Experiential Learning

Defining experiential learning

At its core, experiential learning is the expression of “learning by doing.” The work of David A. Kolb (1984) is often cited as being foundational to defining the theories and principles which structure the experiential pedagogies.

"Learners, if they are to be effective, need four different kinds of abilities–concrete experience abilities, reflective observation abilities, abstract conceptualization abilities and active experimentation abilities. That is, they must be able to involve themselves fully, openly, and without bias in new experiences. They must be able to reflect on and observe their experiences from many perspectives. They must be able to create concepts that integrate their observations into logically sound theories, and they must be able to use these theories to make decisions and solve problems" (Kolb, 1984).

Experiential learning generates knowledge that comes about through reflection on everyday experiences, some of which may be generated by the learners themselves (Jeffs and Smith 2003). Experiential education involves experiential learning through programs & activities structured by others, often outside of the traditional classroom (Neill, 2006).

Experiential learning's significance

Experiential learning teaches students the competencies they need for real-world success as the public is clamoring for an education that teaches students the competencies they need for real-world success. Although we can simulate the real world in the classroom and laboratory, authentic experiential learning creates an invaluable opportunity to prepare students for a profession or career, learn the craft of a fine artist, or discover how the discipline creates evidence to contribute to its body of knowledge. 

Experiential learning motivates this type of deep learning for students and provides the conditions for optimally supporting student learning. When students are engaged in learning experiences that they see the relevance of, they have increased motivation to learn. Students are also motivated when they are provided opportunities for practice and feedback. Experiential learning meets these criteria and more (Ambrose, et. al., 2010).

Experiential learning in theory

Kolb's (1984) cycle of learning (see figure below) provides the theoretical framework of experiential learning.

UGA's Center for Undergraduate Research Opportunities (CURO) serves as an example of a program at The University of Georgia that aligns with Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. CURO offers University of Georgia undergraduates the opportunity to engage in faculty-mentored research regardless of discipline, major or GPA – even students in their first year. Components of the program that illustrate Kolb’s experiential learning cycle:

Act: Students pursue a self-selected research project, allowing them to earn course credit hours which can count towards degree program completion.
Reflect: Students perform research with their faculty mentor and research educator, reflecting on the challenges and successes of the research endeavor.
Think: Reflection can bring about thinking in the research setting the presentation of research (Symposium); securing additional funding (Summer Fellowships) and publication of research (JURO, the Journal of Undergraduate Research).
Apply: As students and research mentors develop the research relationship, students are compelled to apply their findings and continue their research and professional development and, thereby, nurture a deeper understanding of their chosen field.

Experiential learning in practice

Experiential learning has the following elements (Association for Experiential Education, 2007-2014):

High-impact educational practices

(AAC&U, 2008)

First-Year Seminars and Experiences
Many schools now build into the curriculum first-year seminars or other programs that bring small groups of students together with faculty or staff on a regular basis. The highest-quality first-year experiences place a strong emphasis on critical inquiry, frequent writing, information literacy, collaborative learning, and other skills that develop students’ intellectual and practical competencies. First-year seminars can also involve students with cutting-edge questions in scholarship and with faculty members’ own research.

Common Intellectual Experiences
The older idea of a “core” curriculum has evolved into a variety of modern forms, such as a set of required common courses or a vertically organized general education program that includes advanced integrative studies and/or required participation in a learning community. These programs often combine broad themes—e.g., technology and society, global interdependence—with a variety of curricular and cocurricular options for students.

Learning Communities
The key goals for learning communities are to encourage integration of learning across courses and to involve students with “big questions” that matter beyond the classroom. Students take two or more linked courses as a group and work closely with one another and with their professors. Many learning communities explore a common topic and/or common readings through the lenses of different disciplines. Some deliberately link “liberal arts” and “professional courses”; others feature service learning.

Writing-Intensive Courses
These courses emphasize writing at all levels of instruction and across the curriculum, including final-year projects. Students are encouraged to produce and revise various forms of writing for different audiences in different disciplines. The effectiveness of this repeated practice “across the curriculum” has led to parallel efforts in such areas as quantitative reasoning, oral communication, information literacy, and, on some campuses, ethical inquiry.

Collaborative Assignments and Projects
Collaborative learning combines two key goals: learning to work and solve problems in the company of others, and sharpening one’s own understanding by listening seriously to the insights of others, especially those with different backgrounds and life experiences. Approaches range from study groups within a course, to team-based assignments and writing, to cooperative projects and research.

