by Kristi Smith

What is Experiential Learning?

According to Wikipedia, experiential learning is learning through reflection on doing, which is often contrasted with rote or didactic learning. Experiential learning is related to, but not synonymous with, experiential [[#|education]], action learning, adventure learning, free choice learning, cooperative learning, and service learning. While there are relationships and connections between all these theories of education, importantly they are also separate terms with separate meanings.

Experiential learning focuses on the learning process for the individual (unlike experiential education, which focuses on the transactive process between teacher and learner). An example of experiential learning is going to the zoo and learning through observation and interaction with the zoo environment, as opposed to reading about animals from a book. Thus, one makes discoveries and experiments with knowledge firsthand, instead of hearing or reading about others' experiences.

Experiential learning requires no teacher and relates solely to the meaning making process of the individual's direct experience. However, though the gaining of knowledge is an inherent process that occurs naturally, for a genuine learning experience to occur, there must exist certain elements. According to David Kolb, an American educational theorist, knowledge is continuously gained through both personal and environmental experiences.He states that in order to gain genuine knowledge from an experience, certain abilities are required:
  1. the learner must be willing to be actively involved in the experience;
  2. the learner must be able to reflect on the experience;
  3. the learner must possess and use analytical skills to conceptualize the experience; and
  4. the learner must possess decision making and problem solving skills in order to use the new ideas gained from the experience

Figure 1

The graph above is a representation of the Experiential Learning Cycle, which includes the components of experience, critical reflection, abstract conceptualization, active experimentation, and more critical reflection. Real experiences help the individual learn advanced abstract concepts. The experiences might result in paths, which allow the individual to actively collect information to learn and become a member of the community of practice. Perhaps critical thinking and reflection may refine ideas or lead the individual to consider alternate possibilities. Each phase potentially leads to another and builds upon the former. (Oxendine & Willson)

Some Methods of Experiential Learning

  • Cooperative Learning
  • Field Trips - a structured activity that occurs outside the classroom. It can be a brief observational activity or a longer more sustained investigation or project.
  • Narratives - told from a defined point of view, often the author's, so there is feeling as well as specific and often sensory details provided to get the reader involved in the elements and sequence of the story.
  • Conducting Experiments
  • Simulations - a form of experiential learning. Simulations are instructional scenarios where the learner is placed in a "world" defined by the teacher. They represent a reality within which students interact. The teacher controls the parameters of this "world" and uses it to achieve the desired instructional results. Simulations are in way, a lab experiment where the students themselves are the test subjects. They experience the reality of the scenario and gather meaning from it. It is a strategy that fits well with the principles of constructivism.
  • Games
  • Storytelling
  • Focused Imaging - the process of internally visualizing an object, event, or situation, has the potential to nurture and enhance a student's creativity. Imaging enables students to relax and allow their imaginations to take them on journeys, to "experience" situations first hand, and to respond with their senses to the mental images formed. In the classroom, imaging exercises nurture and develop students' creative potentials. Teachers can encourage divergent thinking by asking students to transform a teacher guided image into several others of their own creation, to imagine various solutions for spatial or design problems, or to visualize a particular scene or event and then imagine what might happen next. Imaging provides a focus and an opportunity for open-minded exploration of new concepts in all areas of study. It can help broaden students' conceptual understanding of subject area material, especially complex concepts and processes. Imaging allows students to connect their prior experiences to new ideas under investigation.
  • Field Observations
  • Role-playing - students act out characters in a predefined "situation".Role playing allows students to take risk-free positions by acting out characters in hypothetical situations. It can help them understand the range of concerns, values, and positions held by other people. Role playing is an enlightening and interesting way to help students see a problem from another perspective.
  • Synectics - The term Synectics from the Greek word synectikos which means "bringing forth together" or "bringing different things into unified connection." Since creativity involves the coordination of things into new structures, every creative thought or action draws on synectic thinking.Synectic thinking is the process of discovering the links that unite seemingly disconnected elements. It is a way of mentally taking things apart and putting them together to furnish new insight for all types of problems. It is a creative problem solving technique which uses analogies. This technique has been developed by Gordon and Prince. The synectics method distinguishes 2 phases: making the strange familiar; making the familiar strange. It can also be described as a body of knowledge and a series of techniques designed to induce imaginative problem-solving or creative activities. Techniques include deliberate efforts in right-brain thinking and positive supportive behavior.
  • Model Building
  • Surveys

External Links

Association for Experiential Education
Experiential Learning & Experiential Education
Changing Schools through Experiential Education. ERIC Digest.
Experiential Learning in Higher Education: Linking Classroom and Community. ERIC Digest.
Incorporating Student Voice into Teaching Practice. ERIC Digest.
Improving Evaluation in Experiential Education. ERIC Digest.
Outdoor, Experiential, and Environmental Education: Converging or Diverging Approaches? ERIC Digest.
Experiential Learning
Learning Styles Inventory
David Kolb, The Theory of Experiential Learning and ESL
The Experiential Learning Cycle
Experiential Education
Learning cycles and learning styles (Kolb's experiential learning theory and its application in geography in higher education)
Experiential Learning (Experienced-Based Learning Guide to Facilitating Effective Experienced Learning Activities)
Administering Experiential Learning Programs


Atherton, J. S. (2009) Retrieved July 22, 2009, from Learning and Teaching; Experiential Learning [On-line] UK: Available: http://www.learningandteaching.info/learning/experience.htm

Oxendine, C., Robinson, J., & Willson, G. (2004). Experiential learning. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved July 22, 2009, from

Experiential Learning.(2009)Retrieved July 18, 2009 from Instructional Strategies Online.http://olc.spsd.sk.ca/DE/PD/instr/experi.html

Experiential Learning.(2009, June 4.)Retrieved July 18, 2009, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.