Student working in community garden.


Drawing on the work of John Dewey and Jean Piaget, experiential learning is an active process. As the name implies, at its most basic, experiential learning is learning through experience. Ideas and theories are linked to practices and processes in authentic and meaningful experiences. Students learn through processes such as problem-solving, critical evaluation, and action-orientated projects in ‘real-life’ settings. Crucially, these experiences are connected to the learning objectives of the course and have an explicit purpose. Examples of experiential learning include efforts to connect theory and practice through the linking of course work and field work – for example, in disciplines such as teaching, social work, or geography.

Take, for instance, the case of a teaching practicum that is integrated into the term (e.g., every Monday the teacher candidate is mentored by a cooperating teacher – the rest of the week the student attends courses). In their coursework, teacher candidates may consider shared problems that they are encountering and apply research-based strategies (connected to theory) in order to attempt to address struggles and reflect on the effectiveness of the suggested strategies. A more profound understanding may result from such authentic engagement than merely engaging with ideas from a textbook in an abstract or imagined way. With this approach, students are also able to transfer ideas more easily to various contexts.

If we teach today’s students as we taught yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.

John Dewey American philosopher, psychologist, and educational reformer

Principles of experiential education

The Association for Experiential Education (AEE) defines experiential education as follows:

Experiential education is a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities.

The AEE have also established the principles of experiential education practice.

  • Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.
  • Experiences are structured to require the learner to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
  • Throughout the experiential learning process, the learner2 is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative, and constructing meaning.
  • Learners are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully and/or physically. This involvement produces a perception that the learning task is authentic.
  • The results of the learning are personal and form the basis for future experience and learning.
  • Relationships are developed and nurtured: learner to self, learner to others and learner to the world at large.
  • The educator and learner may experience success, failure, adventure, risk-taking and uncertainty, because the outcomes of experience cannot totally be predicted.
  • Opportunities are nurtured for learners and educators to explore and examine their own values.
  • The educator’s primary roles include setting suitable experiences, posing problems, setting boundaries, supporting learners, insuring physical and emotional safety, and facilitating the learning process.
  • The educator recognizes and encourages spontaneous opportunities for learning.
  • Educators strive to be aware of their biases, judgments and pre-conceptions, and how these influence the learner.
  • The design of the learning experience includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes and successes.

Designing experiential activities

How are instructional activities made experiential? A general framework could be:

  1. Decide which parts of your course can be instructed more effectively with experiential learning.
  2. Think about how any potential activities match the course learning objectives.
  3. Think about how the potential activity complements the overall course of study.
  4. Think about the grading criteria and evaluation method that would match the proposed activity (Cantor, 1995, p. 82).

Once a potential activity has been identified, it has to be framed properly to be fully experiential. First, begin by thinking of problems to be solved rather than information to be remembered (Wurdinger, 2005, p. 51). “A problem or question must be intertwined with activities, projects, and field-based experiences. This will help ensure that a combination of thinking and doing occurs in the learning process” (Wurdinger, 2005, p. 13). Think about the mixture of primary and secondary experiences. Primary experiences are the experiential activities themselves, while secondary experiences result from the primary experience, as in reflection. It is necessary to “combine primary and secondary experiences within the same academic course. Learning may be lost if students are not given the chance to reflect on primary experiences and, likewise, when students are not given opportunities to apply information from secondary experiences.”

Depending on your learner population, the blend of primary and secondary experiences may change. For instance, undergraduates may need to begin with primary experiences, as they haven’t had a chance to accrue any themselves. Graduate students may have already been working in a professional capacity, therefore they may have a host of primary experiences that they can reflect on at the start (Wurdinger, 2005, p. 19). Build in the necessary structure to underpin the activities. The creation of an effective experiential learning environment for students is “initiated by the teacher through clearly defined educational parameters – group working agreements, activity learning goals, a big-picture design plan, etc.” (Chapman, McPhee & Proudman, 1995, p. 243).

Wurdinger has provided a short guide to integrating experiential learning into a course that may help instructors start thinking about the process holistically:

  1. Use a major project or field experience to guide learning over the entire course. Having one major task to work on all semester motivates students to keep moving forward, gives them a clear goal to focus on, and becomes the “driving force behind everything the student does in the class… When students know what they are aiming toward, they understand that each class has purpose because it provides a stepping-stone toward that overall aim.”
  2. Use a combination of projects, classroom activities, and external experiences to keep the course interesting and engaging while adding value to the overall process.
  3. Tie everything together. The class readings and lectures should be directly related to any experiential activities. The readings and class activities should all be thought of as resources that will help the students complete their major project.
  4. Ensure activities are challenging, yet manageable. When students are given the responsibility of devising their own projects, the instructor must then make sure that they are able to complete them.
  5. Provide clear expectations for students. This could include assessment criteria, or examples of completed projects and activities from previous courses.
  6. Allow students the necessary time to “identify, clarify, and keep focused on their problem.

