think, to understand more clearly what goes on in groups, and how individuals work together. We work hard not to make good-bad judgements.

3. Experimental attitude. The basic idea is that answers are found by trying things out and seeing what happens. An effective laboratory group usually has such an attitude, rather than assuming that all the answers are known ahead of time.

4. Shared responsibility. At the lab, learning goes best when each person assumes that he has the right to try things out, step in and act, do things, rather than waiting for someone else to do it. In summary, the job of the learner in a training laboratory is an active one. Learning goes best when she is able to be herself, practicing her usual or typical actions plus trying on new ones, listen to feedback from others, and thinks out loud about what she is learning about group and individual behavior. As work goes forward in the laboratory group, people often try out new or non-typical actions in the group to see what happens and what can be learned.

And since responsibility in the laboratory is a shared thing, the learner has two other important jobs: (1) giving straight forward feedback to others, and the group as a whole; (2) helping to set up methods and ground rules in the group which make it easy to get and give feedback. (Such methods may include giving feedback whenever it's relevant, using observers, having feedback periods, listening to tape, and others.) The main idea is that the laboratory group member works to set up conditions where everyone can learn what she wants to about groups and her contribution to them.


Matt Minahan, EdD is an external consultant and teaches in the business school at Johns Hopkins University. He lives in the Washington DC area. Matt can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.