Designing Experiential Learning for Your Course

A photograph of a laptop, tablet computer, notebook, and two books on a bed.

Experiential learning can range from a small component to a very comprehensive component of your course. Thus, the first part of designing an experiential learning experience for a course is considering the course context. Consider the following questions:

  • How much time will the experiential learning experience require within the course?
  • Will anything have to be removed from the course to include the experiential learning experience?
  • Could you stagger the experiential learning experience so that it occurs in small stages throughout the course?
  • Could the experiential learning experience address several course concepts?
  • Could the experiential learning experience guide the whole course by providing an activity that helps students understand the purpose of the course?

Once you have been to determine possible answers to these questions, you are ready to dive deeper into planning and designing an experiential learning experience for your course. The stages below are intended to walk you through designing an experiential learning experience for your course. We suggest reading this article on the components of experiential learning and this article on creating a safe learning environment before beginning the design process.

1. Determine student learning outcomes.

Student learning goals state what the student is expected to know and do by participating in the experiential learning strategy. They provide clarity for the student and direction for the learning strategy and assessment. Learning outcomes can include cognitive, affective, and psychomotor domains depending on the learning experience. For example, you may decide that you want your students to apply course concepts by applying critical learning skills. This would involve outcome statements that are cognitive. You could ask them to describe their emotional reaction to seeing people who are homeless at a food kitchen; this would be an outcome in the affective domain.

2. Identify a key problem or question for the activity.

The key problem, or question, is the “driver” for experiential learning activities and relates to student learning outcomes and course content. These problem or questions have several key characteristics per Duch (2001):

  • Engage student interest and motivation: Based on experiential learning theory, these key problems or questions should spark students’ interest to dig deeper and relate what they are learning in the course to their world.
  • Require students to make choices based on information they discover: Key problems or questions can push students to investigate several paths of discovery. As they make choices along the way, they will discover new information and then make further choices. No one student group will have the same discoveries or paths for solutions.
  • Be complex enough to evoke the collaborative skills and efforts of an entire student group: These problems require the commitment and thinking of a collaborative group. The age-old process of dividing up the work will not really work with these problems. They require that each student commit their own unique set of skills and interests to the process while the group synthesizes the work to arrive at new solutions.
  • Problems or questions have no decisive answer or solution: These problems or questions are open-ended and ill-defined or “messy.” There isn’t a right answer. They resemble problems or questions that are prevalent in the real world.
  • Connect prior knowledge to new situations and issues: These problems or questions help students connect what they have already learned in this course or other courses or life experiences to new learning. They are not just an application of what students already know like many end-of-course projects or papers.
  • Engage higher levels of thinking: This work should engage students at higher levels of thinking by requiring analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creativity.

3. Select a type of experiential learning.

Types of experiential learning can range from role plays and simulations, to projects or performances, to problem solving situations to community practice. The experience involves learner activities that involve the senses and feelings as well as a wide range of skills representing multiple forms of intelligence. While the experience and reflective process could occur on an individual level, we believe, and significant research has shown, that it is often social learning in a small group that is most effective. To read about the different types of experiential learning, click here.

4. Develop an assessment strategy and guided reflection.

Experiential learning experiences often extend across longer periods of time, and therefore should include multiple forms of assessment, including formative and summative. Additionally, multiple forms of assessment allow for more feedback from instructors. Feedback can help students learn to modify their study skills, gain new skills, and seek new and/or more information. Feedback can be provided to the whole class or individually, and it helps to structure feedback in a constructive and positive way. Tools like rubrics are also a way to provide feedback and guidance to students’ learning.

Second, as experiential learning is about the ability to apply learning to new situations, assessment should also find ways for students to try out and apply their new learning to new situations or circumstances. You can require students to respond to critical questions that encourage them to make new generalizations, develop conclusions or form hypotheses based upon the experience. These activities facilitate the learners in finding new meaning from the experience.

Finally, assessment of experiential learning should include critical reflection. Guided reflection is at the core of experiential learning. Through reflection, students can engage in critical thinking and self-assessment and examine their prior assumptions and new learning. Without guidance, students may inadvertently reinforce inaccurate knowledge and prior assumptions. If they bring these inaccuracies and assumptions unchallenged into reflections, they can avoid new learning. To guide students through reflection, Ash and Clayton (2004) suggest these three steps:

  1. Guide students to describe their experience,
  2. Guide students to analyze their experience per provided criteria, and
  3. Have students describe their learning.

For additional resources, see this list of strategies, formative assessments, and assignments from the University of Missouri – Saint Louis and these sample reflection questions from Simpson College.

After students complete the experiential learning activity, take a moment for your own reflection. Evaluate the activity from multiple perspectives including time, space, level of effort, cost, etc.

Experiential Learning at UNT

These UNT resources will assist you as you plan your experiential learning strategy. Think about the entire strategy and connections with support systems that will be required. Also, think about resources you will need and utilize the following:

  • UNT Facilities is the contact for campus and building assistance. Grounds services are organized under this department as well.
  • The UNT Space Policy provides guidelines for altering space within UNT property.
  • UNT Police are often helpful to contact for planning your strategy.
  • CLEAR consultants are available to assist you with aligning student learning outcomes and mapping your experiential learning strategy within your course. They can assist with facilitation planning and student engagement concerns.
  • For assistance with UNT supported technologies, the CLEAR consultants can assist faculty in implementing or incorporating technology into a course or troubleshoot and solve technical issues that may arise.
  • Internships opportunities and resources can be found by contacting the UNT Career Center.
  • UNT Community Engagement Grants support scholarly projects that represent collaborative partnerships among community partners, students, and faculty.
  • UNT Center for Leadership and Service develops learning opportunities for students to engage as active citizens and leaders in the global community. This office establishes connections with community partners.
  • UNT Sustainability provides information and support for sustainability-related projects.
  • The UNT Study Abroad Office offers guidelines and assistance to faculty developing study abroad proposals.


Ash, S. L., & Clayton, P. H. (2009). Generating, deepening, and documenting learning: The power of critical reflection in applied learning. Journal of Applied Learning in Higher Education, 1, 25-48.

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

Duch, B. J. (2001). Writing problems for deeper understanding. In B. J. Duch, S. E. Groh, & D. E. Allen (Eds.), The Power of Problem-Based Learning (pp. 47-58). Steerling, VA: Stylus Publishing.