Experiential Learning

What is Experiential Learning?
In educational practice, experiential learning is a component of the philosophy of experiential education, which takes as its core principle the belief that education is more than simple transmission of facts; rather, education involves the transformation of the individual into a responsible, critical, and productive member of society (Itin, 1999; Kraft 1986).

Experiential learning pedagogy comes out of the work of educational psychologists John Dewey, Paolo Freire, and David Kolb, among others. Dewey first developed the concept of experiential education (of which experiential learning is a subfield) in his 1916 work Democracy and Education, to explain what he saw as the necessity of linking experience to educational praxis in order to develop students into critically reflective and positively contributing members of society. Experience allows students to grapple with the “conditions and problems in the world,” to construct and test solutions, and to interact “with others to make sense and make progress” (Moore 2010). Later, Paolo Freire argued in Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1973) that as individuals are products of their socio-political context, education itself could not be understood as separated from the context. Like Dewey, Freire believed that students were not simply empty vessels to be filled with knowledge; rather, through experience, students could become creators of their own knowledge. Finally, David Kolb’s (1984) model of experiential learning identifies the process of learning through experience as process that can be entered at any point. Within the process are four key steps:

    • Concrete experience
    • Reflective observation (reviewing and reflecting on the experience)
    • Abstract conceptualization (application of experience to abstract concepts)
    • Active experimentation (the learner applies the knowledge developed through reflection and abstract conceptualization to new experiences).

The key factor in all of the educational models is that experience by itself is not enough to produce effective learning. Instead, learning from experience happens when the learner reflects on her or his experience, makes connections to existing knowledge, and applies their knowledge to new experiences.

Why is Experiential Learning Good for Students?
Learning through experience, or, learning-by-doing, engages students on multiple levels—intellectual, social, political, spiritual, and physical—and so results in a richer experience than traditional learning models (such as memorization and examination) provide (Association for Experiential Education). These experiences may feel more authentic—and therefore more relevant and valuable—to students. In this way, students can be more motivated and more inclined to take a direct hand in their own learning processes. As a result, students are better able to achieve “the intellectual goals commonly associated with liberal education, including

    • A deeper understanding of subject matter than is possible through classroom study alone;
    • The capacity for critical thinking and application of knowledge in complex or ambiguous situations;
    • The ability to engage in lifelong learning, including learning in the workplace (Eyler, 2009).

These goals are reflected in GCL’s own student learning outcomes, from intellectual reasoning to creative inquiry to leadership, and global consciousness. 

Experiential learning is especially important in the first year of college because it has been shown to help ease the transition from high-school (Crosling, Heaney, and Thomas, 2009; Ganss and Baker, 2014). In essence, experiential learning activities

    • Increase and improve the quality of student participation
    • Increase student comprehension and retention of material
    • Help students develop strong relationships with other students
    • Increase student motivation

What counts as an Experiential Learning Activity?
Experiential learning can take place in or out of a classroom, in a lab, a studio, or even in the community. It can take the form of a single long-term project, such as an internship or service learning project, or a series of short activities that occur throughout the length of a course.  The key factor in any experiential learning activity is that it is authentic and engages students in hands-on activities.

Here are some broad activities that currently employed by GCL instructors, or which are in development at the program level:

    • Community-based research
    • Field trips
    • Documentary filmmaking and other artistic production
    • Contributions to open access resources, such as the Illinois Map
    • Experiment design and implementation
    • Mentored undergraduate research experience
    • Study abroad

Here are some other activities that instructors may wish to consider

    • Service learning/community service
    • Fieldwork
    • Archival research
    • Internships
    • Cooperative education (combines practical work experience with directed study)

Association for Experiential Education. (1007-2014). Retrieved from http://www.aee.org/.

Crosling, G., Heagney, M., & Thomas, L. (2009). Improving Student Retention in Higher Education:
Improving Teaching and Learning. Australian Universities' Review51(2), 9-18.

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. New York: Macmillan

Eyler J. The Power of Experiential Education. Liberal Education [serial online]. September 1, 2009;
95(4): 24-31.

Freire, P. (1973). Pedagogy of the oppressed (M. B. Ramos, Trans.). New York: Continuum (Original work
published in 1970).

Ganss, K. M., & Baker, L. (2014). Utilizing Critical Service-Learning to Ease College Transitions. Currents in Teaching & Learning7(1), 131-142.

Itin, C. M. (1999). Reasserting the Philosophy of Experiential Education as a Vehicle for Change in the
21st Century. Journal of Experiential Education22(2): 91-98.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development.
Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Kraft, R. J. (1986) Toward a theory of experiential education. In R. Kraft & M. Sakofs (Eds. The theory of
experiential education (2nd ed). (pp. 7-38). Boulder, CO: Association for Experiential Education.

Moore, D. T. (2010). Forms and issues in experiential learning. New Directions for Teaching &
Learning2010(124): 3-13.