Experiential learning, its Concept, Its Process, role of Instructor and of learners in this process & its integration with class room teaching

-Anchal Saxena
Vice Principal,
Kendriya Vidyalaya Kanpur Cantt, Kanpur

Experiential learning is the process of learning through experience, or “learning through reflection on doing”.  

Experiential education is participant focused active approach to learning that engages learners of all ages, backgrounds and experience levels. It  can be understand as learning through action, learning by doing, learning through experience, and learning through discovery and exploration.

Experiential Learning is often used synonymously with the term “Experiential Education“, but Experiential Education is a broader philosophy of education, experiential learning considers the individual learning process and in comparison to experiential education, experiential learning is concerned with more concrete issues related to the learner and the learning context.

This learning is not new but a long time before Confucius and John Dewey. As per Confucius ideas about best teaching learning education is –

                                    I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.

~ Confucius, 450 BC

            He further states for the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them”

John Dewey (1859-1952), Carl Rogers (1902-1987), and David Kolb (b. 1939) have provided the ground of this learning theory.  About this learning process, Mr. John Dewey states that there is an intimate and necessary relation between the process of actual experience and education. John Dewey devised that Experiential Learning focuses on problem solving and critical thinking rather than memorization and rote learning.

 But Rogers considered experiential learning “significant” as compared to what he called “meaningless” cognitive learning.

In this regard, Wurdinger and Carlson, The teachers should actively involve their students in the learning process through discussion, group work, hands-on participation, and applying information outside the classroom”. This process defines experiential learning where students are involved in learning content in which they have a personal interest, need, or want.

David A. Kolb also noted that concrete learning experiences are critical to meaningful learning and is well known for his Learning Style Inventory (LSI) which is widely used in many disciplines today to help identify preferred ways of learning.

A key element of experiential learning, therefore, is the student, and that learning takes place (the knowledge gained) as a result of being personally involved in this pedagogical approach.

Basic concept of this learning

Instruction is designed to engage students in direct experiences which are tied to real world problems and situations in which the instructor facilitates rather than directs student progress. The focus of EL is placed on the process of learning and not the product of learning” The soul main principle of Experiential Learning is that students should be more motivated to learn when they have a personal stake in the subject rather than being assigned to review a topic or read a textbook chapter. The main essential part of this learning is that the phases of experiencing (doing), reflection and applying are present. In addition, “the stages of reflection and application are what make experiential learning”.

“Experiential [learning] is a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with students in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, and clarify values” (Association for Experiential Education).

Experiential Learning is one that:

  • Combines direct experience with focused reflection.
  • Builds on past knowledge and experiences.
  • Requires active involvement in meaning construction.
  • Encourages collaboration and exchange of ideas and perspectives.
  • Can be course focused or in-class, community focused, or work focused.

The following is a list of experiential learning principles as noted from the (Association for Experiential Education, 2011): –

  • Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.
  • Experiences are structured to require the student to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
  • Throughout the experiential learning process, the student is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, and solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative and constructing meaning.
  • Students are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully and/or physically. This involvement produces a perception that the learning task is authentic.
  • The results of the learning are personal and form the basis for future experience and learning.
  • Relationships are developed and nurtured: student to self, student to others and student to the world at large.
  • The instructor and student may experience success, failure, adventure, risk-taking and uncertainty, because the outcomes of the experience cannot totally be predicted.
  • The instructor’s primary roles include setting suitable experiences, posing problems, setting boundaries, supporting students, insuring physical and emotional safety, and facilitating the learning process. He recognizes and encourages spontaneous opportunities for learning. He strives to be aware of their biases, judgments and pre-conceptions, and how these influence the student.
  • The design of the learning experience includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes and successes.

How Experiential Learning Works

The basic model of experiential learning cycle is “Do Reflect Decide”.Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory (David Kolb, 1984) defines experiential learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience.”

