Experiential Learning

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Experiential Learning“Experiential [learning] is a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, and clarify values” (Association for Experiential Education, 2011, para. 2).

Experiential learning is also referred to as learning through action, learning by doing, learning through experience, and learning through discovery and exploration, all which are clearly defined by these well-known maxims:

I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.
~ Confucius, 450 BC

Tell me and I forget, Teach me and I remember, Involve me and I will learn.
~ Benjamin Franklin, 1750

There is an intimate and necessary relation between the process of actual experience and education.
~ John Dewey, 1938

In their book, Teaching for Experiential Learning, Wurdinger and Carlson (2010) found that most college faculty teach by lecturing because few of them learned how to teach otherwise. Although good lecturing should be part of an educator’s teaching repertoire, faculty should also actively involve their students “in the learning process through discussion, group work, hands-on participation, and applying information outside the classroom” (p. 2). This process defines experiential learning where students are involved in learning content in which they have a personal interest, need, or want.

Learning through experience is not a new concept for the college classroom. Notable educational psychologists such as John Dewey (1859-1952), Carl Rogers (1902-1987), and David Kolb (b. 1939) have provided the groundwork of learning theories that focus on “learning through experience or “learning by doing.” Dewey popularized the concept of Experiential Education which focuses on problem solving and critical thinking rather than memorization and rote learning. Rogers considered experiential learning “significant” as compared to what he called “meaningless” cognitive learning. Kolb also noted that concrete learning experiences are critical to meaningful learning and is well known for his Learning Style Inventory (LSI) which is widely used in many disciplines today to help identify preferred ways of learning. A key element of experiential learning, therefore, is the student, and that learning takes place (the knowledge gained) as a result of being personally involved in this pedagogical approach.

The Experiential Learning Process

Experiential learning involves a number of steps that offer students a hands-on, collaborative and reflective learning experience which helps them to “fully learn new skills and knowledge” (Haynes, 2007). Although learning content is important, learning from the process is at the heart of experiential learning. During each step of the experience, students will engage with the content, the instructor, each other as well as self–reflect and apply what they have learned in another situation.

The following describes the steps that comprise experiential learning as noted by (Haynes, 2007, para. 6 and UC Davis, 2011):

Experiencing/Exploring “Doing”
Students will perform or do a hands-on, minds-on experience with little or no help from the instructor. Examples might include: Making products or models, role-playing, giving a presentation, problem-solving, playing a game. A key facet of experiential learning is what the student learns from the experience rather than the quantity or quality of the experience.

Sharing/Reflecting “What Happened?”
Students will share the results, reactions and observations with their peers. Students will also get other peers to talk about their own experience, share their reactions and observations and discuss feelings generated by the experience. The sharing equates to reflecting on what they discovered and relating it to past experiences which can be used for future use.

Processing/Analyzing “What’s Important?”
Students will discuss, analyze and reflect upon the experience. Describing and analyzing their experiences allow students to relate them to future learning experiences. Students will also discuss how the experience was carried out, how themes, problems and issues emerged as a result of the experience. Students will discuss how specific problems or issues were addressed and identify recurring themes.

Generalizing “So What?”
Students will connect the experience with real world examples, find trends or common truths in the experience, and identify “real life” principles that emerged.

Application “Now What?”
Students will apply what they learned in the experience (and what they learned from past experiences and practice) to a similar or different situation. Also, students will discuss how the newly learned process can be applied to other situations. Students will discuss how issues raised can be useful in future situations and how more effective behaviors can develop from what they learned. The instructor should help each student feel a sense of ownership for what was learned.

Instructor Roles in Experiential Learning

In experiential learning, the instructor guides rather than directs the learning process where students are naturally interested in learning. The instructor assumes the role of facilitator and is guided by a number of steps crucial to experiential learning as noted by (Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010, p. 13):

  1. Be willing to accept a less teacher-centric role in the classroom.
  2. Approach the learning experience in a positive, non-dominating way.
  3. Identify an experience in which students will find interest and be personally committed.
  4. Explain the purpose of the experiential learning situation to the students.
  5. Share your feelings and thoughts with your students and let them know that you are learning from the experience too.
  6. Tie the course learning objectives to course activities and direct experiences so students know what they are supposed to do.
  7. Provide relevant and meaningful resources to help students succeed.
  8. Allow students to experiment and discover solutions on their own.
  9. Find a sense of balance between the academic and nurturing aspects of teaching.
  10. Clarify students’ and instructor roles.

