Experiential learning is a pedagogical method where students learn by doing something. Instead of listing to the teacher talk about how to do something, the students learn through the experience of doing the task.
Simple examples of experiential learning include:
- Doing experiments in chemistry class.
- Learning about food by growing it in a garden.
- Learning to drive by taking driving lessons.
- Learning about animals by going on a safari.
- Becoming an apprentice to learn carpentry.
- Going gold panning to experience the gold rush excitement.
One of the main proponents and developers of experiential learning theory is psychologist David Kolb (1984). He described experiential learning as:
“the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.”
Definition of Experiential Learning
However, it is more than just doing the activity. According to Kolb, experiential learning includes four cyclical steps: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation.
This happens in a cycle:
- Concrete Experience: Trying something out and using your senses to see what happens.
- Reflective Observation: Reflecting on the experience to see what went well, what didn’t, and what surprised you.
- Abstract Conceptualization: Comparing the experience with existing knowledge, changing your conceptualization of the topic based on the experience, and coming up with new hypotheses or questions based on your new knowledge.
- Active Experimentation: Coming up with a new experiment to test new hypotheses or explore new questions that arose during the cycle.
Examples of Experiential Learning
1. Growing a Garden
A lesson about polination or photosynthesis can be turned into an experiential learning experience if you have the students grow a garden themselves.
Through the process of growing the garden, students may develop more of a passion for nature and ecological conservation than if they simply learned from textbooks.
Futhermore, if the garden contains edible foods in it, then the lesson can be transferred into a lesson about how our food reaches our tables.
Gardening, clearly, is an experiential learning examples with a wide range of potential benefits to students.
2. Zoo Excursions
Going to the zoo to learn about animals can create a concrete experience for children. They can make naturalistic observations of the animals in person rather than just looking at pictures of them in books.
Here, children can closely observe how the animals walk and play. You can see their mannerisms and watch them eat. This experience is likely to give them a more immersive and nuanced understanding of the animals than watching television or reading a book.
Furthermore, a zoo excursion is a true experience that children will remember far more than learning out of a book. Therefore, experiential learning has the compound effects of being both more memorable and more visceral, helping to propel learners along.
3. First-aid and CPR
There’s a reason why classes in first-aid and CPR utilize experiential learning. Practicing applying a tourniquet or cleaning and bandaging a wound really can’t be mastered by reading a book. First, you need to see it demonstrated with your own two eyes.
Then, you need to practice the procedures and have a trained professional watch so that they can guide you through the process. You can also build-in some muscle-memory that will help you remember the procedures when faced with a real-life situation.
The more opportunities to practice, the better. When it comes to learning first-aid and CPR, experiential learning really is the only way to go. This is one reason experiential learning is applied in a lot of medical training (see Ti et al., 2009).
4. Chemistry Lab
Watching a chemistry professor write-out formulas on a board for hours is one way of learning about chemical reactions. But most courses also have a lab component that gives students an opportunity to obtain hands-on experience mixing chemicals and observing results.
During these types of experiences, the students learn about the importance of precise measurements and strictly following procedures. They also learn how to follow safety protocols and hopefully develop an appreciation for scientific rigor.
These are things that simply can’t be appreciated in the lecture component of the course and is an example of the value of learning through experience.
5. Biology Lab and Frog Dissection
Performing a frog dissection has been a tradition in high-school biology classes for decades. Performing the surgery gives students a real-life experience, whether they want it or not. It’s not everyone’s favorite lab project, for a variety of reasons.
However, it does give students a valuable practical experience of surgery and analyzing the internal organs that most amphibians possess. Student learn to appreciate scientific procedures and working with others.
These days, some schools have started using synthetic frogs. These lifelike replicas are remarkably similar to the real thing, complete with internal organs and fake tissue.
As Biology teacher Susan Offner believes, “The learning that occurs in a dissection is qualitatively different from the learning that occurs in a lecture or paper-and-pencil setting.”
Traveling is a learning experience. I took time out to travel for a year after university and learned a great deal about not only the cultures I visited, but also myself. It led to a lot of reflection and re-evaluation of my life!
A primary outcome of traveling is that you broaden your understanding and respect for cultures that are not your own. Travel can chip away at parochialism and help you to start to empathize with and respect people who aren’t like you.
