Overview and Definition of Experiential Learning

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Kolb and Frye, two leaders in adult educational theory, say that adults learn best through active participation and reflection. This form of learning is called "experiential" because it involves hands-on experience and observation as well as discussion and other forms of learning.

What Is Experiential Learning?

In a sense, experiential learning is simply learning by doing -- but there is more to the process. Not only do learners take action, but they reflect on, learn from, and take new action based on experience. Kolb and Frye describe experiential learning as a four-part cycle:

  1. The learner has concrete experience with the content being taught.
  2. The learner reflects on the experience by comparing it to prior experiences.
  3. Based on experience and reflection, the learner develops new ideas about the content being taught.
  4. The learner acts on her new ideas by experimenting in an experiential setting.

When the new ideas are put into action, they become the basis for a new cycle of experiential learning.

Examples of Experiential Learning

It's important to understand that experiential learning is not identical with hands-on learning or apprenticeship. The purpose of experiential learning is not simply to learn a skill through practice, but also to think critically about the practice and to improve upon it.

For a child, hands-on learning might involve mixing baking powder and vinegar and watching it bubble and rise. This activity is good hands-on fun, but it doesn't necessarily provide the child with a full understanding of the chemical interaction between the two materials. 

For an adult, hands-on learning might involve working with a trained carpenter to learn how to build a chair. In this case, the learner has gained some skills -- but has not taken part in experiential learning. The next step would involve taking time to reflect on the experience and compare chair-building to other building projects. Based on reflection, the learner would then develop new ideas about how best to go about building a chair and return to chair building with new insights and ideas.

Pros and Cons of Experiential Learning

Experiential learning can be very powerful for adults because they have the life experience and cognitive ability to reflect, develop new ideas, and take positive action. It also provides adults with the real-world experience they need to place their new skills in context and to develop new ideas about how to implement their skills. This is particularly true when real-world skills are taught in a classroom context. For example, a classroom experience with providing CPR is very different from a real-world experience in the back of an ambulance.

On the other hand, experiential learning has very specific limits. It is only useful when the content being taught is content that will be used in a real-world setting. So, for example, it is very difficult to provide experiential learning relative to literature, history, or philosophy. Yes, it is possible to take field trips to relevant locations or museums -- but field trips are quite different from experiential learning.

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Peterson, Deb. "Overview and Definition of Experiential Learning." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, thoughtco.com/what-is-experiential-learning-31324. Peterson, Deb. (2020, August 26). Overview and Definition of Experiential Learning. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-experiential-learning-31324 Peterson, Deb. "Overview and Definition of Experiential Learning." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-experiential-learning-31324 (accessed June 5, 2023).