Source: Schwartz, M. Best Practices in Experiential Learning. Teaching and Learning Office. Ryerson University. p. 5.


Examples of experiential learning

Program Examples from the University of Manitoba

Local Programs

International Programs

Workshops & Events

International Student Exchanges, International Internships and Travel Study

  • Student exchanges — Students gain a deeper knowledge of their discipline in an international context and better understand global connections while developing intercultural and networking skills.
  • International internships — Students extend their learning beyond the classroom while working with a local NGO or college in Malawi, Peru, or Vietnam during a three to four month internship.
  • Travel study — Students study in a new part of the world during the summer.

Selected Examples from Carleton University’s Classrooms

Source: Examples of Experiential Education at Carleton. Carleton University.

Resources and references

Baker, A.C., Jensen, P.J. and Kolb, D.A. (2002) Conversational learning: an experiential approach to knowledge creation, Greenwood Publishing Group.

Bassett, D.S. & Jackson, L. (1994). Applying the Model to a Variety of Adult Learning Situations. In Jackson, L. & Caffarella, R.S. (Eds.), Experiential Learning: A New Approach (pp. 73-86). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Beames, S., Higgins, P., & Nicol, R. (2012). Learning outside the classroom: Theory and guidelines for practice. New York, NY: Routledge.

Beard, C., & Wilson, J. P. (2013). Experiential learning [electronic resource]: a handbook for education, training and coaching / Colin Beard, John P. Wilson. London : Kogan Page Limited, 2013.

Beard, C., Wilson, J. P., & Beard, C. (2006). Experiential learning: a best practice handbook for educators and trainers / Colin Beard, John P. Wilson. London; Philadelphia: Kogan Page, 2006.

Beard, C. (2010). The Experiential Learning Toolkit: Blending Practice with Concepts. London: Kogan Page.

Cantor, J.A. (1995). Experiential Learning in Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 7.

Chapman, S., McPhee, P., & Proudman, B. (1995). What is Experiential Education?. In Warren, K. (Ed.), The Theory of Experiential Education (pp. 235-248). Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Case Western Reserve University. (2012, October 24). Women in Science and Engineering Roundtable (WISER).

Efstratia, D. (2014). Experiential Education through Project Based Learning. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 152 (ERPA International Congress on Education, ERPA Congress 2014, 6-8 June 2014, Istanbul, Turkey), 1256-1260. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2014.09.362

Ewert, A., & Sibthorp, J. (2009). Creating Outcomes through Experiential Education: The Challenge of Confounding Variables. Journal of Experiential Education, 31(3), 376-389.

Eynon, B., Gambino, L. M., & Török, J. (2014). What Difference Can EPortfolio Make? A Field Report from the Connect To Learning Project. International Journal of ePortfolio, 4(1), 95 -­ 114. Retrieved from

Gilbert, B. L., Banks, J., Houser, J. W., Rhodes, S. J., & Lees, N. D. (2014). Student development in an experiential learning program.  Journal of College Student Development, 55 (7), 707-­713. doi:10.1353/csd.2014.0072

Groves, M. m., Leflay, K., Smith, J., Bowd, B., & Barber, A. (2013). Encouraging the development of higher-­level study skills using an experiential learning framework. Teaching in Higher Education, 18 (5), 545-­556. doi:10.1080/13562517.2012.753052

Itin, C.M. (1999) Reasserting the philosophy of experiential education as a vehicle for change in the 21st century, Journal of Experiential Education, 22(2), pp. 91-98.

Kinzie, J. (2012). Fostering Student Learning And Success: The Value of High Impact Practices.

Kolb, D. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs.

Lewis, L.H. & Williams, C.J. (1994). In Jackson, L. & Caffarella, R.S. (Eds.). Experiential Learning: A New Approach (pp. 5-16). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Malinen, A. (2000) Towards the Essence of Adult Experiential Learning: A Reading of the Theories of Knowles, Kolb, Mezirow, Revans and Schon, University of Jyvaskyla, Finland.