You may also learn through your travels more about world history and the lessons learned form world history. For example, I could have just read a book about Auschwitz, but going there and seeing the harrowing space made me reflect much more deeply.
Furthermore, travel can help us to reflect upon ourselves and learn to grow up. I learned a lot more self-confidence and independence on my travels in my early 20s. I had to reflect on mistakes (like not waking up in time to get my flight!) and learn the hard way.
7. Music Class
Maybe one of the most fun classes in school takes place in the music room. Students get to try out different musical instruments and discover if they have any talent, or not. It can also be a cultural experience, as the teacher might bring instruments in from other cultures or ancient times.
Not only is playing, or at least trying to play, a musical instrument great fun, it also exercises more areas of the brain than just about any other activity.
Your auditory areas are processing the sounds of your instrument and those around you. The occipital and temporal lobes are processing the notes on the page that you are reading, and the sensorimotor cortex is busy helping you move the necessary muscles to play along.
There is no way all of that learning could be replaced by reading a textbook.
Having an internship is an example of experiential learning that may last for weeks or months. Usually, it involves a student going to a business and working on various tasks and projects as an assistant.
It’s a great way for students to see how academic concepts learned in class or read from a book are realized in a work setting.
Students will also pick-up a lot of practical skills that professionals use on a daily basis. Learning the procedures for carrying-out different tasks will provide invaluable insights into what a job is really like.
That may lead to a student deciding that they don’t want to pursue a career in that profession, or, it may invigorate and inspire them in ways they had never imagined before.
An internship is perhaps the best example of the very real benefits of experiential learning.
Many people who go into blue-collar work will get the opportunity to learn as an apprentice rather than going to university. These people get to shadow a person on the job, learning while also working.
The apprenticeship model more closely resembles experiential learning than the university model. In practice, it often most closely resembles the situated learning theory.
In the apprenticeship model, learners get concrete experiences that they can reflect on, create new knowledge from, then apply learnings to the next concrete experience.
Examples of jobs that start with apprenticeships include plumbing, carpentry, construction, and mining. When you’re an apprentice in these jobs, you may also go into a classroom and do intentional reflection, which is a part of the experiential learning cycle.
10. Role Plays
Role-playing involves not just thinking about a scenario, but actually acting it out to get a feel for the experience. This could be playing out a Shakespeare play, or a real-life situation like an interview you’re preparing for.
Sometimes the way we think we would handle a discussion, and the way that we would actually act, are two different things. Sometimes they are completely two different things.
Issues can be complex, that’s for sure, but the real challenge comes when dealing with other people. Some people can be easy to discuss issues with, while others can be confrontational, maybe even crass.
Learning how to handle those situations simply cannot be acquired by reading a book or listening to a lecture. The best way is to throw yourself into the mix and participate directly. You never know how you will react when someone challenges your views, and does so convincingly.
This is where participating in role-plays provides real value. Hashing out the details of a complicated project or trying to formulate a balanced policy in collaboration with others can provide significant insights into your communication style and conflict resolution skills.
11. STEM Programs
A STEM program is the perfect example of experiential learning. Students never sit still during one of these types of programs. Every lesson, every day, is full of working on projects, usually on a team.
The instructor plays a minimal role and often starts a class by outlining the project objectives and providing the necessary materials, and then letting the students take it from there.
The instructor might walk around the room and observe, but will usually try to provide as little assistance as possible. The kids prefer it this way as well.
Even when the instructor sees that the students are making a mistake, the teaching philosophy is that even failure is a valuable learning experience.
Kids love STEM programs because they get to do stuff that doesn’t involve writing lecture notes or memorizing facts for an exam.
12. Building a Boat
Let’s start with this question: whose boat would you rather take a trip in through a swamp, someone who has experience building boats, or someone who has read a lot of books on how to build boats?
The answer is pretty clear. Most of us are going to hop in the boat built by someone with experience. This highlights the value of experiential learning, or, learning by doing. Nothing beats experience.
Actually performing a task or carrying-out a project gives insights into issues and problems that cannot be understood otherwise.
A lot of times those issues are not so consequential, like when writing a report on consumer preferences. But sometimes those issues can be very consequential, like taking a trip through a murky, alligator-infested swamp.
