Experiential Learning Theory

A number of students looking through binoculars to see birds

Despite an immense variety of approaches and techniques, experiential learning as an instructional strategy holds the fundamental promise of exposing students to learning environments beyond the classroom, thereby affording them opportunities to apply theory to practice and, through deliberate and careful reflection, develop skills and competencies for life after graduation. To explore some of the theoretical and philosophical foundations of experiential learning, browse the research guide on Experiential Learning developed in partnership with the UTSC Library. There you will also find practical guides on how to integrate experiential learning into your pedagogical practice.

When students are given the opportunity to understand how abstract, theoretical concepts - learned in the classroom - can realistically apply to them, their lives, and their futures, their enthusiasm for learning is reinvigorated. Taking particular academic concepts, and applying them to varied situations, with multiple outcomes, further encourages students to gain a deeper, more fundamental understanding of these concepts.

There are many benefits to engaging students in experiential learning:

  • strengthening of transferable skills
  • understanding and growth of self
  • motivation for deeper learning
  • improved communication skills

Students are given the opportunity to practice and develop essential life skills, such as: critical thinking, problem solving, goal setting, and decision making. Social and interactive skills are strengthened as students learn to engage, collaborate, and build relationships, with others from various communities. Often through their experience, students have the opportunity to build on professional and technical skills, while gaining a better understanding around work realities and expectations. This enables them to explore, and better define, academic and career goals. As students reflect and learn more about themselves and their capacities, their sense of self-efficacy and empowerment matures.

Faculty benefit too!  Experiential Learning helps faculty keep their knowledge current and relevant, thereby providing them with the opportunity to evaluate and improve curriculum. Increased student motivation, satisfaction and engagement with course materials, attracts more enthusiastic and dedicated students, deepens understanding and increases retention for an enhanced pedagogical experience overall. New relationships between faculty and community also provide possibilities for collaborations, research and publication

Key Quotes Capturing the Essence of Experiential Learning

We do not learn from experience. We learn from reflecting on experience (Dewey, 1938).

Reflection is a central feature of experiential education and serves the function of solidifying connection between what a student experienced and the meaning/learning that they derived from that experience (Denton, 2011).

Experiential learning spaces support a very different model of learning than the traditional classroom by offering students the opportunity to engage in deeper more meaningful learning (Kolb, 2014).

Developing and enhancing student engagement involves exploring ideas and reflecting on this learning process, as well as learning from others’ experience and shifting points of view to create new knowledge and understanding (Kolb, 2014).

Reflection involves the internal transformation of experience which requires cognitive complexity and the capacity for critical thinking (Kolb, 2014).