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Experiential LearningService Learning

Using Experiential Learning Theory to make a difference in the future of education

By February 5, 2020March 25th, 2021No Comments

Experiential Learning Theory has become increasingly popular in recent years and has subsequently been changing the way in which  learning happens inside and outside of the classroom. Experiential learning has been incorporated as part of school curriculums across the globe to enhance  understanding of concepts and how to apply knowledge and skills to real-world experiences.

What is experiential learning?

In 1984 David Kolb published his learning styles model. In this model, he states that learning involves the acquisition of abstract concepts that can be applied flexibly in a range of situations. In Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory, the impetus for the development of new concepts is provided by a new experience. He, therefore, states that learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience[1].

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory is represented by a four-stage experiential learning cycle, in which learners touch all of the following bases[2]:

  1. Concrete experience (Feeling)

    Anew experience or situation is encountered, or there is a reinterpretation of existing experience.

  2. Reflective observation of the new experience (Watching)

    Students review and reflect on the experience. Looking for importance and if there are any inconsistencies between the experience and understanding.

  3. Abstract conceptualization (Thinking)

    Reflection gives rise to a new idea or modification of an existing abstract concept. Specifically looking at what the student has learnt from the experience and what they have understood.

  4. Active experimentation (Doing)

    The learner applies their ideas to the world around them to see what happens. They experiment and try out what they have learnt.

According to Kolb, concrete experience provides information that serves as a basis for reflection. From these reflections, we assimilate the information and form abstract concepts[3]. Learning, through the experiential learning cycle, is an integrated process with each stage being mutually supportive of and feeding into the next[4].

In simple terms, by connecting schoolwork and theories to experiences or activities, you are allowing the student to play an active role in what they are learning and the way they are learning it. Through experiential learning activities, students are better able to grasp concepts, have an opportunity to be more creative, and become more engaged in what they are learning.

experiential learning theory

How does experiential learning differ from traditional learning?

Experiential learning and traditional learning are two different approaches to teaching and learning that focus on different elements and methods. These are outlined below[5]:


Traditional Learning

Experiential Learning

Teacher-focused Student-focused
Learning outcomes are prescribed to a fixed scoring system Learning outcomes are flexible and open
The aim is to explain knowledge and skills through the transferring of information Aim to develop knowledge and skills through experience
Fixed structure, a high degree of facilitation Flexible structure with minimal facilitation


It is important to note that both traditional learning and experiential learning models can work in tandem as part of a curriculum to effectively engage students in the subject matter being taught. By incorporating experiential learning into lesson plans, students are challenged to get involved in how they are learning. They are given an opportunity to think about a concept and how to apply it, thus creating a memorable and impactful learning experience, one that will stay with them.

What are the benefits of applying Experiential Learning Theory in the classroom?

When implementing experiential learning in a classroom, the biggest benefit is in the engagement of the student in the subject matter. Experiential exercises in the school environment have proven to be effective in generating considerable student involvement and participation in the learning process. This has also led to an increase in the student’s capacity to retain knowledge for a longer period of time as well as helping them form a better understanding of the concepts that they are learning[6]. Some of the other benefits of experiential learning include[7]:

  • Providing students with an opportunity to apply what they have learned in theory to practical, real-world situations
  • Encourages critical thinking, problem-solving skills and decision making
  • Assists with memory retention by building strong relationships between feeling and thinking processes
  • Leads to the development of skills for lifelong learning by assisting in the acquisition of essential skills and encouraging students to reflect, conceptualize, and plan for next steps
  •  Helps develop a positive attitude towards learning
  • Connects service learning with helping meet community needs
  • Provides a safe learning environment
  • Influences both feelings and emotions as well as enhancing knowledge and skills

What does experiential learning look like as part of a curriculum?

Experiential learning can take on many forms and be facilitated through several different exercises inside and outside of the classroom. Some of these include:


  • Outdoor Ed
  •  Fieldwork
  •  Simulations and gaming/role-playing
  •  Cross-age peer tutoring
  • Field trip activities
  • Volunteering
  • Group work
  • Open-ended discussion activities


Experiential learning activities, such as the ones mentioned, can be designed and incorporated into any learning environment and all age levels, from kindergarten, junior and senior school, university as well as adult education. Experiential learning is changing the way in which we approach education and the benefits to the students and the community are endless.


[1] McLeod, S. A. (2017, Oct 24). Kolb – learning styles. Simply Psychology.

[2] McLeod, S. A. (2017, Oct 24). Kolb – learning styles. Simply Psychology.

[3] Cherry.K.(2019, September 24). The Experiential Learning Theory of David Kolb.

[4] McLeod, S. A. (2017, Oct 24). Kolb – learning styles. Simply Psychology.

[5] Raudys, R. ( 2018, March 15). 7 Experiential Learning Activities to Engage Students.

[6] Armstrong, S,J & Fukami, C,V. 2009. The Sage Handbook of Management, Education and Development. United States of America, Sage Publishing. PG 43.

[7] Carlton University. (2018, Aug 9). Experiential Learning. 

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.

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