Skip to main content
Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning in and out of Classrooms

By August 20, 2019March 25th, 2021No Comments

Experiential learning comprises of learning activities, both inside and outside the classroom that are designed to actively engage students to learn by doing, and then reflecting on the process and experience and actively creating their own understanding. Experiential learning activities can be designed and incorporated into any learning environment, from kindergarten, through school and tertiary education as well as adult education.

What is the problem with traditional learning?

Traditional education styles in which the teacher imparts information and the students absorb that information has been criticised as becoming increasingly less effective in today’s classrooms and can result in bored and disengaged students. Introducing experiential learning activities can negate this by introducing increased challenge and deeper and more memorable learning experiences.

How does Experiential Learning work?

Examples of experiential learning activities include field trips for conservation, outdoor ed, or exploring employment, group work in and out of the classroom, open ended discussion activities and active and open ended questioning guidance. Research has proven that students of all ages learn better during initiatives that involve applying concepts in practice, in order to solve real world problems, actively make decisions, and then reflect on the outcomes or consequences of their learning actions and decisions.

The teacher becomes more of a facilitator when designing experiential learning activities. Experiential learning is not new, and it may have various names in education around the world such as flexible learning, service learning, community service, community engagement or outdoor ed. 

The facilitator presents challenges or problems, and then allows the students freedom (with guidance) to come up with ways of solving the problems. The facilitator can then observe and guide learning as it is actively taking place. This means that issues and misunderstandings can be addressed immediately as part of the learning process, rather than corrected at a later stage after the project/s have been completed, making it a far more active problem-solving process.

The Experiential Learning Pedagogy in Education

Well-designed experiential learning activities are an excellent combination of learning, understanding, ‘doing’ and reflection. Each aspect enhances the others, resulting in knowledge and skills development, deep understanding of the subject matter and of complex concepts, and the ability to apply the concepts in practice in a process that encourages critical thinking in future professionals. To do this and still maintain academic rigour is the challenge that educators need to address in designing meaningful experiential learning curriculum and engaging activities. Today’s educator needs to teach and scaffold  inquiry-based learning that successfully cross the division between application and academics.These valuable opportunities for creativity and academic learning, consistently provide learners with focus and rigor in the subject and across other subjects..

Chapman et al. have provided a list of characteristics that should be present in order to define an activity or method as experiential. These characteristics include: 

  1. Mixture of content and process: There must be a balance between the experiential activities and the underlying content or theory. 
  2. Absence of excessive judgment: The instructor must create a safe space for students to work through their own process of self-discovery. 
  3. Engagement in purposeful endeavors: In experiential learning, the learner is the self-teacher, therefore there must be “meaning for the student in the learning.” The learning activities must be personally relevant to the student. 
  4. Encouraging the big picture perspective: Experiential activities must allow the students to make connections between the learning they are doing and the world. Activities should build in students the ability to see relationships in complex systems and find a way to work within them. 
  5. The role of reflection: Students should be able to reflect on their own learning, bringing “the theory to life” and gaining insight into themselves and their interactions with the world. 
  6. Creating emotional investment: Students must be fully immersed in the experience, not merely doing what they feel is required of them. The “process needs to engage the learner to a point where what is being learned and experience strikes a critical, central chord within the learner.” 
  7. The re-examination of values: By working within a space that has been made safe for self-exploration, students can begin to analyze and even alter their own values. 
  8. The presence of meaningful relationships: One part of getting students to see their learning in the context of the whole world is to start by showing the relationships between “learner to self, learner to teacher, and learner to learning environment.” 
  9. Learning outside one’s perceived comfort zones: “Learning is enhanced when students are given the opportunity to operate outside of their own perceived comfort zones.” This doesn’t refer just to physical environment, but also to the social environment. This could include, for instance, “being accountable for one’s actions and owning the consequences” (Chapman, McPhee, & Proudman, 1995, p. 243).

Benefits of Experiential Learning

Increased Focus – the active and engaged nature of inquiry-based and experiential learning means that the chances of students becoming bored, losing interest and ‘checking out’ is far less likely than during a more traditional teaching lesson.

