The Impact of Experiential Learning on Student Learning

A photograph of three people participating in community service.

Experiential learning…

  • initiates deep and lasting connections with course material,
  • supports student motivation for learning,
  • heightens the impact of emotion on learning, and
  • promotes learning through critical reflection.

Experiential learning has the potential to help students make deep and lasting connections with course material.

When you set up experiential learning situations for your students, they can apply course concepts and knowledge to real-life problems and situations like ones they may encounter in their own professional and personal lives. Through this process, they begin to see patterns in problems and potential solutions. When they encounter similar problems in the future, they can draw on the rich bank of examples and knowledge of patterns among problems and solutions you have helped them to build. All this experience moves them on the path to developing expertise in their fields (Helle, Tynjälä, & Olkinuora, 2006).

Experiential learning also has the powerful potential to support student motivation for learning.

Experiential learning presents learning opportunities that focus on material and skills that are relevant to students’ lives, which has a positive impact on their motivation to learn. UNT students consistently tell us in CLEAR focus groups and student discussion panels that relevant course material and learning opportunities are the best and most motivating learning opportunities for them.

When students have a high degree of motivation for learning, they tend to engage in learning activities because they enjoy and value them—as opposed to being motivated purely by grades. Research on the impact of experiential learning suggests that participating in a class featuring experiential learning increases students’ intrinsic motivation to learn over the course of the class (Helle, Tynjälä, Olkinuora, & Lonka, 2007).

One way that experiential learning supports motivation is by giving students a degree of autonomy in their learning—students must take the lead in searching for and applying solutions to problems, and they make many decisions throughout the process that shape their own learning (Svinicki & McKeachie, 2014).

Experiential learning has the potential to heighten the impact of emotion on learning.

Students’ emotional experiences as they learn are often overlooked, but recent research in the field of psychology highlights the connection between the way humans experience emotion and cognition; they go together rather than functioning as independent systems (Felten, Gilchrist, & Darby, 2006). Students participating in experiential learning may experience more heightened emotional responses than in a more traditional lecture-based classroom experience.

For example, consider a course on world religions in which students are assigned the task of attending a worship service in a religious tradition that is new to them. The students can observe elements of the religious practice. Furthermore, the students are likely to experience some (potentially strong) emotions as well – perhaps curiosity, confusion, joy, or even frustration or anger. These emotions have the potential to enhance and strengthen the learning experience for the student. However, the student may need some guidance in processing how the emotional experience is part of the learning and thinking experience. One important way you can help your students to achieve this is to provide them opportunities to critically reflect on their learning experiences.

Experiential learning promotes learning through critical reflection.

The process of critical reflection helps students make deep, real, and lasting connections among the foundational knowledge they have previously gained, the learning they have experienced because of an experiential learning activity, and the situation or context where the learning occurred. Without critical reflection, experiential learning has the potential to lead students to:

  • reinforce previously held stereotypes or misconceptions,
  • derive simple solutions to complex problems,
  • draw inaccurate conclusions or generalizations based on limited information,
  • miss out on the most important learning from the experience, and
  • develop a poor awareness of the connections among the experience and their own learning.

Essentially, without critical reflection, students may “have the experience but miss the meaning” (Eliot, 1943, as cited in Ash & Clayton, 2009, p. 27). Critical reflection is more than a superficial description of events or an expression of personal feelings that are unrelated to the student’s learning. Reflection offers many learning benefits when used appropriately:

“It [reflection] generates learning (articulating questions, confronting bias, examining causality, contrasting theory with practice, pointing to systemic issues), deepens learning (challenging simplistic conclusions, inviting alternative perspectives, asking “why” iteratively), and documents learning (producing tangible expressions of new understandings for evaluation) (Ash and Clayton, 2009, p. 27).”

Without careful guidance from instructors, students are likely to engage in these superficial types of reflection and to miss the benefits of critical reflection and the entire experiential learning experience.


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

Felten, P., Gilchrist, L. Z., & Darby, A. (2006). Emotion and learning: Feeling our way toward a new theory of reflection in service learning. Michigan Journal of Community Service Learning, 12, 38-46.

Helle, L., Tynjälä, P., & Olkinuora, E. (2006). Project-based learning in post-secondary education – theory, practice, and rubber sling shots. Higher Education, 51(2), 287-314.

Helle, L., Tynjälä, P., Olkinuora, E., & Lonka, K. (2007). ‘Ain’t nothing like the real thing.’ Motivation and study processes on a work-based project course in information systems design. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 77(2), 397-411.

Svinicki, M. D., & McKeachie, W. J. (2014). McKeachie’s teaching tips: Strategies, research, and theory for college and university teachers (14th edition). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.