What is Experiential Learning?

Students and instructor gathered around a computer in a chemistry lab
 Archeology dig with several studies working different parts of the site.
 A student in another country with a baby elephant.  Elephant has trunk draped over student's neck.
 Two students using a large tube to draw water from an artificial test pool.
 Instructor and several students measuring diameter of small tree in the forest.
 Student holding bird with several other students looking on.  Instructor showing student how to band leg.
 Instructor and two students wearing  protective gear and looking at paperwork in a lab.
 Grad student holding large species of cockroach native to South America.
 Students sitting outside in a circle, one with drum.
 Four students sitting outside Armstrong Center at a cafe table discussing a group project.
 Botany class outside, gathered around a tree and doing an identification exercise.
 Group of students sitting outside painting pottery bowls.

Experiential learning is considered to be a progressive method of instruction that affords students an opportunity to generate a deeper understanding of lecture topics by working on course-related issues that, when resolved, benefit their local communities (Williams, 2016, p. 64). Many researchers have explored the origins and evolution of experiential learning in its various forms, and the literature is ripe with excellent reviews and position papers covering how fundamental experiential learning theory and practice has changed with time. See, for example, Weigert (1998), Furco (2002), Kaye (2004), Cooper (2014), Lim and Bloomquist (2014), Bureau, Cole, and McCormick (2014, Bennett, Sunderland, Bartleet and Power (2016), Bossaller (2016), and Fisher, Sharp, and Bradley (2017).

Students often want to know how to apply theories and lessons from their courses to 'the real world.' Experiential assignments give students a chance to learn-by-doing, through recognizing strengths, learning from mistakes, and how to become more skillful learners.

Experiential learning requires the active engagement of the students as well as the instructor who serves as the facilitator of the learning process. It is intended to be an active, dynamic alternative to traditional classroom instruction that should be interactive and collaborative for those involved.

However, creating a learning experience that is informative, memorable and transformative can be a challenge in a traditional classroom. Practice courses can be a natural fit for team-based and transformative learning since they reinforce skill development (Hessenauer and Zastro, 2013) but this pedagogy can be effectively integrated into a broad spectrum of courses.


  • Small group projects/assignments
  • Practicum/field placements
  • Service-Learning
  • Student teaching
  • Study abroad
  • Volunteer experiences
  • Apprenticeships
  • Cooperative education experiences
  • Fellowships

Three Overarching Principles

A key component and possible outcome of experiential teaching is the transformative learning experience that occurs with a meaningful and well planned lesson. Slavich and Zimbardo define transformational teaching as "the expressed or unexpressed goal to increase students' mastery of key course concepts while transforming their learning-related attitudes, values, beliefs, and skills" (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012, p. 576). According to Slavich & Zimbardo (2012), the three overarching principles of transformational teaching are:

  1. Facilitate students' acquisition and mastery of key course concepts;
  2. Enhance students' strategies and skills for learning and discovery;
  3. Promote positive learning-related attitudes, values, and beliefs in students" (p. 581)

Core Methods

The six core methods of transformational teaching described by (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012) are:

  1. Establish a shared vision for a course.
  2. Provide modeling and mastery experiences.
  3. Challenge and encourage students intellectually.
  4. Personalize attention and feedback.
  5. Create experiential lessons.
  6. Promote pre-flection and reflection throughout the process.

The Experiential Learning Process

Experiential learning includes several steps as a process of transformational learning. This ensures the students integrate the content as well as their own experiences and growth into the learning.

  1. Experiencing, Exploring and Doing: Students will actively engage in a learning activity with the instructor serving as a mentor in the process.
  2. Sharing and Reflecting: This step is revisited throughout the process to encourage students to observe and reflect on their experiences and their reactions to the experience with others in the class or group.
  3. Processing and Analyzing: Students are allotted time in the class to process their experience and reflections relating them to the process, dynamics, themes, challenges, and successes, as well as lessons learned thus far.
  4. Generalizing Lessons Learned to Life and/or Their Profession: This is an important step which may occur throughout or at the end of the project for students to relate their experiences with connections to real life and/or their future profession.
  5. Application of Lessons Learned: Students will share how they will apply the lessons learned via skills, values, insights, and/or knowledge to their future and their profession. For some students, this is a recognition of the transformation of themselves, their identities, and a greater connection to their profession.

Instructor Responsibilities

The role of the instructor in experiential learning is very different from most other pedagogies. First and foremost, the students are at the center of the learning and the instructor serves as a facilitator/mentor of the process, offering guidance on a limited basis. The instructor serves as an intellectual coach for collaborative student teams to maximize students' learning, skill development, and personal growth (Slavich & Zimbardo, 2012). In this role, the instructor should empower students to take ownership of their learning and their project. This is how experiential learning will become transformative and meaningful for the student.

The following responsibilities were identified in the book Teaching for experiential learning: Five approaches that work by Wurdinger and Carlson (2010, p. 13):

  1. Be willing to accept a less teacher-centric role in the classroom.
  2. Approach the learning experience in a positive, non-dominating way.
  3. Identify an experience in which students will find interest and be personally committed.
  4. Explain the purpose of the experiential learning situation to the students.
  5. Share your feelings and thoughts with your students and let them know that you are learning from the experience too.
  6. Tie the course learning objectives to course activities and direct experiences so students know what they are supposed to do.
  7. Provide relevant and meaningful resources to help students succeed.
  8. Allow students to experiment and discover solutions on their own.
  9. Find a sense of balance between the academic and nurturing aspects of teaching.
  10. Clarify students and instructor roles.

Student Responsibilities

Students must be active learners in this process. This will likely mean stepping outside of their comfort zone and taking on challenges and tasks where they are unsure or question their abilities. However, the students are not left on their own. The instructor is available as the mentor to offer guidance, support, and encouragement throughout the learning process. For students who are particularly ambivalent about experiential learning, the steps on sharing, reflecting, and processing will be particularly important.

Below is a list of student responsibilities adapted from Wurdinger and Carlson (2010) and UC-Davis (2011) and developed by Janet Giesen, Northern Illinois University (October 12, 2011).

  1. Students will be involved in problems which are practical, social, and personal.
  2. Students will be allowed freedom in the classroom as long as they make headway in the learning process.
  3. Students will often be involved with difficult and challenging situations while discovering.
  4. Students will self-evaluate their own progress or success in the learning process which becomes the primary means of assessment.
  5. Students will learn from the learning process and become open to change. This change includes less reliance on the instructor and more on fellow peers, the development of skills to investigate (research) and learn from an authentic experience, and the ability to objectively self-evaluate one's performance.

Making the Most of Experiential Learning

In conclusion, the following guidelines are 10 steps to optimize experiential learning. They were developed by Cornell University for a final report on Experiential Learning (Alberta, nd):

  1. Make it purposeful (meaningful).
  2. Provide opportunities for reflection.
  3. Include faculty involvement throughout the process.
  4. Students work should be evaluated.
  5. It should offer or simulate, as close as possible, a "real-world" context.
  6. The learning should provide continual challenges for students.
  7. Active learning is a must! (Doing, not observing).
  8. The experience should include supporting resources, materials, readings.
  9. Ample opportunity and time for learning (in class reflections).
  10. Core content/lessons should be integrated throughout the process.