Promoting Experiential Learning in Group Counseling

Jeff E. Brooks-Harris, Ph.D.
Counseling and Student Development Center
University of Hawai'i at Manoa

Program presented at ACPA / NASPA Joint Convention
March 21, 1997, Chicago, Illinois

David Kolb (1984) proposed a model of experiential learning that describes a cycle of learning which includes concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. These four modes can be used to represent the ends of two continua referred to as perception (anchored by concrete experience and abstract conceptualization) and processing (anchored by active experimentation and reflective observation)(McCarthy, 1980). When these two dimensions are arranged as perpendicular axes, four quadrants are created that can describe learning processes and individual learning styles. When this model is applied to group counseling or other interactive learning environments, four types of experiential learning can be identified (See Figure 1). I will be referring to these learning process quadrants as: Reflecting on Experience, Assimilating and Conceptualizing, Experimenting and Practicing and Planning for Application. These learning processes will be described next and group counseling techniques that can be used to promote each type of learning will follow.

The practicality of applying Kolb's model of experiential learning to group counseling is threefold. First, this model suggests multiple group learning processes that can occur within a single session rather than focusing on broader processes that occur across the life of the group such as Yalom's (1985) therapeutic factors. Second, by suggesting different types of learning that complete a cycle of learning, this model encourages group facilitators to create comprehensive learning encounters within each group sessions that will impact members more deeply than if only one or two types of learning are emphasized. Third, by emphasizing the need to create different types of learning within group counseling, the group is more likely to meet the primary learning needs of individuals with different learning styles.

1. Reflecting on Experience calls upon learners to recall their own experience related to current learning. This activates the knowledge a learner already possesses and increases attention and motivation for new learning. This learning process builds a bridge from the past to the current learning environment. Reflecting on experience is expected to result in recognition of universality and instillation of hope (Yalom, 1985).

a. Sharing by Members - Members are encouraged to share about either recent events or past struggles that continue to impact them. Example: Start the group with a check-in and have members report about their weeks, paying particular attention to following up on any plans for action that were made the past week.

b. Identification of Theme - It is often helpful for the group facilitator to identify the theme that one or more group members are exploring. This encourages the recognition of similarity or universality. Example: Common themes that come up in groups that can be highlighted by a facilitator include social isolation, self-doubts, unrecognized or unexpressed feelings, self-defeating thoughts or behaviors, or unfulfilled hopes or dreams.

c. Recognition of Similarity - As one group member shares, others are encouraged to reflect on times when they have had similar experiences, thoughts or feelings. Technique: “Reflect Around” As one member shares about feeling socially isolated, the facilitator asks other group members to think about and verbally identify times when they have each felt isolated. Technique: “Group Survey” The facilitator asks group members to raise their hand to indicate whether they have shared a common experience. For example, after one group member shares about fear of failure, group members are asked how many others have secretly feared that they would not succeed.

2. Assimilating and Conceptualizing provides learners with new information, theories or concepts and encourages learners to apply this knowledge to their own life experience. There is a reciprocal process in which the new concepts enhance a learner's self understanding and the process of comparing the concepts to oneself helps a learner understand the concepts more deeply. This learning process builds a bridge between theoretical concepts and individual experience. Assimilating and conceptualizing is similar to Yalom's (1985) therapeutic factor of imparting information.

a. Learning from other Group Members - An individual can ask for input from other group members that may include advice, suggestions or resources. Example: When discussing separation from parents, a group member asks for suggestions about setting appropriate limits.

b. Conceptual Template - A facilitator may suggest the use of concepts, categories or language that may help clarify group content. Example: If one or more group members are expressing a desire not to let themselves be pushed around, it may be helpful for the facilitator to talk about and define the concepts of passive, aggressive and assertive behavior.

3. Experimenting and Practicing allows learners to try new behaviors and practice new skills within the context of a supportive learning environment. There is also the opportunity for suggestions and feedback from other learners. This learning process builds a bridge from abstract ideas to specific behaviors. Experimenting and practicing is related to several of Yalom's (1985) therapeutic factors including development of socializing techniques, imitative behavior, catharsis and interpersonal learning.

a. Experiments within Group - A group member is encouraged to try new behavior within the group that they may not usually display. Example: A group member who has a hard time giving compliments is encouraged to go around the group and tell each other member something that they like or appreciate.

b. Role Playing - In preparing for new behavior outside the group, a group member uses other members to rehearse and to generate ideas to be used in the future. Example: A group member who is anxious about asking someone out on a date has a chance to practice what to say with another member playing the role of the potential date. Other group members can provide feedback or suggestions.

c. Psychodramatic Experiments - A group member may act out past conflicts or a symbolic representation of internal conflicts. Example: A group member confronts his dead mother and tells her that he can no longer actively grieve her and that he must move on with his life.

