Components of Experiential Learning

A photo of spilled beads from a jar on top of a table.

Experiential learning is “learning by doing” that promotes active, engaged learning. The following six components shed further light on what is experiential learning.

1: Experiential learning includes concrete experiences that relate content to the “real world.”

An experiential learning strategy is based upon real world questions or problems that are related to the content of a course and are situated in a real-world environment or setting that becomes part of the learning experience. These real-world problems or questions require considerable investigation by students to arrive at probable solutions. There is no single solution to the problems or questions the students confront in experiential learning. The process of learning to work with these problems or questions is a skill that students will use throughout their lifetime of work and living.

The design of the key problem or question for investigation is critical in any experiential learning strategy. The real-world context can be created by the instructor and/or the students as part of the experiential learning process.

2: Experiential learning is learner-centered.

Experiences are potentially more powerful when the facilitation process acknowledges the deep, complex and holistic nature of learning. The consideration of the place and space, the activities, the social and emotional dynamics, the stimulation of the senses, and the stretching of learners’ intelligence with appropriately challenging goals are some of the salient ingredients that facilitators have to juggle with. (Beard & Wilson, 2010, p. 46)

In experiential learning, students are responsible for many of the decisions regarding their learning, unlike when instructors develop the project outline for the students and provide direction for the process. In experiential learning, students have autonomy; they address the core issues with their own planning and the resources they discover. Experiential learning requires faculty to engage in modeling, coaching, mentoring, and support. These roles vary greatly from many traditional teaching roles. Students are also challenged to take on roles that differ greatly from many traditional student roles. They are largely responsible for their own learning. Some examples of student roles in this type of learning environment are:

  • Students organize concepts and their interconnections.
  • Student work in groups to find or develop examples from their own lives that further explain core content.
  • Student groups generate questions for other students about the core content. Students submit questions for upcoming tests.
  • Students work in groups to develop methods and solutions to difficult problems and/or controversies.
  • Student groups develop a graphical representation of a core concept.

For students, experiential learning will require an adjustment in how they perceive their learning. Many are very accustomed to a passive role in the classroom. Assuming a more active role can be threatening and difficult. Students need skills to manage these new learning roles. These skills include time management, teamwork/collaboration, critical thinking, and relationship building.

As facilitators/instructors, we can offer practice opportunities with these skills for our students in preparation for assuming these new roles, but like our students we are often learning how to adjust and change our roles as well. Stuart Wickes (2000) breaks down facilitator roles into five key elements which we have summarized here:

  • Engaging in the “cycle of experience”: This cycle involves anticipating the “flow” of the experience. The experience begins with an identified problem for investigation, then involves in-depth exploration, and finally emerges with solutions or products that are acceptable for participants. The facilitator checks in with the participants, provides resources when needed, and asks questions to promote deep thinking.
  • Forming relationships with participants: The facilitator develops a climate of trust by investing in understanding the real worlds of the students and supporting their empowerment. The facilitator has the “freedom to move between being a leader, peer or human being as appropriate” (p. 13).
  • Creating a “climate of development”: This type of learning climate is more psychological than physical. It’s co-created with the participants and is “characterised by: trust, support and safety; openness, disclosure and feedback; participation, personal responsibility and choice; risk, challenge, exploration and experimentation; learning and development” (p. 13).
  • Reflecting upon ones’ own development as a facilitator: A facilitator is invested in personal growth that leads to improved capability to facilitate participants by “working in and finding a way through the moment; engaging and being in touch with one’s own emotions; being guided by feelings and intuition; having a sense of wide and heightened awareness; experiencing a sense of flow” (p. 13).
  • Realizing value within the experience: The facilitator can see moments of “value” within the experience and highlight these for participants. By remaining clear about the desired outcomes for the experience, the facilitator can view the process towards those outcomes and provide resources and input as needed.

3: Experiential learning involves the integration of knowledge through critical thinking and creativity.

Critical reflection is the process where students think critically and creatively and apply learning to their own lives in other contexts. Experiential learning involves students in synthesizing and analyzing information and applying knowledge to new situations. Throughout the stages of experiential learning, students are integrating knowledge from their prior life experiences and educational background. They are using a cross-disciplinary approach as they tap resources from outside the discipline to address the key problem or question. Critical thinking and creativity are key components of experiential learning.

4: Experiential learning requires students to develop communication and collaboration skills including oral, written, and media strategies.

Most experiential learning strategies require that students work in small groups so they can experience collaborative teamwork. These are not the kinds of groups where students work on their own and assemble ideas at the very end. Just as students will be working in teams in their careers, so should they in experiential learning. Group work invites challenges for instructors in assigning students to teams, developing a process of working together, and finding ways to continually communicate.

5: Experiential learning requires students to develop information literacy skills.

Students will need to access information and apply knowledge during these experiential learning strategies. You can establish an information repository by identifying credible resources, but the goal is for students to find resources they will need to solve the problems they encounter. Locating their own resources provides an opportunity for students to gain information literacy skills. At this point, think about the types of information that will be useful to your students in working with real world issues in your course.

6: Experiential learning requires students to participate in formative and summative assessments of their work.

Assessing student progress throughout the process of experiential learning is important. Assessment of processes such as critical thinking, evaluation of evidence, analysis of information, and justification of arguments is difficult. Assessments should vary in type and stake such as low-stakes quizzes to test foundational knowledge and critical reflection evaluation via a rubric.

You can use evidence from either a formative or summative assessment. Formative assessments are low-stakes assignments that can be used to determine whether learning is occurring. The primary purpose of the formative assessment(s) is to gather information about student learning and to use that information to help students improve their learning and to improve future learning experiences. Interspersed through the semester, formative assessments provide an effective feedback mechanism for student learning. Summative assessments are assessments for determining that learning did in fact occur and to provide a final grade.

Now that you are familiar with the components of experiential learning, see this article on designing experiential learning experiences for your course.


Beard, C. & Wilson, J. (2010). Experiential learning: A best practice handbook for educators and trainers (2nd ed.). London: Kogan Page Limited.

Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research. (2016). Teaching Resources for Engaged Educators [online training modules]. Denton, TX: University of North Texas.

Wickes, S. (2000). The facilitators’ stories. Retrieved from