The Experiential Learning Model (ELM) in the Military

The Experiential Learning Model (ELM) is a form of learning founded on the principle of gaining knowledge from experiences. This learning method includes active participation that allows those involved to absorb material better. As a result of this interactive learning style, learners develop into critical thinkers as they adapt to a variety of firsthand situations. The critical thinking and strategy development component of ELM makes this a powerful learning model for the military. As those in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard are faced with physical and mental challenges, experiential learning promotes a greater understanding and takeaways of knowledge from experiences. The ELM can be applied to military training in a four-step cycle described by David Kolb:


  1. Concrete Experience

In the first stage of the ELM cycle, the learner faces a new experience he or she has never encountered before. Military training or bootcamp is a perfect example of this step. The purpose of the military’s extensive training is to expose troops to circumstances and practices they have never experienced. This takes place through various methods of self-discipline, teamwork and field training, along with introduction to skills such as combat, night training, weaponry or marksmanship. During this stage, troops begin the learning process simply by engaging in the activity or training. The same can be said for new encounters or experiences during real combat.


  1. Reflective Observation

Next, the learner reflects on the new experience. During this stage, the learner evaluates the situation as “experience versus understanding” and indicates any contradictions. After being exposed to a new method or a skill during training, troops begin to understand the underlying process. Prior to starting boot camp or training, there might have been preconceived notions about one of the skill sets, or an individual might have held contradictory thoughts during the experience. The period following this occurrence allows time to reflect on and debrief on the reality of the situation.


  1. Abstract Conceptualism

As a result of the reflection stage, the learner forms his or her own thought or concept. From here, the learner is then able to gather conclusions based on the conceptual understanding. By undergoing an experience such as military training or an unexpected occurrence in combat and taking time to properly reflect, troops are able to better process information and form a solid conclusion. This can confer cause-and-effect understandings, logistical reasoning insights or a better comprehension of the fundamentals of a new tactic or weapon.


  1. Active Experimentation

Lastly, the learner tests what was learned in order to generalize the concept for application in other situations. Hypothesis trials are performed by the learner with the gained knowledge to further encounter new experiences. From drills and physical fitness training to strategy and marksmanship, experiential learning provides those in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard with a strong foundation that grows over time as new concepts are learned, experienced and mastered. These new experiences are then translated to similar circumstances and settings that align with the same logistical and strategic goals.


Similar to continuous process improvement, this cycle is constantly repeated and refined for learners to gain valuable, accurate knowledge. Active Experimentation feeds back into Concrete Experience as a reinterpretation of an experience already encountered. In all, this cycle embodies an adult learning process that yields knowledge from experience and becomes actionable information.


Looking to take your unit’s training to the next level? Enroll in one of the Institute for Defense and Business’ programs to engage in experiential learning and become educated on how the ELM can be better integrated into your training and defense logistics. Industry Based Broadening: Logistics is designed for high-potential O-4 officers to optimize Enterprise Resources Planning systems (ERP). Learn to turn experiences into logistics knowledge with IDB!


About the Institute for Defense and Business

The Institute for Defense and Business (IDB) delivers educational programs and research to teach, challenge and inspire leaders who work with and within the defense enterprise to achieve next-level results for their organization. IDB features curriculum in Logistics, Supply Chain and Life Cycle Management, Complex Industrial Leadership, Strategic Studies, Global Business and Defense Studies, Continuous Process Improvement, and Stabilization and Economic Reconstruction. Visit or contact us on our website for more information.





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