Experiential learning is learning through experience. Students learn through processes such as problem-solving, critical evaluation and action-orientated projects in real-life settings.
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.
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:
- Decide which parts of your course can be instructed more effectively with experiential learning.
- Think about how any potential activities match the course learning objectives.
- Think about how the potential activity complements the overall course of study.
- 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:
- 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.”
- Use a combination of projects, classroom activities, and external experiences to keep the course interesting and engaging while adding value to the overall process.
- 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.
- 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.
- Provide clear expectations for students. This could include assessment criteria, or examples of completed projects and activities from previous courses.
- Allow students the necessary time to “identify, clarify, and keep focused on their problem.
Examples of experiential learning
Program Examples from the University of Manitoba
- Community Leadership Development Program
- Alternative Reading Week Winnipeg
- Leaf Rapids Service-Learning Experience
Workshops & Events
- Poverty Awareness & Community Action
- Co-operative education programs — Students combine practical paid work experiences with your classroom-based education to further enhance your skill set and increase your employability.
- Career Mentor Program — Students connect with industry professionals for informational interviews, workplace tours and job shadowing opportunities.
- Work opportunities on campus — Students apply for one of the many job opportunities on campus available to students each year.
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
- Jan Schroeder and Barbara Leckie, Department of English: A case study of Henry Mayhew’s London labour and the London poor (1850-1862)
- Susan Birkwood, Department of English: Teaching innovation and community engagement
- Kenta Asakura, School of Social Work: Human Simulation
- Barbara Lee, School of Social Work: A “ground-rule” exercise
- Kanina Holmes, School of Journalism and Communication: Stories North: Stories of Reconciliation
- Melissa Haussman, Department of Political Science: Student Internships
- Jeff Smith, Department of Chemistry: Labs, Real Life Projects, and Guest Speakers from industry
- Claudia Buttera, Department of Biology: Experiential Learning in Undergraduate Biology Labs
- Dan Irving, Institute of Interdisciplinary Studies: The Human Rights and Resistance course
- Liam O’Brien, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering: Assessing Real Life Environmental Characteristics, Designing Sustainable Neighbourhoods, and chPortfolio
Resources and references
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