Experiential learning

Experiential learning places learning-by-doing at the core of the educational process and stimulates reflection and reasoning based on concrete transformative events.

These articles offer an overview of the research on experiential learning across disciplines in different university-level teaching and learning contexts.

Experiential learning fact sheet

Experiential learning is a philosophy of education based on the work of several 20th century scholars who gave experience a central role in their theories of human learning and development (e.g., John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, Jean Piaget, Paulo Freire, Carl Rogers).

In the early 1980s, educators began to explore how Experiential Learning Theory, and its six principles, could be used to enhance learning in higher education (Kolb, 1984; Kolb & Kolb, 2005):

  1. Learning is a process, not an outcome—learners should be engaged in a learning process, including feedback on the effectiveness of their efforts.
  2. All learning is relearning—the learning process draws out learners’ beliefs and ideas about a topic so that they can be examined and refined or modified.
  3. Conflict resolution—disagreement and differences drive the learning process.
  4. Holistic process—learning is not just the result of cognition, but the functional integration of thinking, feeling, perceiving, and behaving.
  5. Transactions between the individual and the environment—the learning process takes place in social and physical contexts.
  6. Creating knowledge—learners actively construct their understanding and knowledge.

From this perspective, learning is an iterative process involving experience and reflection on that experience. According to Dewey, “Learning takes place when a person involved in an activity looks back and evaluates it, determines what was useful or important to remember, and uses this information to perform another activity.” An instructor can utilize this powerful process by incorporating specific and purposeful experiences in the classroom and prompting students with specific reflective exercises so they can draw meaning from course content.

An experience can take place at the level of exposure, participation, or immersion, and there are several different kinds of experiences an instructor can implement in a course. Some pedagogies and teaching approaches have been identified as particularly conducive to experiential learning as they address most or all of the principles of the Experiential Learning Theory. These include laboratory work, field trips, problem-based learning, reflective writing, content-creation, undergraduate research, events where students present their knowledge to the community, computer assisted instruction, community service, workplace learning, peer mentoring, and internships (Kolb & Kolb, 2015; Smart & Csapo, 2007).

Similarly, there are several different ways an instructor can support the iterative loop between experience and reflection on that experience for students, including facilitating debriefs or seminars, assigning reflective journaling, or introducing relevant or further content and prompting a synthesis between the experience and the new content. When choosing the experience, an instructor needs to think about what kinds of experiences their students might be ready for. The best learning will happen when the experience evokes just the right amount of tension or dissonance, which is then followed by a purposeful reflective exercise in the classroom.

Numerous studies on the effectiveness of experiential learning pedagogies have been conducted over the past decades. Because Experiential Learning Theory is a holistic theory of learning, research in this field is highly interdisciplinary and addresses learning and educational issues in virtually all education levels and disciplines. Research in higher education, in particular, spans, but is not restricted to, disciplines such as management, education, business, science and engineering, the arts, second language education, information sciences, psychology, health disciplines, accounting, law, agriculture, etc. Experiential learning has been implemented and studied in classes with varied student enrolments, from low (around 20 students) to high (500 plus students).

Different qualitative and quantitative meta-analysises of the existing literature have highlighted the following:


  • Improved academic performance
  • Increased student interest and focus on learning topics and tasks
  • Improved oral and written communication
  • Faster content knowledge acquisition
  • Reduced gap between theory and practice
  • Increased student engagement
  • Higher retention of course materials
  • Enables personalized learning opportunities
  • Promotes critical thinking and problem solving skills


  • Insufficient/inadequate educational spaces and equipment
  • Class management challenges
  • Lack of instructor training or experience
  • Traditional assessment practices require revision

“People grow best where they continuously experience an ingenious blend of challenge and support.” (Kegan, 1994)

"Education must be conceived as a continuing reconstruction of experience…the process and goal of education are one and the same thing.” (Dewey, 1938)

“When learning is conceived as a holistic adaptive process, it provides conceptual bridges across life situations such as school and work, portraying learning as a continuous, lifelong process.” (Kolb, 1984)

“Students remember only a fraction of what they hear but a majority of what they actively do.” (Hawtrey, 2007)

“Adult learners bring to the learning setting a wealth of prior experience and are eager to draw upon their background and previous learning in the classroom.” (Lewis & Williams, 1994)

“Methods and techniques that utilize learners’ previous experiences, link conceptual foundations to practice, and encourage reflection are pivotal to the learning process.” (Lewis & Williams, 1994)

Brown, G. A., Bull, J., & Pendlebury, M. (2013). Assessing student learning in higher education. Madison, NY: Routledge.

Bullen, M., Morgan, T., & Qayyum, A. (2011). Digital learners in higher education: Generation is not the issue. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology/La revue canadienne de l’apprentissage et de la technologie, 37(1). Retrieved from http://www.cjlt.ca/index.php/cjlt/article/view/550/298

Chavan, M. (2011). Higher education students' attitudes towards experiential learning in international business. Journal of Teaching in International Business, 22(2), 126-143. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/08975930.2011.615677

Hew, K. F., & Cheung, W. S. (2010). Use of three‐dimensional (3‐D) immersive virtual worlds in K‐12 and higher education settings: A review of the research. British Journal of Educational Technology, 41(1), 33-55. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8535.2008.00900.x

Kayes, D. C. (2002). Experiential learning and its critics: Preserving the role of experience in management learning and education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 1(2), 137-149. http://dx.doi.org/10.5465/AMLE.2002.8509336

Kirschner, P. A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential, and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86. http://dx.doi.org/10.1207/s15326985ep4102_1

Kolb, A. Y., & Kolb, D. A. (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: Enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 4(2), 193-212. http://dx.doi.org/10.5465/AMLE.2005.17268566

Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Lester, S., & Costley, C. (2010). Work‐based learning at higher education level: Value, practice and critique. Studies in Higher Education, 35(5), 561-575. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03075070903216635

Maudsley, G., & Strivens, J. (2000). Promoting professional knowledge, experiential learning and critical thinking for medical students. Medical Education, 34(7), 535-544. http://dx.doi.org/10.1046/j.1365-2923.2000.00632.x