13. Teaching Practicums
At most universities, education majors will have an opportunity to get experience as an actual teacher in a classroom. This usually happens in the junior or senior year, and can last anywhere from 4-12 weeks, depending on the school.
It’s a great way for students to discover the nuances of managing a classroom full of youngsters. They will also gain insight into what kind of lessons work and what to avoid. Thankfully, the practicum is overseen by a licensed teacher. That professional teacher will observe the student’s performance at offer some constructive criticism and suggestions for improvement.
A teaching practicum is an example of an experiential learning activity that can last all day for several weeks.
14. Virtual Reality in the Classroom
Immersive experiences that seem impossible to achieve can now be done through virtual reality. Students can put on a VR headset and be in the control seat in an environment they couldn’t feasible do otherwise.
A common example is being in outer space. Students can put on their virtual reality headsets and experience being in a space station.
Similarly, the teacher might load up a historical event in the VR headset so students can feel as if they were at the Gettysburg address or witnessing the inauguration of a president.
While this isn’t the ‘true’ experience, it’s a good way to simulate experiential learning in order to help students have immersive, memorable, and thought-provoking active learning experiences.
15. Starting A Business
As a business owner, starting and running my business in the first few years was certainly an experiential learning situation. I learned a lot through making my own mistakes, and had to figure things out as I did them.
In fact, there’s a saying that running a business is as good as getting an MBA! You learn everything, very quickly, because you’re experiencing it as you go along. There is theory that can help you to process what’s happening, but you need to take action and make real-life decisions about what to do (such as when to hire your first employee or when to incorporate!).
Here, however, we can see one of the few downsides of experiential learning. Making decisions while learning at the same time means you make mistakes – and sometimes, mistakes can cause big and costly problems!
16. Stand-Up Comedy – Comedians have no choice but to learn through experiential learning. They will often go to a quieter stand-up comedy establishment to try out new jokes to see if it will get some laughs. The comedian might try to deliver the joke in different ways each night to gauge which delivery method gets the most laughts.
17. Volunteering – Getting out and volunteering in your community gives you a greater understanding of the value of volunteering, as well as some experiences in following instructions and being part of a team.
18. Field Trips – Going on a field trip to a local historical location, waterway, or other valuable location to learn on-the-spot can be an example of experiential learning. One example I remember is going gold panning to learn about the gold rush.
19. Flight Simulation – Pilots can’t get experience by getting in a jet plane with 300 passengers right away. But they get experiential learning by using flight simulators to learn to fly.
20. Learning to Drive – Learning to drive is necessarily experiential. You will often learn in a cul-de-sac or other quiet space while you develop a feel for it and minimize the negative outcomes of mistakes, before stepping up to motorway driving.
21. Studying Abroad – Taking a study abroad semester allows students to learn about different cultures in a structured environment. It can also help you to look at key college-level topics from another cultural perspective.
Experiential learning is learning by doing. The central idea is that people learn by participating in a project or activity. When we engage directly in performing a task, we develop a deeper understanding of what is involved. We will gain insights into the nuances of what makes a project successful, or not.
Examples of experiential learning can be seen everywhere. Students perform chemistry experiments and frog dissections to build an appreciation for following strict procedures and scientific rigor.
Participants in first-aid and CPR classes learn how to clean and dress wounds while a trained professional guides them through the process. And internships and practicums allow aspiring professionals to gain practical experience and discover the complexities and challenges of a job that can never be fully understood in the classroom.
Austin, M. J., & Rust, D. Z. (2015). Developing an Experiential Learning Program: Milestones and Challenges. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 27(1), 143-153.
Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Ti, L. K., Chen, F. G., Tan, G. M., Tan, W. T., Tan, J. M., Shen, L., & Goy, R. W. (2009). Experiential learning improves the learning and retention of endotracheal intubation. Medical Education, 43(7), 654–660. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1365-2923.2009.03399.x
Wurdinger, D. D., & Carlson, J. A. (2010). Teaching for experiential learning: Five approaches that work. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Yardley, S., Teunissen, P. W., & Dornan, T. (2012). Experiential learning: Transforming theory into practice. Medical Teacher, 34(2), 161–164. https://doi.org/10.3109/0142159X.2012.643264