Miettinen, R. (2000) The concept of experiential learning and John Dewey’s theory of reflective thought and action, International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19(1), pp. 54-72.

Moon, J.A. (2004) Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning Theory and Practice, RoutledgeFalmer.

Perrin, J. (2014). Features of Engaging and Empowering Experiential Learning Programs for College Students. Journal of University Teaching & Learning Practice, 11 (2), 1-­12.

Place-­based Education Evaluation Collaborative. (2010). The Benefits of Place-­based Education: A Report from the Place-­based Education Evaluation Collaborative (Second Edition).

Qualters, D. M. (2010). Bringing the Outside in: Assessing Experiential Education. New Directions for Teaching and Learning, (124), 55-62.

Roberts, J. (2011). Beyond learning by doing: Theoretical currents in experiential education. New York, NY: Routledge, 129pp. ISBN: 9780415882088.

Silberman, M.L. (ed) (2007) The Handbook of Experiential Learning, Temple University.

Simons, L., Fehr, L., Blank, N., Connell, N., Georganas, D., Fernandez, D., & Peterson, V. (2012). Lessons Learned From Experiential Learning: What Do Students Learn From A Practicum/Internship? International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 24(3), 325-­334.

Warren, K. (1995). The Student-Directed Classroom: A Model for Teaching Experiential Education Theory. In Warren, K. (Ed.), The Theory of Experiential Education (pp. 249-258). Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.

Wessels, M. (2006) Experiential Learning, Juta and Co. Ltd.

Whitaker, P. (1995) Managing to Learn: Aspects of Reflecting and Experiential Learning in Schools, London, UK: Cassell.

Wurdinger, S.D. (2005). Using Experiential Learning in the Classroom. Lanham: ScarecrowEducation.

Zubizarreta, J. (2008). The Learning Portfolio: A Powerful Idea for Significant Learning. Manhattan, KS: Idea Center, Idea Paper No. 44.

Specific Examples

Bliemel, M. m., & Ali-­Hassan, H. h. (2014). Game-­Based Experiential Learning in Online Management Information Systems Classes Using Intel’s IT Manager 3. Journal of Information Systems Education, 25 (2), 117-­124.

Bott, R. R., & Cortus, E. E. (2014). Students Develop Compost Management Stalls through Experiential Learning. NACTA Journal, 58(1-­4), 313-­318.

Bower, G. G. (2014). Practice Papers: Theory and practice: Utilizing Dewey’s experiential learning theory to implement a 5k road race.  Journal of Hospitality, Leisure, Sport & Tourism Education, 1561-­67. doi:10.1016/j.jhlste.2014.06.001

Carlson, C., Azriel, J., DeWitt, J., & Swint, K. k. (2014). An Applied Learning Experience Field Research and Reporting at the 2012 National Party Conventions. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, 8(2), 1-­24.

Jordan, S. D., & Collins-Yoder, A. S. (2014). Mock Board Hearing: Giving Students New Insights through Experiential Learning. Clinical Simulation in Nursing, 10(12), 630-­633. doi:10.1016/j.ecns.2014.09.005

Malach, S. E., & Malach, R. L. (2014). Start Your Own Business Assignment in the Context of Experiential Entrepreneurship Education. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, 18(1), 169-­186.

Nargundkar, S., Samaddar, S., & Mukhopadhyay. (2014). A Guided Problem-­Based Learning (PBL) Approach Using a Reversed Textbook: an Application to a Core Business Analysis Course.

Nargundkar, S., Samaddar, S., & Mukhopadhyay. (2014). A Guided Problem-­Based Learning (PBL) Approach: Impact on Critical Thinking. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 12(2): 91-­108.

Orey, M.(Ed.). (2001). Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology.

Pollard, B. b., & McClam, T. (2014). Beyond the Classroom: Service Learning in Human Service Education. Journal of Human Services, 34 (1), 153-­157.

Sheafer, V. (2014). Using Service Learning to Teach Classic Learning Theories. Psychology Journal, 11 (2), 77-­82.

Stenhouse, V. L., & Jarrett, O. S. (2012). In the Service of Learning and Activism: Service Learning, Critical Pedagogy, and the Problem Solution Project. Teacher Education Quarterly, 39 (1), 51-­76.

Treaster, J. T. (2013). Ear-­Witnessing in the Galapagos Islands: The case for Experiential Learning Abroad. Journal of Sustainability Education, 128-­137.

Visaggi, C. C. (2014). Teaching paleontology using place-­based education in Georgia. Abstracts With Programs-­Geological Society of America, 46(6), 189.