What is Experiential Learning?

Experiential learning is a pedagogical approach that places students as active participants in the learning process and provides intentional opportunities to reflect on and make meaning of the learning experience to transfer and apply new knowledge and skills to future situations.

Many teaching and learning approaches known as High Impact Practices (HIPs) fall under experiential learning, including but not limited to internships, service-learning, community-based learning, undergraduate research experiences and field work, education abroad, and capstone experiences. According to the American Association of Colleges and Universities, HIPs are “based on evidence of significant educational benefits for students who participate in them, including and especially those from demographic groups historically underserved by higher education.”

The CU Boulder Center for Teaching & Learning encourages the use of HIPs.

Experiential Learning Theory (ELT)

Kolb’s (1984) Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) is a dynamic, holistic theory of the process of learning from experience and a multi-dimensional model of adult development. The dynamic view of learning is based on a learning cycle driven by the resolution of the dual dialectics of action/reflection and experience/abstraction. It is a holistic theory that defines learning as the major process of human adaptation involving the whole person (Experience Based Learning Systems).


The Experiential Learning Cycle

The Kolb experiential learning cycle is the most widely recognized and used concept in Experiential Learning Theory (ELT). The simplicity and usefulness of the four-stage cycle of experiencing, reflecting, thinking and acting is the main reason for its popularity. It is an adaptable template for educational programs that actively engage learners in the learning process (Experience Based Learning Systems).


Incorporating Experiential Learning into your Program or Course

When incorporating experiential learning into your program or course, the Society for Experiential Education recommends these Eight Principles of Good Practice for All Experiential Learning Activities. They are abbreviated below, see the full descriptions on the link above.

  1. Intention: All parties must be clear from the outset why experience is the chosen approach to the learning that is to take place and to the knowledge that will be demonstrated, applied or result from it.

  2. Preparedness and Planning: Participants must ensure that they enter the experience with sufficient foundation to support a successful experience and it should be flexible enough to allow for adaptations as the experience unfolds.
  3. Authenticity: The experience must have a real-world context and/or be useful and meaningful in reference to an applied setting or situation.
  4. Reflection: Reflection is the element that transforms simple experience to a learning experience. For knowledge to be discovered and internalized the learner must test assumptions and hypotheses about the outcomes of decisions and actions taken, then weigh the outcomes against past learning and future implications.
  5. Orientation and Training: For the full value of the experience to be accessible to both the learner and the learning facilitator(s), it is essential that they be prepared with important background information about each other and about the context and environment in which the experience will operate.
  6. Monitoring and Continuous Improvement: Any learning activity will be dynamic and changing, and the parties involved all bear responsibility for ensuring that the experience, as it is in process, continues to provide the richest learning possible, while affirming the learner.
  7. Assessment and Evaluation: Outcomes and processes should be systematically documented with regard to initial intentions and quality outcomes.
  8. Acknowledgment: Recognition of learning and impact occur throughout the experience by way of the reflective and monitoring processes and through reporting, documentation and sharing of accomplishments.