Student Roles in Experiential Learning

Qualities of experiential learning are those in which learners decide themselves to be personally involved in the learning experience (students are actively participating in their own learning and have a personal role in the direction of learning). Students are not completely left to teach themselves; however, the instructor assumes the role of guide and facilitates the learning process. The following list of student roles has been adapted from (UC-Davis, 2011 and Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010):

  1. Students will be involved in problems which are practical, social and personal.
  2. Students will be allowed freedom in the classroom as long as they make headway in the learning process.
  3. Students will often be involved with difficult and challenging situations while discovering.
  4. Students will self-evaluate their own progress or success in the learning process which becomes the primary means of assessment.
  5. Students will learn from the learning process and become open to change. This change includes less reliance on the instructor and more on fellow peers, the development of skills to investigate (research) and learn from an authentic experience, and the ability to objectively self-evaluate one’s performance.

Integrating Experiential Learning (EL) in Teaching

As previously noted, a primary role for instructors is to identify a situation which challenges students through problem-solving, cooperation, collaboration, self-discovery and self-reflection. At the same time, decide what the students should learn or gain from the learning experience. Below are some primary points to consider when integrating experiential learning in your own teaching:

Plan. Once the EL experience has been decided upon, plan the experience by tying it to the course learning objectives and determine what students will need to complete successfully the exercise (resources such as readings and worksheets, research, rubrics, supplies and directions to off-campus locations, etc.). Also, determine the logistics: how much time will be allotted for the students to complete the experience (a complete class session, one week or more)? Will students need to gain the experience outside of class? How will the experience end? What forms of assessment will you employ? Will you use ongoing assessments such as observations and journals (called formative assessment), end of the experience assessments such as written reports and projects (called summative assessment), self and/or peer assessments, or a combination of all three?

Prepare. After the planning has been completed, prepare materials, rubrics, and assessment tools and ensure that everything is ready before the experience begins.

Facilitate. As with most instructional strategies, the instructor should commence the experience. Once begun, you should refrain from providing students with all of the content and information and complete answers to their questions. Instead, guide students through the process of finding and determining solutions for themselves.

Evaluate. Success of an experiential learning activity can be determined during discussions, reflections and a debriefing session. Debriefing, as a culminating experience, helps reinforce and extend the learning process. In addition, make use of the assessment strategies previously planned.


Experiential learning experiences help to complete students’ preparation for their chosen careers which reinforce course content and theory. Students learn through student- rather than instructor-centered experiences by doing, discovering, reflecting and applying. Through these experiences students develop communication skills and self confidence and gain and strengthen decision-making skills by responding to and solving real world problems and processes.

Would you like to learn more about ways you can integrate experiential learning
in your own teaching? Attending the following program:

Creating Transformative Education Through Experiential Learning

by Patrick M. Green, Ed.D., Loyola University Chicago on Thursday, January 12, 2012
Sponsored by Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center

More information and how to register for this program will become available at http://www.niu.edu/facdev in November 2011


Association for Experiential Education (2011). What is experiential learning? Retrieved from

Haynes, C. (2007). Experiential learning: Learning by doing. Retrieved from http://adulteducation.wikibook.us/index.php?title=Experiential_Learning_-_Learning_by_Doing

University of California Davis (UC Davis). (2011). 5-step experiential learning cycle definitions. Retrieved from http://www.experientiallearning.ucdavis.edu/module1/el1_40-5step-definitions.pdf

Wurdinger, S. D., & Carlson, J. A. (2010). Teaching for experiential learning: Five approaches that work. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Experiential Learning (EL) Resources

Association for Experiential Education

Cornell University Experiential Learning Report web site – Selected examples of EL programs http://cals.cornell.edu/teaching/elr/report.cfm

Experiential Learning Center, Northern Illinois University, College of Business

International Consortium for Experiential Learning

Journal of Experiential Education

National Society for Experiential Education

Neill, J. (2010). Experiential learning cycles: Overview of 9 experiential learning cycle models. http://www.wilderdom.com/experiential/elc/ExperientialLearningCycle.htm

Northern Illinois University, Office of Students Engagement and Experiential Learning

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning

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