Experiential education is the philosophy that teachers work directly with students through structured experiences and purposeful reflection, helping students participate more fully in the learning process (Gass et al., 2012). A constructed experience implies opportunities for student reflection and participation in the learning process. Experiential learning encapsulates the processes of engagement and reflection, enabling students to become lifelong learners (Boston University, n.d.).
This video shows how to use structured and guided reflection in a GE, experiential learning, study abroad program.
Keeton & Tate (n.d.) define experience as having direct contact with the phenomena being studied, and experiential education requires students to be not only physically, but mentally and emotionally engaged in the object of study, primarily through reflection.
The philosophy of experiential education is largely shaped by David Kolb’s Cycle of Experiential Learning. Based on the age-honored idea of learning by doing, and incorporating the ideas of John Dewey, Kirt Lewin, Jean Piaget, and others, the Kolb Cycle purports to detail the process by which students gain knowledge through experience (Schenck & Cruickshank, 2015).
The Kolb Cycle identifies the components of experiential learning; however, many scholars have argued that it doesn’t take into account the thought processes or neurobiological factors inherent in learning (Schenck & Cruickshank, 2015). Seaman (2008) claims that the Kolb Cycle takes the complex components inherent in experience and learning and melds them into an individual and rational phenomenon. Any expedition into experiential education requires a look into Kolb and his cycle, but it is vital to recognize that learning is rarely, if ever, so linear a process. This website uses terms similar to Kolb’s, but represents the components as an interwoven knot.
Basics of Practice
The process of experiential learning and education works better when students are mentored through the experience; however, educators must structure student experience in a balanced and open manner, allowing them to engage, converse, and reflect throughout the experience.
Rather than occurring in a linear process, experiential learning encompasses both physical and internal processes that occur simultaneously or in unexpected orders. Through thinking about the aspects of experiential learning in a more flexible, recursive, and agentic manner (giving ample choice and responsibility to students), experiential educators can plan and contextualize experiences so that students are encouraged to participate in simultaneous, parallel learning processes with other students. For example, while the professor engages the group in the process of reflective observation, various students might also be participating internally in abstract conceptualization, mental experimentation with new ideas, or having a new concrete experience as informed by those ideas. If the teacher frames the experience and reflection on that experience but gives students latitude, the student’s mind is not restricted to specific steps in the process. For example, the professor might have the students do some abstract reflection or conceptualization before participating in a concrete experience, which then could lead into active experimentation and more structured reflection. The main principle is that for learning to be experiential, reflection must be dynamic, not passive. After all, reflecting actively is an essential part of “connecting the learning to the experience” (Ryerson, 2009).
In experiential education, students do not have to learn everything about something before doing it. Experiential learning allows students to engage in professional practices as a critical part of their learning process. Experiential education thus allows students to learn by doing. For example, a service-learning teacher might have students participate in the given service even as they teach and reinforce certain principles necessary to that experience.
Socialization and conversation can be modes of reflection. As students go through the mechanical process of speaking with fellow classmates, hearing of different ideas can help to catalyze their learning (Baker et al., 2005). While not all conversation needs to be reflective, open dialogue about the experience will prime students to internally analyze and evaluate that experience. In this way it is clear that the mechanical and the internal, or, in this case, the social and the individual, can happen simultaneously. Students on a study abroad could engage in conversation as they explore a city; although their conversation may not necessarily be scholarly, the nature of the conversation could stimulate thoughts and ideas that the students could reflect on more deeply later.
Experiential education and learning matters because it turns students into lifelong learners, gaining not only the expected knowledge, but also myriad competencies and skills that will benefit them personally and professionally throughout their lives. Ideally, experiential education aims to change—not just teach—the student. This mode of teaching and learning benefits teachers as well, since it helps them more deeply consider the perspective and needs of their students. Specifically, as professors plan experiences that allow students to actively reflect and change, they have to consider the nature of their students in order to make sure that the desired change is effected. When teachers structure discussions and incorporate reflection into the different steps of their teaching, they create room for greater social cohesion, as well as increased opportunities for students to internalize the concepts taught.
Framing the experience: Ask these types of questions before the experience to help frame it for students
- As we stretch, consider which muscle set each stretch focuses on.
- In the lab today, I’d like you to consider how our intervention affects our findings.
- During our hike, please consider your conversations with each other. Does what you converse about arise from where we are or from who you are?
- As you interview each other, notice what techniques your partner uses.
- During study abroad notice the stages you pass through concerning the novelty of the people and sites. Describe the process when you transition from being a tourist to being a traveler focused on educating yourself.
- During your internship, note the various leadership and follower styles. What are practices that help or hinder the community and efficiency of the work environment?
Teaching Materials and Resources
- Anticipation: This video shows how to help students frame experiences through anticipatory learning activities.
- “Senses, Silence, and Slowing Down”: a blog on the ways outdoor experiential education helps students find space and time to sense and reflect on themselves and the natural world
- "Discovery through Reflection": a blog about learning through reflection during a wilderness writing class.
- “Reflection and Lifelong Learning”: a blog about the benefits of reflection on experience
- “An Interview with Dr. Frank Christianson”: a blog about the connections between experiential objectives, competencies, and reflective writing
- "Observation Aids Reflection": a blog by a woman who, as a child, was encouraged to learn through direct observation of nature.
- "Runoff Reflections": a blog by a woman who teaches her children to slow down and reflect.
- "Experience + Reflection = Meaningful Experience": a blog about a young man who learns through reflecting on his failed snow cave.
- "Reflective Writing and INHUT: An Interview with Meagan Ricks and Emma Houghton": a blog in which former participants of an integrated field study program talk about reflection.
- "Experience in Practice on the Pacific Crest Trail: An Interview with Dana Fleming": a blog about a teacher who blends writing and experience in her teaching and her life.
Baker, Ann & Jensen, Patricia & Kolb, David. (2005). Conversation as Experiential Learning. Management Learning. 36. 411-427. 10.1177/1350507605058130.
Experiential learning. (n.d.). BU Center for Teaching and Learning. Boston University. Retrieved February 21, 2021. from
Gass, M. A., Gillis, H. L., & Russell, K. C. (2012). What is experiential education. Association for Experiential Education. https://www.:.org/what-is-ee#:~:text=Experiential%20education%20is%20a%20teaching,to%20contribute%20to%20their%20communities
Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41, 75-86. doi:10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1
Roberts, J. (2011). Beyond learning by doing: Theoretical currents in experiential education. Routledge.
Ryerson University. (2009). Critical reflection—An integral component to experiential learning. Experiential Learning Office. https://www.mcgill.ca/eln/files/eln/doc_ryerson_criticalreflection.pdf
Seaman, J. (2008). Experience, reflect, critique: The end of the “Learning Cycles” era. Journal of Experiential Education, 31(1), 3–18.
Schenck, J., & Cruickshank, J. (2015). Evolving Kolb: Experiential education in the age of neuroscience. Journal of Experiential Education, 38(1), 73–95. https://doi.org/10.1177/1053825914547153