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What is Experiential Learning?

Experiential learning is self-explanatory: it’s learning that occurs when students are directly involved in a learning experience rather than being recipients of ready-made content through teaching methods such as lectures.

David Kolb’s Cycle of Experiential Learning

“Kolb’s Cycle of Experiential Learning” by Regis University is licensed under CC BY 4.0/ Design modified from original

The following chart demonstrates the application of Kolb’s Cycle of Experiential Learning to a specific example of experiential learning:

Stage Example
Concrete Experience The learner has a “concrete experience.” In a mechanical engineering course, students are asked to use 20 popsicle sticks to build a small bridge that will support 500 grams.
Reflective Observation The learner makes observations and reflections based upon that experience. Students note which popsicle sticks failed first, whether the sticks supported more when they were laid flat versus on their edges, and so on.
Abstract Conceptualization The observations and reflections are synthesized into a new conceptual understanding and interpretation of the experience. Students develop a list of construction “principles” or best practices.
Active Experimentation This conceptual understanding is applied and is used to guide new and purposeful experiences. Students build another iteration of the bridge with the list of construction principles in mind.


Examples of Experiential Learning

Through experiential learning, students are able to integrate abstract knowledge into concrete applications which results in more enduring and meaningful learning outcomes.

Examples of experiential learning may include, but are not limited to:

  • Case Studies: Students are involved in problem-solving processes especially when cases are based on real experiences
  • Client-based projects: Students work with a business client to provide them with a service (i.e. design a communication product, conduct a research project, plan an event, etc.)
  • College Service: A class project that may involve students participating in college committees, students’ union activities, student club activities, course redesign, curriculum review, etc.
  • Community Service Learning (CSL): Course projects that involve students working to assist a nonprofit community organization as they build subject-area knowledge and skills
  • Educational Travel or Field trips: Students are involved in structured observation, participation, discussion, and reflection
  • Events co-organized by students: Students present their knowledge to the community through an event of their choice
  • International Exchange programs: Student participates in studies at another institution and brings information back to their original school to share, discuss, and reflect upon
  • Lab activities: Students do exercises, create documents, conduct experiments, or do other hands-on activities under the guidance of instructors (i.e. in a computer lab)
  • Peer Mentoring: As part of an official mentoring course or honours project, a student works with an instructor to enhance the learning experience of their peers by leading study groups, organizing essay workshops, facilitating online discussion, etc.
  • Workplace learning: i.e. co-op, internships


Educator’s Role

Overall, the educator’s role is to provide students with opportunities for experiential learning.

He or she will:

    • Explain how the experience relates to specific learning outcomes from the course
    • Allow students to gain the experience through exploration
    • Permit sufficient time or methods through which students can reflect upon their experience
    • Have students refine the experience so that they understand how it fits into currently held views. In other words, how does theory relate to experience?
    • Provide methods to follow up the experience so that students can apply the insights they gained



Not every course can and/or should have an experiential learning component due to limitations such as variety in student learning styles and different cultural experiences and conditions.

That being said, if students would benefit from experiential learning activities, be sure to look at the sequencing of a course curriculum and outline. More specifically, look at how the learning outcomes tie with learning activities and evaluations.

An example that would raise a red flag:

  • The learning outcome states that students ‘analyze’ the material
  • The learning activities include case studies but evaluations are a midterm and final with only multiple choice questions.

As one can see, this learning outcome requires the case study material to be analyzed. Multiple choice question based tests are not a suitable form of assessment for this outcome.

Reflection Tool

The following resource will assist you with developing and implementing a plan for evaluating your course that is centered around experiential learning:

Learning by Doing, Postsecondary Experiential Learning


Experiential Learning, University of Waterloo

Best Practices in Experiential Learning, Ryerson University

Experiential Learning, University of Carleton

ctl@rdc.ab.ca | 403.356.4989 | Teaching Common – 913C | Find us on theLoop | Find us on Twitter and Facebook @ctlrdc
Updated November 22, 2019

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