What is Experiential Learning?

A photo of four people in a laboratory looking at plant specimens in jars.

Experiential learning is "learning by doing!"

"Experience teaches nothing, but evaluated experience teaches everything." - John C. Maxwell, Leadership Gold

"There is only one way to learn. It's through action. Everything you need to know you have learned through your journey." ~ Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist

"The way to learn to do things is to do things. The way to learn a trade is to work at it." - Henry Ford

Each of the above quotes drives the message that hands-on, authentic experiences are essential for learning. This idea is the impetus for experiential learning. Experiential learning is often referred to as “learning by doing.” It is a series of learning activities that comprise both concrete experiences and guided reflections. Students are provided the opportunity to continually distill and integrate knowledge acquired from class with relevant situations and problems. They also have an opportunity to gain communication, critical thinking, and collaboration skills that have been identified as important for their lives. Students also learn about themselves. They learn how they learn. They have opportunities to discover new passion and concerns. They can relate past experiences to these new experiences and uncover assumptions that block new learning. To learn more about the impact of experiential learning on student learning, click here. [link to our articles, The Impact of Experiential Learning on Student Learning]

Myths about Experiential Learning

Many myths abound about experiential learning, and it is important to debunk these.

Myth 1: Experiential learning gives faculty a break. Students are essentially teaching themselves.

Faculty plan and facilitate experiential learning by creating safe learning spaces, providing essential questions to explore, and generating assignments that are learner-centered, integrative, and require students to use key skills that are transferable to many settings. Students are teaching themselves. They are doing the messy work of learning that they will continue throughout their lives as they work with problems that lack a definitive answer and situations that are complex.

Myth 2: Experiential learning involves only experiences.

Experience alone does not integrate knowledge or facilitate new understanding. Critical reflection must accompany experience so that students have an opportunity to determine what they have learned and what they can take with them and apply to new situations. For example, students planting trees in the community is an experience that could be part of service learning. Students will learn more than how to plant a tree when they reflect about the interactions they had with others in the community and impacts upon the community and the environment.

Myth 3: Experiential learning must happen outside the classroom.

Many experiential learning opportunities are primarily conducted inside the classroom space. Role playing, games and simulations, problem based learning, etc. all take place in the classroom and provide effective opportunities for students to integrate knowledge, develop new skills, and learn more about themselves.

Characteristics of Experiential Learning

Many students interviewed in focus groups at UNT have commented about how important it is to engage in learning and experience real-world applications of learning. However, definitions of experiential learning are often vague and non-specific. To provide a more tangible definition for the effective implementation of experiential learning, the UNT Center for Learning Experimentation, Application, and Research (CLEAR) designed an experiential learning model that identifies the principles and characteristics of experiential learning. CLEAR defines experiential learning as: “…a learning activity in which a combination of concrete experiences and guided reflection enable the learner to acquire higher-level abstract concepts and values.”

These characteristics of experiential learning from Wurdinger and Carlson (2010) guide much of our work with experiential learning:

  • hands-on learning
  • problem-solving process
  • real-world problems
  • student interaction with each other and the content
  • concrete experiences

So, what’s not experiential learning? It’s not experiential if:

  • students don’t solve problems.
  • there are no clearly defined student learning outcomes.
  • there is no interactivity with other students.
  • there is no concrete experience.
  • there is no guided reflection built in.

Types of Experiential Learning Activities

There are many versions of experiential learning activities that can be used in a class (whether face-to-face or virtual).

Problem-based learning

In problem based learning, students work with problems that don’t have a concrete answer to develop their problem-solving skills, critical thinking, and collaborative learning skills. To learn more about creating problem-based learning experiences in your course, click here.

Project-based learning

Project-based learning is similar to problem based learning. However, students are required to develop a project. To learn more about creating project-based learning experiences in your course, click here.

Games, Simulations, Role-Playing, Debate

Students actively enact assigned roles that simulate real-world conditions/situations. To learn more, click here.

Community Engagement

Students are immersed in actual real-world conditions. Internships, practicums, service learning, and research studies enable students to apply acquired skills and/or to feel out situations or conditions in the outside world. See our article, “Incorporating Community Engagement into Your Course,” for more.

References

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

Wurdinger, S. D. & Carlson, J. A. (2010). Problem-based learning in teaching for experiential learning: Five approaches that work. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.