Activate Learning – by being involved and part of the learning process, the student experiences a dynamic method of learning in which they are emotionally invested and ‘present’, so learning happens more naturally.

Rapid Learning – problem-solving and creative thinking increases the student’s direct engagement with the concept, which dramatically increases content retention and  learning.

Improved Learning Outcomes

Using experiential and inquiry based service learning concepts improves learning outcomes. In traditional learning models, the teacher is the central focus, while experiential learning flips the focus onto the student themselves. Learning outcomes are more flexible, and less about a scoring system alone. Traditional teaching stops once information is transferred or explained, while a more engaged practice through learning by doing and engaging the senses develops the knowledge and skill through real experience.

Experiential learning makes teaching more effective. 

Every teacher wants to know that their teaching has been effective and made a positive difference to their students. By incorporating experiential learning into your curricular learning, you can:

  Provide a safe  learning environment in which mistakes will be made, but they will provide valuable learning without negative consequences.

  Move beyond theory and into the realm of ‘first-hand’ experience, by applying knowledge and skill learners are able to increase retention of concepts..

  Result in a real mindset change, through learning skills such as leadership, empathy, collaboration, and communication through meaningful opportunities to practice.

  Increase ownership and therefore engagement in learning..

  The need for deep learning, focus and concentration needed to actively create their own learning speeds up the learning process dramatically. This accelerated learning method increases learning..

  Personalizes the learning process to individual strengths and areas of growth.


Different Types of Experiential Learning

Experiential learning can take on many different forms, including experiments, field research/field trips, gamification, internships, or working in groups.. A form of experiential learning called Service Learning involves immersing the students into the local community and teaching through service projects in the larger context of the school community. These types of learning activities give an added element of leadership and empowerment to students, as they understand how they can make a real impact within their community.

Service Learning is not new, it has been a pedagogical approach in teaching and learning for 20 years.  There is a lot of research and data to support the reasons why all schools should be integrating service learning. John Hattie’s research into the impacts on learning through Visible Learning have Service Learning above the yearly growth of .40 with a ranking of .58 effect size.

Many schools have community service where students ‘count hours’ to get credits. Service Learning connects Teaching and Learning, Service, and Partnerships/Collaboratives;

experiential learning

Creating a mindset shift – Traditional to Experiential Learning

Experiential learning can create powerful mindset shifts in learners, and in their understanding of the world around them, and their ability to make a positive impact in the present, and not some vague time in the future when they are qualified or have completed their education.

It makes sense that ‘learning by doing’ creates a rich platform for deeper learning, accelerated learning and real-world skills and character development. Traditional and academic learning will always have its place, and can be incorporated into experiential learning, often as the ‘starting block’ to an engaged experience. The opportunities for ‘checking out’ are diminished through experiential learning. 

From personal experience everyone can relate to the difference between theory and practice. An academic could have a wealth of content knowledge about a topic from books but have an entirely different experience when putting that knowledge into practice.. Traditional learning leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to practical application. Experiential learning such as service learning equips and prepares students far better in terms of their success outside of the classroom. It makes learning meaningful as it connects concepts, passion, skills, knowledge, dispositions in collaboration with the community. Everyone benefits whether it is the environment, animals, or people. It brings understanding to important global issues such as poverty, climate change, conservation. And it has lasting impacts. So as you think about your curriculum this year, make a plan to try service learning, take a risk on learning service connected to your curriculum…you, your students and your community will be thankful. This quote by Mahatma Gandhi highlights this perfectly: 

“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.

Tara Barton

Tara brings passion and a deep understanding of service learning, rooted in years of experience, to her training. Her training builds bridges from theory to implementation while generously sharing her resources and knowledge to ensure our success. Tara works with the whole school (administration, teachers, students, and SL leaders) to build a sustainable program that is embedded in the curriculum and tied to the mission. She energized a faculty on a Friday afternoon, no easy feat, leaving them with a desire to learn more about SL and to become more involved. I cannot recommend Tara highly enough.

Leave a Reply