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Experiential education is an instructional approach based on the idea that ideal learning occurs through experience. Learning tasks require the active participation of the student in hands-on opportunities and must connect content to the student’s life. Experiential education combines active learning with concrete experiences, abstract concepts, and reflection in an effort to engage all learning styles.

History of experiential learning

John Dewey originally wrote about the benefits of experiential education in 1938, explaining, “there is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education.”1 Dewey contends that in order for education to be progressive there has to be an experiential component to the lesson. He argues that by focusing only on content, the teacher eliminates the opportunity for students to develop their own opinions of concepts based on interaction with the information. Dewey also suggests that each student’s experience will be individualized based on past experiences, and not all students will take away the same outlook of the concept. Thus, the experiential learning classroom mimics society, where all people have different views of topics and information.

Dewey asserts that not all experiences “are genuinely or equally educative”2 and suggests that in progressive education, the quality of the experience is essential. Dewey also maintains that in order for education to be progressive, there must be a solid philosophy that privileges experiences that are “fruitful and creative”3 and that enhance subsequent learning experiences.

Modern experiential learning theory

David Kolb, Professor of Organizational Behavior in the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, defines experiential learning theory as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience.”4 In 1975, Kolb and Roger Fry developed the “Experiential Learning Cycle”:5

Experiential learning cycle

Within this learning cycle, it is suggested that first, a person participates in a certain action that initiates thought about how the action might instigate other reactions under similar or different circumstances. Based on reflection, the learner better understands how the general principle changes when different actions are taken. Finally, the learner is able to apply the concept in multiple circumstances. This process is cyclical and the teacher continues to offer multiple opportunities for action and reflection about concepts and concrete experience.

Cyril Houle, a scholar in the area of adult and continuing education, describes experiential learning as “education that occurs as a direct participation in the events of life.”6

Lenore Borzak explains that experiential learning involves direct experience with the concept being studied rather than just thought about the concept or discussion about possible experience with the concept.7

More recently, David Kolb, Richard Boyatzis, and Charalampos Mainemelis explain that experiential learning theory can be distinguished from cognitive and behavioral learning theories in that it privileges affect and allows subjective experience in the learning process.8 The authors suggest that experiential learning occurs in a four-stage cycle whereby “immediate or concrete experiences are the basis for observations and reflections. These reflections are assimilated and distilled into abstract concepts from which new implications for action can be drawn.”9 These new inferences are then tested and become a guide for creating fresh experiences.

Like most educational theories, experiential learning theory has critics and supporters. Supporters of experiential learning believe that this model has the potential to engage students in topics of interest to them, and that it provides opportunities to explore how those subjects can be applied to real-world situations. Critics of this theory often suggest that the experiential learning model does not align with the high-stakes standardized testing movement and that there is not enough time to integrate experiential education and prepare students for proficiency tests.