Kolbs Experiential Learning Cycle

Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory presents a cycle of four elements

  1. Concrete Experience
  2. Reflective Observation
  3. Abstract Conceptualization
  4. Active Experimentation

Kolb described two different ways of grasping experience:

  1. Concrete Experience
  2. Abstract Conceptualization

He also identified two ways of transforming experience:

  1. Reflective Observation
  2. Active Experimentation

Understanding the 4 Stages of Experiential Learning Cycle

    Concrete experience describes the hands-on experiences that we learn from. It’s here that we try new things, face problems and step out of our comfort zone. These experiences could be anything in our personal or professional lives. it’s through experience that we get to learn from our successes or failures.  
    2. REFLECTIVE OBSERVATION-. The ‘reflective observation’ phase of the experiential learning cycle is all about reflection on the experiences which include both action and feelings. It’s during this stage that we ponder on the experiences. We get to reflect on what went right and what could be improved? It’s also a chance to observe how it could have been done differently and to learn from each other. 
    Once we have identified and understand the defining characteristics of an experience, we can decide on what we can do differently next time. This is a time for planning and brainstorming steps for success.
    The active experimentation phase of the learning cycle is where we get to experiment with our ideas. It’s time to put our plan of action to the test in the real world! 

Examples of Experiential Learning 

The learning process does not necessarily begin with experience, however. Instead, each person must choose which learning mode will work best based upon the specific situation.For example, let’s imagine that you are going to learn how to drive a car. Some people might choose to begin learning via reflection by observing other people as they drive. Another person might prefer to start more abstractly, by reading and analyzing a driving instruction book. Yet another person might decide to just jump right in and get behind the seat of a car to practice driving on a test course.

Learning to ride a bicycle:

  • Reflective observation – Thinking about riding and watching another person ride a bike.
  • Abstract conceptualization – Understanding the theory and having a clear grasp of the biking concept.
  • Concrete experience – Receiving practical tips and techniques from a biking expert.
  • Active experimentation – Leaping on the bike and have a go at it.​

Learning to coach:

  • Concrete experience – Having a coach guide you in coaching someone else.
  • Active experimentation – Using your people skills with what you have learned to achieve your own coaching style.
  • Reflective observation – Observing how other people coach.
  • Abstract conceptualization – Reading articles to find out the pros and cons of different methods.

Experiential Learning Style Model

Kolb notes that people who are considered “watchers” prefer reflective observation, while those who are “doers” are more likely to engage in active experimentation. “Because of our hereditary equipment, our particular past life experiences, and the demands of our environment, we develop a preferred way of choosing,”

Kolb explains-These preferences also serve as the basis for Kolb’s learning styles. In this learning style model, each of the four types has dominant learning abilities in two areas.
  The four learning styles are
        1. Diverging (concrete, reflective) – Emphasizes the innovative and imaginative approach to doing things. Views concrete situations from many perspectives and adapts by observation rather than by action. Interested in people and tends to be feeling-oriented like such activities as cooperative groups and brainstorming.

  1. Assimilating(abstract, reflective) – Pulls a number of different observations and thoughts into an integrated whole. Likes to reason inductively and create models and theories. Likes to design projects and experiments.
  2. Converging(abstract, active) – Emphasizes the practical application of ideas and solving problems. Likes decision-making, problem-solving, and the practical application of ideas. Prefers technical problems over interpersonal issues.
  3. Accommodating(concrete, active) – Uses trial and error rather than thought and reflection. Good at adapting to changing circumstances; solves problems in an intuitive, trial-and-error manner, such as discovery learning. Also tends to be at ease with people.

