Creating Experiential Learning Experiences in the Classroom

A photo of a board game.

In addition to community engagement and problem and project-based learning, experiential learning can occur via a variety of in-class activities. These activities allow students to attain, practice, and demonstrate “real-world” knowledge within a classroom or school setting to cultivate the analytical and communication skills necessary for solving problems that students will confront after leaving school. Participating in authentic learning activities allow students to practice and cultivate skills and knowledge that they will need as professionals once they graduate. In authentic learning environments, instructors step in to coach at critical moments.

How to Make Authentic Experiential Environments Inside the Classroom

Experiential learning experiences that occur via in-class activities should reflect the complexity of the world outside the classroom. These experiences can allow students to participate in a simulation, role play, game, or debate about situations by using costuming, props, tools, original documents, technology, etc. Instructors can bring in voices of experts and witnesses in person or digitally.

Herrington and Oliver (2000) provide a useful instructional design framework for creating authentic learning environments:

  • Provide authentic contexts that reflect the way the knowledge will be used in real life.
  • Provide access to expert performances and the modelling of processes.
  • Provide multiple roles and perspectives.
  • Support collaborative construction of knowledge.
  • Promote reflection to enable abstractions to be formed.
  • Promote articulation to enable tacit knowledge to be made explicit.
  • Provide coaching and scaffolding at critical times.
  • Provide for authentic assessment of learning within the tasks.

Types of Authentic In-Classroom Activities

There are many types of authentic activities that are well-suited for higher education. Each type has distinct characteristics that distinguish it from other types of activities. Which one you choose to use for your course will depend on the characteristics, including the level and type of course, class setting, and students. One activity may be effective for one course, but may not be a good fit or as effective in another course.

Types of authentic in-classroom activities include simulations and role-plays, debates and deliberations, and games. While each of the following examples is presented separately, an authentic classroom activity could incorporate elements from multiple types of activities. For example, a simulation may have students play different roles in the activity or gaming elements may be built into a debate exercise. Get creative!

Simulations and Role-Plays

Simulations and role-plays are designed to meet specific learning outcomes or goals in environments that approximate real-world situations, but within a setting that can be structured and safely overseen by the educator. Simulations and role-plays have been used across a wide and diverse range of fields, such as nursing, business, political science, and economics.

Simulations can also be designed for varied and repeat participation to allow students to practice skills or to apply knowledge in a lower-stakes setting. Instructors can observe student participants and decide when coaching needs to be provided. Simulations can be revisited later in a course to allow students to scaffold or build on knowledge they learned in earlier simulations.

In role-plays, activities can be designed to have students play different roles and collaborate with each other to solve a problem which allows students to observe multiple perspectives and how they interact within a situation.

Debates and Deliberations

Debates and deliberations require students to analyze, evaluate, and synthesize knowledge. Both types of authentic learning activities cultivate modes of thinking that students need as professionals.

Debates, which include activities that facilitate and assess critical thinking, can be effectively employed for comparing and contrasting opposing or different views. Debates also promote and develop oral communication skills by requiring students to present their research through persuasive argumentation. On the other side, debates improve listening because students must be good listeners to give compelling rebuttals.

UNT Associate Professor, Dr. Brain Lain’s “Debate-A-Palooza” is an experiential learning activity where students from his COMM 2140: Rhetoric and Argumentation class conduct public debates over currently relevant political topics against groups from other class sections of COMM 2140. Check out this video from the 2011 Debate-A-Palooze where a local congress member stopped by. (Note: Due to the sound quality on this video, you will probably want to turn the volume up on your computer.)

Deliberations, in contrast to debates, emphasize a more cooperative mode of critical thinking on a topic or problem. Instead of splitting the class into groups who will defend a certain position, deliberations involve an entire group or class in considering the assumptions, advantages or disadvantages, alternatives, or possible solutions to an issue. For a step by step guide, see ”Steps in the Deliberation Process” from Indiana University. Both debates and deliberation require careful design, clear and fair activity ground rules, and diligent moderation to ensure that students effectively achieve learning goals.


Games or gamification of courses can be a way of keeping students engaged and motivated while achieving the learning goals in a way that is fun and low risk. Points or badges can be awarded for satisfactory participation or completion of the game or goals in the game which helps emphasize competency over grades. Allowing repeat play of games also enables students to see failure as “neither a setback nor an outcome but rather as indication that more work is needed to master the skill or knowledge at hand” (Educause Learning Initiative, 2014).

Some of the distinguishing characteristics of games or gamification is that they are easily scalable and can be designed to be a major or minor part of a course. Educators can incorporate gaming elements (gamification) into other components of their course, include gaming activities or structure the entire course like a game.

Games or gaming elements can be designed to be competitive or non-competitive. A competitive element, such as an individual-based or team-based point system, can facilitate friendly competition to make activities or the course fun and active. Games can also be non-competitive and have students work towards achievements and badges in class that signify proficiency with a learning outcome or goal.

Games or gaming elements can create a sense of leisure or that the activity is just a fun distraction from learning course material, so careful designing is necessary to ensure that games align with learning outcomes.


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

Educause Learning Initiative. (2014, March 11). 7 things you should know about games and learning. Retrieved from

Herrington, J., & Oliver, R. (2000). An instructional design framework for authentic learning environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 48, 23-48.