Undergraduate Research
Many colleges and universities are now providing research experiences for students in all disciplines. Undergraduate research, however, has been most prominently used in science disciplines. With strong support from the National Science Foundation and the research community, scientists are reshaping their courses to connect key concepts and questions with students’ early and active involvement in systematic investigation and research. The goal is to involve students with actively contested questions, empirical observation, cutting-edge technologies, and the sense of excitement that comes from working to answer important questions.

Study Abroad and Global Learning
Many colleges and universities now emphasize courses and programs that help students explore cultures, life experiences, and worldviews different from their own. These studies—which may address U.S. diversity, world cultures, or both—often explore “difficult differences” such as racial, ethnic, and gender inequality, or continuing struggles around the globe for human rights, freedom, and power. Frequently, intercultural studies are augmented by experiential learning in the community and/or by study abroad.

Service Learning, Community-Based Learning
In these programs, field-based “experiential learning” with community partners is an instructional strategy—and often a required part of the course. The idea is to give students direct experience with issues they are studying in the curriculum and with ongoing efforts to analyze and solve problems in the community. A key element in these programs is the opportunity students have to both apply what they are learning in real-world settings and reflect in a classroom setting on their service experiences. These programs model the idea that giving something back to the community is an important college outcome, and that working with community partners is good preparation for citizenship, work, and life.

Internships are another increasingly common form of experiential learning. The idea is to provide students with direct experience in a work setting—usually related to their career interests—and to give them the benefit of supervision and coaching from professionals in the field. If the internship is taken for course credit, students complete a project or paper that is approved by a faculty member.

Capstone Courses and Projects
Whether they’re called “senior capstones” or some other name, these culminating experiences require students nearing the end of their college years to create a project of some sort that integrates and applies what they’ve learned. The project might be a research paper, a performance, a portfolio of “best work,” or an exhibit of artwork. Capstones are offered both in departmental programs and, increasingly, in general education as well.

References and Additional Resources

Ambrose, S. A., Bridges, M. W., DiPietro, M., Lovett, M. C., & Norman, M. K. (2010).  How learning works: 7 research-based principles for smart teaching. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Association of American Colleges & Universities (2008). High impact educational practices: A brief overview. Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/leap/hips

Association of American Colleges & Universities (2010). “New research on internships and experiential learning programs.” Retrieved from http://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/new-research-internships-and-experiential-learning-programs

Association for Experiential Education (2007-2014). What is experiential education? Retrieved from http://www.aee.org/what-is-ee

Cannon, H. M., & Feinstein, A. H. (2014). Bloom beyond bloom: Using the revised taxonomy to develop experiential learning strategies. Developments in Business Simulation and Experiential Learning, 32. Retrieved from https://journals.tdl.org/absel/index.php/absel/article/view/624

Eyler, J. (2009). “The Power of Experiential Education.” Retrieved from https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/power-experiential-education

Eynon, B., Gambino, L. M., & Török, J. (2014). What difference can ePortfolio make? A field report from the Connect to Learning Project. International Journal of ePortfolio, 4(1), 95-114. Retrieved from http://www.theijep.com/pdf/ijep127.pdf

Jeffs, T. and Smith, M. K. (1997, 2005, 2011). ‘What is informal education?’, The encyclopaedia of informal education. Retrieved from http://infed.org/mobi/what-is-informal-education/

Kinzie, J. (2012). “Fostering student learning and success: The value of high impact practices.” Retrieved from http://www.d.umn.edu/vcaa/sem/kinzieHO2012%283%29.pdf

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

Miller, D. and L. Olesova (2015). Designing and implementing experiential learning through multimedia-based activities and blogging. 2015 Online Learning Consortium Effective Practice Award Winner. Retrieved from http://olc.onlinelearningconsortium.org/effective_practices/designing-and-implementing-experiential-learning-through-multimedia-based-activi

National Society for Experiential Education (1998). “Eight Principles of Good Practice for All Experiential Learning Activities.” Retrieved from http://www.nsee.org/8-principles

Neill, James. (2006). What is experiential learning? Retrieved from http://www.wilderdom.com/experiential/ExperientialLearningWhatIs.html

UGA Center for Teaching and Learning Faculty Learning Community Project, The Nexus Classroom. Retrieved from http://ctlsites.uga.edu/nexus-flc/

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