Skilled Trades Training: Learning By Doing

Heavy equipment operator training Ontario, Experiential Learning
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Experiential learning is quite simply ‘learning by doing’, it is an essential of skilled trades training.  In 1984, David A. Kolb, an American educational theorist, presented a model of experiential learning that is found in many discussions concerning adult education, informal education and lifelong learning.  According to Kolb’s theory, the process of experiential learning follows a four-step model (ELM) as outlined below.

The learner physically experiences the skill to be learned and then this experience forms “the basis for observation and reflection”.  The learner can then decide what is working or failing (reflective observation), and think about ways to improve on the next attempt (abstract conceptualization). Every new attempt to perform the skill moves the learner through the cycle.  The previous experience, thought and reflection (active experimentation) encourages the learner to improve the skill during Concrete Experience.

When developing practical exercises for skills training, I have found that the “Reflective Observation” step from the model is the most challenging to put into practice. During my research to find teaching methods, I found a paper written by Clare Morris, Undergraduate Medicine Training Coordinator, from Imperial College in London.  She “explores ways in which active, purposeful observation can be used to structure and guide learning” in health care. Her approach explains how ACTIVE Observation becomes the core approach to clinical teaching. When medical students receive focused observation assignments, their experience is more valuable as opposed to a passive observation which provides little or no direction.

The Experiential Learning Cycle: BUILDING BLOCKS for Skilled Trades Training

Based on the theory of Kolb, and Morris’s paper, 5th Wheel Training Institute has identified the Building Blocks for Experiential Learning as it pertains to skills training for the entry-level truck driver, heavy equipment operator and mechanic’s assistant.  The four building blocks frame how experiential learning is achieved in the skilled trades training environment:

    1. Active ObservationExperientialLearning_1
    2. Knowledge/Theory
    3. Reflection
    4. Application/Practice

Each Building Block is made up of a series of activities which assist the student to continually move throughout the cycle.  Each experience builds on the previous one.  As the learner’s knowledge, skills and attitudes improve, they will meet the vocational objectives for the entry-level operators, drivers and mechanic’s helpers.

Building Block: ACTIVE OBSERVATIONExperientialLearning_Blocks

 A powerful technique  used for teaching the “hands-on” learner

  • An excellent method to encourage adult learners to be more responsible for their education
  • A shift from the teacher as an “expert” to a “facilitator” of learning

The facilitator’s job is to support everyone to do their best.

To do this, the facilitator encourages full participation, provides learning tools, supports everyone’s efforts and provides feedback (how am I doing).  The instructor guides learners towards resources and sources of knowledge just as much as being the sources of knowledge themselves.

The Instructor as Facilitator:

    • Follows the training plan and uses the tools available
    • Keeps the training sessions on time
    • Demonstrates respect
    • Asks rather than tells
    • Listens
    • Observes the group dynamics and ensures all students are treated fairly
    • Makes sure all are participating
    • Draws quiet people out and manages the extroverted learners
    • Keeps clear records
    • Intervenes in a way that adds to the group’s creativity rather than taking away from it

Effectively Using Active Observation in Experiential Learning

    • It’s of little value to say to someone “watch this”. They don’t know what they are looking for.
    • There is a huge range of things that an instructor would want a student to observe.
    • Unless structure is given – students will observe everything at a superficial level.
    • Or they may observe something quite different than what you want them to learn.

Only structure will help focus learning.

  • Learners pay specific attention to one or more behaviours or tasks.
  • It enables learners to look purposefully when observing.


  • WHO to observe?
  • WHAT to observe?
  • HOW to observe?
  • WHY am I observing this (Purpose)?


Tools used for Active Observation
  1. Operation Exercises: The learner is provided with visual and written instructions of the steps of operating exercise that will be performed.
  2. Skills InventoriesThese are checklists of industry standards the learner will be required to perform on the job.  They become a focused guide when observing others operate and objectives to work towards.
  3. Tests: Multiple choice tests are used to verify the level of comprehension.


It goes without saying that a learner cannot operate equipment by trial and error.

One needs to learn best practices in the industry and to demonstrate the standards expected.

Tools used for Knowledge/TheoryExperientialLearning_Blocks
    1. Classroom Courses: The theory portion provides the base on which helps the learner move forward during the application/practice building block.  In addition, these courses ensure the learner has the certification required for the workplace.
    2. Independent Labs: Each lab supports the operation exercises and the classroom knowledge learned.
    3. Safety Talks: Each day, a new safety topic is introduced, to keep safety at the forefront of training and to foster safe work practices.
    4. Tests: Multiple choice tests are used to verify the level of comprehension.

Building Block: REFLECTION

Both Active Observation and Reflection will help learners gain more understanding and knowledge.Reflection is also a build block of the learning cycle.

Tools used for ReflectionExperientialLearning_Blocks
  1. Journal is a tool to assist the learner to
  2. Reflect on the role and responsibilities as an operator
  3. Identify strengths
  4. Identify areas of development
  5. Improve skills
  6. Improve safe work practices.


The knowledge and attitudes acquired from Active Obs
ervation, Knowledge/Theory and Reflection provide a solid foundation. It is now time for the learner to apply them while operating the equipment.

Tools used for Application/PracticeExperientialLearning_Blocks
    1. Equipment Operation: This is the student’s opportunity to apply what was learned and practice new skills and improve on others.
    2. Performance Standards: As the learner progressed, the Performance Standards keep track of the skills learned and the level of performance achieved.


The model proposed works best when there is a fair balance between the Building Blocks.  The instructor, becomes a facilitator of learning, guiding the learner to become more engaged in the learning process.


KOLB, D. A. (1984). Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall.

MORRIS, C. (2003). Teaching and learning through active observation. [Online]. Available: [April 2, 3013].

McKIMM, J. & JOLLIE, C. (2003). Facilitating learning: Teaching and learning methods. [Online]. Available: [April 2, 3013].

Philbin, L. (2013), The Experiential Learning Cycle: BUILDING BLOCKS for the Skilled Trades, 5th Wheel Training Institute, New Liskeard, Ontario.



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