Kolbs Learning Styles

Kolb theorized that the four combinations of perceiving and processing determine one of four learning styles of how people prefer to learn. Kolb believes that learning styles are not fixed personality traits, but relatively stable patterns of behavior that is based on their background and experiences.
What is both interesting and important for group work is that different people tend to have different styles of learning, and therefore, place more emphasis, or feel more comfortable, in some stages of the learning cycle than others. ​
The learning styles are combinations of the individual’s preferred approaches. These learning styles are as follows:

  • Reflector / Diverger
  • Theorist / Assimilator
  • Pragmatist / Converger
  • Activist / Accomodator

​For example, people with the Diverging learning style are dominant in the areas of concrete experience and reflective observation.
Kolb suggests that a number of different factors can influence preferred learning styles. Some of the factors that he has identified include:

  • Personality type
  • Educational specialization
  • Career choice
  • Current job role
  • Adaptive competencies

Importance of Experiential Learning

  • Makes learning relatable to participants: Participants build on what they already know and are provided with opportunities to make connections between new concepts and existing ones.
  • Increases the effectiveness of learning: Participants engage in critical thinking, acquire problem solving skills and engage in decision making.
  • Links theory to practice: Participants have the chance to engage in the experience and practice what they have learned, see the application of the theoretical concepts in practice, process that application and make generalizations.
  • Increases Participants’ engagement, by encouraging collaboration and scaffolding between learners.
  • Assists in memory retention, by building strong relationships between feelings and thinking processes. Participants have the capacity to learn successfully when the information is associated with values and feelings.
  • Leads to development of skills for lifelong learning, by assisting in the acquisition of essential skills and encouraging Participants to reflect, conceptualize, and plan for next steps.

Principles of Experiential Learning

  1. The learner has a real authentic experience which includes real consequences where the learner makes a choice to participate and is intentionally involved in examining, exploring and playing with a real world experience that can lead to any outcome.
  2. The experience is an hands-on “feeling and doing” interaction. The experience can be planned or be completely spontaneous. There is very less or no teaching involved and the experience may include experiences which involve solo and group involvement.
  3. The experience is direct experience with focused reflection and builds on past knowledge and experiences. It requires active involvement in construction of meaning and encourages collaboration and exchange of ideas and perspectives between the participants.
  4. The learner actively reflects on that experience through individual thought, group discussion, questioning, processing or writing in a journal. They may participate in group processing and discussion including debriefing and reflective questions posed by a facilitator who challenges the group to create personal meaning and transference of learning to new situations.
  5. The Learning is able to draw conclusions and makes sense of what the learner has experienced, including having opportunities to relate this/ her own experiences with those of others. The learner may develop theories, models or concepts about the experience. The learner may develop new questions, which can lead to the next experience or explorations. The learner is able to apply their new learned knowledge in the next experiences. 


Role of Instructor and students in Experiential Learning-

Instructor Roles in Experiential Learning In experiential learning, the instructor guides rather than directs the learning process where students are naturally interested in learning. The instructor assumes the role of facilitator and is guided by a number of steps crucial to experiential learning as noted by (Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010, p. 13).

  1. Be willing to accept a less teacher-centric role in the classroom.
  2. Approach the learning experience in a positive, non-dominating way.
  3. Identify an experience in which students will find interest and be personally committed.
  4. Explain the purpose of the experiential learning situation to the students.
  5. Share your feelings and thoughts with your students and let them know that you are learning from the experience too.
  6. Tie the course learning objectives to course activities and direct experiences so students know what they are supposed to do.
  7. Provide relevant and meaningful resources to help students succeed.
  8. Allow students to experiment and discover solutions on their own.
  9. Find a sense of balance between the academic and nurturing aspects of teaching.
  10. Clarify students‟ and instructor roles.

Student Roles in Experiential Learning

Qualities of experiential learning are those in which students decide themselves to be personally involved in the learning experience (students are actively participating in their own learning and have a personal role in the direction of learning). Students are not completely left to teach themselves; however, the instructor assumes the role of guide and facilitates the learning process. The following list of student roles has been adapted from (UC-Davis, 2011 and Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010).

