Experiential Learning: The Complete Guide

When people talk about learning and teaching, they are typically referring to the traditional type of schooling that most people are acquainted with.

Traditional schooling involves learning within the context of a classroom as instructors deliver lectures. Students supplement these lectures with readings taken from books, complete homework, and work together to complete daily classwork.

However, this isn’t the only form of learning. Many types of educational approaches have been developed over the years, including problem based learning, inquiry based learning, and other methods. Yet the oldest form of learning known to mankind is learning by experience.

Experience drives people to learn from their environment and through interactions on a daily basis. It’s experience that has helped people first make observations of their surroundings and think up reasons for why certain events occurred.

Even in the modern context, experiential learning continues to be an approach used to help students learn. In the formalized context, experiential learning refers to more than simply having students go hands on with materials. Instead, experiential learning is a process that includes reflection on the process of completing work and how the process was completed.

Principles of Experiential Learning

The traditional classroom follows a fairly familiar format that includes lecture, homework, and a predictable structure. The first principle of experiential learning is that classrooms need to be highly engaging environments that emphasize collaboration and cooperation, rather than emphasize traditional structure. Within these environments, students need to be given only a semi-structure classroom experience, one in which they have time to engage with one another and learn from each other.

Given that there are multiple principles behind experiential learning, they would be covered in brief here. One important principle is that learning occurs when specific experiences are accompanied by reflection and critical analysis, allowing students to synthesize information they’ve learned and come to a deeper understanding of a topic. This point again emphasized the importance of reflection in experiential learning.

Experience needs to occur in a structured format in which students are engaged, requiring students to investigate and ask questions on their own, and require students to be engaged intellectually, socially, emotionally, and physically if necessary. The learning that occurs because of experience is personalized to the student and often involves the development of relationships between other students with whom they conduct their investigations.

Experiences may not always lead to success, but they never fail to produce learning, since students can still learn from their failures. The instructor’s role in all of this is to create an appropriate set of boundaries and a classroom with both enough structure to facilitate learning but enough flexibility to encourage engagement.

Spontaneous opportunities to learn are encouraged over rigid adherence to class formats as well. These generally describe the principles that underlie experiential learning, though they do not necessarily illuminate how experiential learning takes place.

Preparing for an Experiential Learning Class

Developing an experiential learning class is not entirely different from other approaches to education. For instance, the first part of developing an experiential learning lesson is to first assess the students in the class.

At this early stage, it’s important to understand what type of learners are in the class. How much experience do they have with the material? Are some learners more advanced than others? Is the class diverse and requires culturally appropriate instruction? Each lesson has to be tailored to meet the needs of the students.

After the student population has been identified, the instructor can then begin designing activities. These should meet the needs identified while you were assessing your student population.

Teachers should focus on parts of the lessons they’ve given where direct experience would be beneficial. Not all parts of a lesson naturally lend themselves to experiential learning as easily as others. Given the limitations of class time, it’s important to find those areas here experiential learning can be most easily introduced.

Activities should be designed to help meet the course objectives and matched to the learning styles and development levels of students. Teachers shouldn’t introduce experiential learning for its own sake. Instead, they should ask themselves how such approaches help to communicate key course concepts.

It’s also important when designing the course to take into account the tradeoffs of using the experiential approach. Because of the time investment, some other aspects of the lesson may need to be sacrificed in order to make time for the experiential lesson.

Teachers should also make sure that there’s appropriate support for them to implement these types of lessons in their classes. Organizations can provide valuable support that may make it far easier to transition to an experiential approach than if teachers were to attempt it by themselves.

Experiential Learning Activities

The emphasis on experience in experiential learning means that there are a diverse number of ways that students can be taught. At the elementary or middle school level, students can be encouraged in their learning by simply taking them outside. In the outdoors, students can examine different plants, soil, and seeds.

A trip outdoors gives students the chance to see how plants grow in different conditions, including sunny versus shady locations. Students can plant their own plants in different conditions to compare how they grow over time, or water plants at different rates to see how their growth is affected. The emphasis at the elementary and middle school level is on fun and engaging activities that still communicate important lessons.

Another lesson taken from the experience of teachers is in the area of history and politics. History teachers have, for years, looked to create ways of bringing the pat to life. One of the ways this can be accomplished is in the form of political cartoons.

Cartoons are an easy way of appealing to middle schoolers, who often lack an interest in learning and are easily distracted. Political cartoons are visually stimulating and transmit a large amount of information within a small space.

Students can be introduced to political cartoons and taught how to interpret them. For the experiential aspect of this lesson, students can then be asked to identify important issues to them and create political cartoons of their own that highlight what is important to them and what the problem is.