4. Planning for Application identifies areas of personal relevance and encourages learners to prepare for the transition from the group learning environment to real life. Specificity of planning increases the likelihood of transfer of learning. This learning process builds a bridge from the group to concrete experience in the future. Planning for application increases the likelihood that interpersonal learning will be generalized outside of the group.

a. Generalizing and Applying - Group members identify areas where the things discussed in group can be generalized and applied. Example: After talking about ways of controlling anger, members identify areas where each method would be most helpful.

b. Planning for Action - Group members make specific plans for changes they will make as a result of learning in group. Example: After talking about friendship development, each group member shares one thing they plan to do to reach out to a friend during the coming week.

Case Example

I have found the application of Kolb's model of experiential learning to group counseling to be a useful guide to strategies that can occur within a single group counseling session. The following is a recent example of a group session in which my co-facilitator and I were able to promote all four experiential learning processes in one session:

Reflecting on Experience

Identification of Theme. During the second session of a men's counseling group, two members mentioned concerns related to anger at check-in. After one member had described a recent experience, anger was identified as a common theme by one of the facilitators. This theme was described in a way that optimized the universality of the emotion while recognizing that different situations or events will lead to anger for different members and that methods of expression would also differ.

Reflect Around. After the theme was identified, one of the facilitators asked the group members to go around the circle and each identify things that most frequently make them angry. Commonalties within the theme were identified before focusing again on concerns of individual group members.

Assimilating and Conceptualizing

Conceptual Template. After one member had talked about how anger sometimes is a response to fear, one of the facilitators described the pattern in which men frequently experience or express anger in place of more vulnerable emotions such as fear or sadness. After suggesting this conceptual template, the facilitator suggested another reflect around during which group members disclosed whether this pattern was true for them and described the types of vulnerable emotions that were frequently masked by anger.

Experimenting and Practicing

Role Playing. One member of the group described a recent situation in which he felt afraid but responded with anger and swearing. This member was asked by one of the facilitators if he would like to participate in an experiment in which he would get a chance to replay the situation the way he would like to have behaved. The member was encouraged to choose two other group members as actors to play the roles of others in the situation. The member then acted out the scene in a new way allowing him to experiment with new ways of behaving and practice this behavior in a supportive environment. When the member felt stuck, the facilitators encouraged him to ask for suggestions from the group. Feedback from group members was encouraged after the role play.

Planning for Application

Action Plan. At the end of the group, members were encouraged to set personal goals regarding the way they would like to deal with anger and other emotions during the coming week. At check-in the following week, group members were given the opportunity to update the group on how well they accomplished their goals.


Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

McCarthy, B. (1980). The 4MAT System: Teaching to Learning Styles with Right / Left Mode Techniques. Barrington, IL: Excel, Inc.

Yalom, I. D. (1985). The theory and practice of group psychotherapy. (3rd ed.) New York: Basic Books.

Promoting Experiential Learning in Group Counseling
Action Plan

1. Please reflect on the groups you have facilitated in the past and estimate the proportion of time and energy that your groups typically spend on each of the following learning processes (the total should equal 100%):

_____ % Reflecting on Experience

_____ % Assimilating and Conceptualizing

_____ % Experimenting and Practicing

_____ % Planning for Application

_____ % Other: _____________________

2. Ideally, I would like my groups to focus on different types of learning in the following proportion (the total should equal 100%):

_____ % Reflecting on Experience

_____ % Assimilating and Conceptualizing

_____ % Experimenting and Practicing

_____ % Planning for Application

_____ % Other: _____________________

3. For each of the techniques discussed today please mark each with one of the following letters indicating your plan (or lack of plan) to use the technique in the future:

C - Continue to use technique at current level

A - Add this technique to my repertoire

I - Increase my use of this technique

X - Not interested in using this technique

1. Reflecting on Experience

_____ a. Sharing by Members

_____ b. Identification of Theme

_____ c. Recognition of Similarity

_____ “Reflect Around”

_____ “Group Survey”

2. Assimilating & Conceptualizing

_____ a. Learning from other Group Members

_____ b. Conceptual Template

3. Experimenting & Practicing

_____ a. Experiments within Group

_____ b. Role Playing

_____ c. Psychodramatic Experiments

4. Planning for Application

_____ a. Generalizing and Applying

_____ b. Planning for Action

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