  1. Students will be involved in problems which are practical, social and personal.
  2. Students will be allowed freedom in the classroom as long as they make headway in the learning process.
  3. Students often will need to be involved with difficult and challenging situations while discovering.
  4. Students will self-evaluate their own progression or success in the learning process which becomes the primary means of assessment.
  5. Students will learn from the learning process and become open to change. This change includes less reliance on the instructor and more on fellow peers, the development of skills to investigate (research) and learn from an authentic experience, and the ability to objectively self-evaluate one’s performance.

 Integrating Experiential Learning (EL) in Teaching-

As previously noted, a primary role for instructors is to identify a situation which challenges students through problem-solving, cooperation, collaboration, self-discovery and self-reflection. At the same time, decide what the students should learn or gain from the learning experience. Below are some primary points to consider when integrating experiential learning in your own teaching.

Plan- Once the EL experience has been decided upon, plan the experience by tying it to the course learning objectives and determine what students will need to successfully complete the exercise (resources such as readings and  worksheets, research, rubrics, supplies and directions to off-campus locations, etc.). Also, determine the logistics: how much time will be allotted for the students to complete the experience (a complete class session, one week or more)? Will students need to work outside of class? How will the experience end? What forms of assessment will you employ? Will you use ongoing assessments such as observations and journals (called formative assessment), end of experience assessments such as written reports and projects, self and/or peer assessments, or a combination of all three?

Prepare. After the planning has been completed, prepare materials, rubrics, and assessment tools and ensure that everything is ready before the experience begins.

Facilitate. As with most instructional strategies, the instructor should commence the experience. Once begun, you should refrain from providing students with all of the content and information and complete answers to their questions. Instead, guide students through the process of finding and determining solutions for themselves.

Evaluate. Success of an experiential learning activity can be determined during discussions, reflections and a debriefing session. Debriefing, as a culminating experience, can help to reinforce and extend the learning process. In addition, make use of the assessment strategies previously planned.

When Does Experiential Learning Happen?

​Experiential learning is said to happen when participants get immersed cognitively, affectively, behaviorally, and are supported by a facilitator in reflecting, processing the experiences, emotions, thoughts, and actions to get a insight in a safe learning environment, leading to change in perspective, understanding, thought, and behavior.  is able to apply the newly acquired learning in a different real life situation thereby demonstrating change.
How is experiential learning delivered?

Training needs and desired outcomes are identified, conducive and safe learning environment away from work is created and participants are walked through a sequence of activities that focus on ice breaking, energizing, trusting building initially.  Once participants are engaged and feel safe, they are put into various tasks and challenges where they get to participate in a experience.
​            The sequence of the tasks or activities follows low order thinking skills to high order thinking skills. After every activity the facilitator invites the participants to take part in in a discussion where the facilitator debriefs or processes the experiences.
The facilitator invites the group to achieve a goal, but does not explain how to successfully complete the activity. Participants must work to find a solution individually and together as a team, and must communicate and learn from each other in order to be successful. The Learning begins with the experience followed by reflection, discussion, analysis and evaluation of the experience.


The Learning Wave

How do participants learn in Experiential Learning?

The Participants undergoing the experience are instantly able to feel the results of their actions by participating in the experience. During the processing  they get to realise the immense difference that can be made by a changing their thinking and behavior to the real life application.

Where Experiential Learning can be used?

Experiential learning can become a continuous process of learning and development in corporate companies and schools by adopting the basic steps of “do, reflect and apply”.


References –

  • Association for Experiential Education http://www.aee.org/
  • Dewey, J. (1938). Experience & Education. New York, NY: Kappa Delta
  • D.  Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and


  • developmentEnglewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall
  • Moon, J.A. (2004) A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning: Theory and PracticeNew York: Routledge
  • Hubbbrad Ryan. Experiential Learning in the Internationalisation of Higher Education
  • IGNOU ES-361 Educational Technology
  • Saini Kavita, Gullybaba Publishing House(P) Ltd.
  • Coilnbeard, Wilson Jhon P., Experiential Learning: A Handbook of Educational Training and Coaching.

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