Learning theorists and professors alike have known for a long time that direct experience with a stimulus will invoke a deeper understanding of it. But there’s more to it than that. It’s one thing to assimilate new information, and another to integrate knowledge. The latter requires repeated experience, meaningful connection to information, and failure––yes, failure. Regarding higher education specifically, effectively integrating knowledge also demands quality challenges with trained industry partners.
That’s because the purpose of learning is evolutionary. Those that can adapt to their environments will fare much better than those who can’t. But adaptation is less painful when the learning objective has a personal benefit or, at the very least, when it directly affects our survival. And what we deem survival in the business world demands far more than mere food, water, and access to the Internet. For university students, it calls for learning within the context of real-world problems to develop the skills necessary to succeed as intelligent human beings (not just employees) in their future careers.
What is Experiential Learning?
Experiential learning complements the theory-based learning of the classroom environment that primarily employs pedagogic, rote instruction. It indirectly teaches skills that can’t be learned from a textbook or through lecture, such as the affective skills that support a student’s meaningful connection with information.
David Kolb, an American psychologist and one of the first people to study experiential learning describes it as "the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience” (1).
Notice this key insight in his statement: Knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. That takes practical learning a radical step beyond application to the vast and wild netherlands of knowledge construction. By engaging in experiential learning, we actively co-create knowledge that textbooks alone can’t give us. Why? Because learning requires more than just the absorption of information. It requires human manipulation. “Experiential” emphasizes affect over cognition to highlight the central role of subjectivity in learning (1).
An All-Encompassing Pedagogical Approach
Experiential learning supports many theoretical learning models and several different learning styles, even more, it appears, than the traditional structure of the classroom.
Let’s take a look:
Active learning theory proposes that students remember 90% of what they do and a mere 10% of what they read because they have the chance to analyze, define, create, and evaluate.
Constructivism theory posits that people construct knowledge and meaning from their experiences, especially in interaction with others.
Discovery learning theory is inquiry-based and requires the learner to draw on their past experiences and knowledge in order to solve a problem.
Situated learning theory sees learning experiences embedded within real-life situations where students engage in authentic and complex tasks within a social community.
Bandura’s social learning theory asserts that students learn in interaction with others, through observation, imitation, and modeling.
I Hear And I Forget; I See And I Remember; I Do And I Understand.
-Attributed to Confucius
Why is Experiential Learning A Critical Part of Higher Education?
Hermann Ebbinghaus created the learning curve, which proposes that there’s a significant decline in memory as it relates to time passed. It goes like this: during a lecture, students may absorb 100% of the information you present (which is already a generous assumption), but within just one hour, they’ve forgotten 50% of it. By the second day, they’ve lost somewhere around 70%. Arrive at the end of the week and they’ve forgotten all but about 10% of the information, and after a month, they will have retained a mere 2-3% of what you taught (2, 3).
So, how does experiential learning rescue students from the land of forgotten concepts?
Experiential learning helps the brain create new neurological connections and map them out accordingly so they stick. Contrary to antiquated theories, an old dog can learn new tricks! Applying learned concepts forces us to think about things differently and often disrupts what we think we know. It supports students’ ability to transform information into knowledge.
The Experiential Learning Journey
Imagine trying to learn to ride a bicycle just by reading about it or listening to a lecture explaining how it’s done. You may understand the fundamental actions required enough to conceptualize it and perhaps ace a test on the subject, but when it comes time to balance yourself on the bicycle seat and start pedalling, things will likely fall apart. Is a mere understanding of how to do it going to move you forward and prevent you from falling flat on your face? Probably not. You’ll likely have to make several attempts to remain upright while your feet push the pedals before you can make a trip around the block without crashing. And you may require as many attempts to gain the confidence necessary to keep getting back on that bike every day.
Experiential learning in higher education is like that first five minutes on a bicycle. There’s likely a spotter watching out for you, offering guidance, but the task is still completely in your hands. If you fall, you learn why (hopefully) and apply that knowledge to your next attempt. Remember what you read about failure earlier? Experiential learning supports making mistakes that enable improvement.
Learning often requires conflicting abilities. Some people learn through sensory experience with the concrete world and by actively engaging with a task. Indeed, sensorimotor learning supports the first three years of brain development, the period in which our brains expand more rapidly than any other time in our lives.
Others learn through symbolic representation, that is, by thinking about, analyzing, and conceptualizing information. They may need to watch someone else engage in a task and reflect on the data they surmised through observation. In many cases, students need to employ both learning styles depending on the task. That’s why they require opportunities to watch and engage in the concrete world of knowledge application.
Young children develop from the concrete to the abstract. As adults, we need opportunities to work in the reverse, from the theoretical to the practical, to ensure all our esoteric thought can have a real-world impact.
Take a moment to reflect on how you learn. Do you find that you need time to absorb information and intellectually tease it out? Or are you a hands-on-the-task kind of learner? Does that vary context to context?