At the high school level, teachers generally follow the same pattern of trying to find engaging ways of getting students hands on with their lessons. However, given the more advanced learning capabilities of high school students, experiential learning begins to tackle increasingly complex topics while remaining fun and engaging. For instance, students taking science courses start to learn about DNA and cells at the high school level.

To help students visualize these microscopic elements of life, teachers can instruct students to make cell or DNA models. However, instead of having students create these models out of toothpicks or paper, they can instead make them out of food. Desserts and sweets, for instance, make for delicious ways of creating these models.

In the end, the basic principles behind experiential learning are consistent with most other educational approaches. Teachers still have to take into account the learning styles of students and design lessons that appeal to diverse learners. However, the emphasis needs to be on creating lessons in which students get hands on with their materials.

At the most basic, such lessons include creating with their own hands, but teachers can take lessons one step further and get students out into the environment whenever possible. So long as the lesson enhances learning and improves the chance of learning objectives being met, then the experiential learning process will be of a benefit to students.

A Five Step Approach to Experiential Learning

Generally, teachers can approach lesson design any way they wish, but researchers have proposed a five step process to generally guide students’ learning. The first step includes actually completing the activity itself. The most important part of experiential learning is the actual experience, so students must complete their assignments and experience what the teacher has designed for them.

After a lesson has been completed, students should reflect on what they did. They should share the results of their actions, get reactions from others, and learn from others about how other approaches to the material differed. The emphasis in this stage is to get students interacting and seeing how differently each approach turns out.

Once that’s complete, students can then begin to think a little bit more in-depth about their experiences. At this third stage, discussions need to be ongoing and more analytical than during the initial stage when students were sharing results. Instead, at this juncture, students need to analyze what happened and connect their learning to previous and future lessons.

Students should discuss specifically how they carried out their work and any issues or problems they might have encountered. Students should also discuss any themes that emerged from the findings of their work. Of course, the ability to go in-depth will vary depending on the grade level of the students. However, students should always be able to at least link what they’ve learned to the wider classroom lessons.

The fourth stage of the guidelines involves establishing the importance of what was learned. Students should ask themselves what the importance of their lessons include and how it can apply in a real life context.

Students should learn that knowledge does not exist in a vacuum but instead has real world applicability. This fourth stage directly relates to the fifth stage, at which point students need to apply what they’ve learned.

The application of earned information can take place within both a similar or very different environment. At this juncture, students should be guided regarding how to apply their knowledge within the current learning context and how to transfer that knowledge to new contexts.

By the time students have completed their experiential lessons, they need to feel a sense of possession of the knowledge they’ve just learned. They need to be confident that they have a thorough grasp of that knowledge and can apply it.

Teachers have the important duty of making experiential learning student centric, which allows students to be more hands on and engaged with their materials. For many teachers, it may be difficult to move away from traditional lectures. However, it is important to create a flexible environment in which teachers do not dominate activities.

Students need to feel a sense of freedom, which allows them to experiment more widely with their work and take risks. Teachers should guide students so that they see for themselves the lesson goals of the class rather than simply try and tell students the point of each lesson. In other words, teachers should let students connect the dots for themselves.

Who Most Benefits from Experiential Learning

Although experiential can benefit students of all backgrounds, there are specific groups of learners who are more likely to benefit from experiential learning than others.

One of these is the mature learner, typically an older student who hasn’t been in the traditional classroom for some time and would benefit from the way in which experiential learning occurs within a relatable context. This approach helps to drive the learner’s motivation and help them get back in a learning rhythm.

Another learner who benefits strongly from the experiential approach are learners who simply benefit most strongly from being placed into those same relatable contexts. These are people for whom tangible experiences seem to be the best teachers.

These learners often overlap with the third category of learners who benefit from experiential learning, the learner who struggles within the formal classroom. This is the student who typically has trouble learning from lectures and other traditional methods, including book readings.

Such students find it difficult sitting through a typical class and benefit more strongly from being highly engaged with their learning. Finally, experiential learning can benefit all learners in a supplemental role to traditional learning.

Besides these broad groups of students for whom experiential learning may be beneficial, there are also specific groups that can benefit from the use of an experiential approach.

Minority students often struggle to find their ways into internships, for example. Experiential learning may therefore be beneficial because it allows these students to get direct experience that they fail to receive in typical internships.

This demonstrates the value of experiential not only to improving academic outcomes but for creating the kind of hands on experience that may be beneficial when transitioning into the work environment.

Researchers have previously noted that, for schools trying to broaden their appeal and relevance to students, it may be useful to use experiential learning as a way to pass on skills that might give students the skills necessary to succeed once they’ve finished schooling.

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