Types of Experiential Learning
Various types of experiential learning can support students’ ability to connect meaningfully with information, make new connections and construct new theories, and integrate learned concepts. These are just a sample of all the opportunities available to today’s higher education student:
- Field work, internships, practicums
- Role playing
- Studying abroad
- Undergraduate research
- Action learning and open innovation
The latter––action learning and open innovation––offer students a superior advantage in today’s business world. In many cases, action learning is supported by a convenient digital platform that connects students with actual companies to solve real problems. The bonus––especially for the professor––is that the experiences have real results, meaning they can be measured and used to assess how well students have met the course learning objectives.
Looking through the lens of action learning as a superior type of experiential learning, let’s take a look at the practical benefits of integrating this type of learning into university curricula. (Find out more about action learning here).
What Are The Benefits of Experiential Learning?
If you’ve never read the book Room by Emma Donoghue, I urge you to seek it out and read it through the lens of experiential learning. I won’t give away any details, but imagine this: trying to teach someone about life using only a textbook or a few lectures on how things are done or what to expect.
There’s only so much wisdom you can offer before that person has to just get out there, trip and fall all over the place, get back up, and figure it out. Learning requires sensory engagement with the environment because it gives real feedback. Students need hands-on learning experiences that engage their ability to think critically and solve problems in non-linear ways. They retain key concepts better by translating them into practice. Such experiences help bridge the knowledge gap, that is, the theoretical information garnered in classrooms with the knowledge constructed from employing learning concepts into developed skills. They also transform student learning in unexpected and creative ways.
Experiential learning exposes students to the real consequences of their mistakes, because it is through challenge and failure that we learn (remember that first bike ride?). The beauty of experiential learning as a learning method is that it sets up quality challenges with a bit of cushioning (they’re halfway into the real world, but still very much in contact with the safety net of the formal learning environment).
As an instructional medium, experiential learning provides a more accurate assessment of a student’s level of knowledge and ability too. While traditional assessment tools are data-driven, using tests to measure student learning and effectiveness of the learning material, assessing experiential learning is more difficult. That’s why post-assessment analytics are so important, and why digital platforms for experiential learning should offer post-innovation assessment support. (TELANTO employs this unique feature. It measures the degree of innovation and applicability within an open innovation/action learning proposal, and how well it addressed the problem. Learn more about it here).
What Do Students Get Out Of It?
A 2008 study compared students’ perceptions of the classroom learning environment and their hospitality industry-based learning assignments (4). These were the results:
- They increased their leadership skills.
- They learned better financial management.
- They developed stronger initiative and adapted to change better.
- Students had a deeper understanding of how organizations function.
- They had more realistic career expectations and expanded their professional network.
These are skills that can’t be taught in a classroom.
Experiential learning can help boost students’ sense of professional efficacy. We want humble yet confident graduates entering the workforce. But that’s a tricky balance of characteristics. Students who don’t feel prepared in their professional roles may attempt to overcompensate for their low confidence by presenting themselves as far more knowledgeable than they are (the maxim if you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit has become far too common in practice).
Aside from being frustrating for their colleagues, an inflated sense of capability can lead to flagrant errors. Experiential learning offers students a personal investment in their professional development. They contribute to an actual project, thereby developing real rather than fabricated confidence. They’re better able to own what they know and admit when there are gaps in their knowledge.
Students not only apply learned concepts in a practical context (which they can do in any simulated practical learning activity), they also have opportunities to get deeply involved with projects, which supports the integration of their knowledge and skills. Besides, from a student’s perspective, it’s far more fun to do than to merely think about doing. And students want to succeed, so let’s bolster the textbook/classroom learning with some real, hands-on engagement, shall we?
Experiential Learning For A Digital Age
We can trace the origin of experiential learning back to the 1940s when the world was much different than it is now and business was quite a bit less, well, technical.
When so much of our current education system still relies on teaching to the test, students are missing out existentially. How they learn in the classroom versus how they learn out there in the real world ether is profoundly mismatched. They need learning opportunities that challenge them to think in new ways, supports the construction of contextualized and transferable knowledge, requires collaboration, and so much more that we can’t even anticipate because it has yet to happen.
Experiential learning is charting new and exciting waters now, and universities have an imperative to step to the helm and lead the way for prospective graduates. To learn more about how you can make your classroom a globally connected, transformative learning space, contact us. We look forward to hearing from you.
- DA Kolb & RE Boyatzis (1999). Experiential Learning Theory: Previous Research and New Directions. Retrieved from: https://learningfromexperience.com/downloads/research-library/experiential-learning-theory.pdf
- A. Kohn (2014). Brain Science: The Forgetting Curve–the Dirty Secret of Corporate Training. Retrieved from:
- (2017) What is the Learning Curve and How Does it Work? Retrieved from:
- SA Lee (2008). Increasing Student Learning: A Comparison of Students' Perceptions of Learning in the Classroom Environment and their Industry-Based Experiential Learning Assignments. Retrieved from