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Understanding Experiential Learning

There is substantial research on EL and its impact, leading to many different definitions and approaches. Here are some of the more prominent elements, characteristics and best practices of EL. This resource aims to expose you to various approaches to EL and best support your learning goals as you integrate EL into practice.

Essential Elements of Experiential Learning

These essential elements have been identified to ensure meaningful and successful experiences (Biggs, 2003).

Direct Experience

Direct Experience

Structured to engage students in learning by doing actively. Examples include posing questions, investigating, experimenting, and solving problems.

Direct Experience

Focused Reflection

The process of thinking about the experience to make sense of it. In many cases, this may include questions or facilitated discussion.

Direct Experience

Authentic Assessment

Includes the provision of feedback where the students demonstrate gains (knowledge, skills, values).

Principles of Good Practice

Principle Definition
Intention All parties must be clear from the outset why the experience is the chosen approach to the learning and the knowledge that will be demonstrated, applied or resulting from it. Intention represents the purposefulness that enables experience to become knowledge and, as such, is more profound than the goals, objectives, and activities that define the experience..
Preparedness and planning Participants must ensure that they enter the experience with a sufficient foundation to support a successful experience. They must also focus from the earliest stage of the experience/program on the identified intentions, adhering to them as goals, objectives and activities as defined. The resulting plan should include those intentions and be referred to regularly by all parties. At the same time, it should be flexible enough to allow for adaptations as the experience unfolds.
Authenticity The experience must have a real world context and/or be useful and meaningful in an applied setting or situation. This means it should be designed in concert with those affected by or use it or in response to a real situation.
  Reflection is the element that transforms a simple experience to a learning experience. For knowledge to be discovered and internalized, the learner must test assumptions and hypotheses about the outcomes of decisions and actions taken, then weigh the outcomes against past learning and future implications. This reflective process is integral to all phases of EL, from identifying intention and choosing the experience, to considering preconceptions and observing how they change as the experience unfolds. Reflection is also an essential tool for adjusting the experience and measuring outcomes.
Orientation and training For the total value of the experience to be accessible to the learner, learning facilitator(s), and involved organizational partners, they must prepare and share vital background information about each other and the context and environment in which the experience will operate. Once that baseline of knowledge is addressed, the experience should include ongoing structured development opportunities to expand the learner’s appreciation of their work’ context and skill requirements.
Monitoring and continuous improvement Any learning activity will be dynamic and changing. The parties involved all bear responsibility for ensuring that the experience, as it is in process, continues to provide the richest learning possible while affirming the learner. There must be a feedback loop related to learning intentions and quality objectives. The structure of the experience should be sufficiently flexible to permit a change in response to what that feedback suggests. While reflection provides input for new hypotheses and knowledge based on documented experience, other strategies for observing progress against intentions and objectives should also be in place. Monitoring and continuous improvement represent the formative evaluation tools.
Assessment and evaluation Outcomes and processes should be systematically documented with regard to initial intentions and quality outcomes. Assessment is a means to develop and refine the specific learning goals and quality objectives identified during the planning stages of the experience, while evaluation provides comprehensive data about the experiential process as a whole and whether it has met the intentions which suggested it.
Acknowledgement Recognition of learning and impact occurs throughout the experience through reflective and monitoring processes, reporting, documentation, and sharing of accomplishments. All parties to the experience should be included in recognition of progress and achievements. Culminating documentation and celebration of learning and impact help provide closure and sustainability to the experience.

Characteristics Used to Define an Activity or Method as Experiential

Absence of Excessive Judgement

Students should be able to reflect on their own learning, bringing “the theory to life” and gaining insight into themselves and their interactions with the world.

The Role of Reflection

There must be a balance between the experiential activities and the underlying content or theory.

Mixture of Content and Process

The instructor must create a safe space for students to work through their process of self-discovery.

Engagement in Purposeful Endeavours

The learner is the self-teacher; therefore, there must be “meaning for the student in the learning.” The learning must be personally relevant to the student.

Encouraging the Big Picture Perspective

There must be a balance between the experiential activities and the underlying content or theory.

The Re-Examination of Values

By working within a space that has been made safe for self-exploration, students can begin to analyze and even alter their values.

Creating Emotional Investment

Students should be fully immersed in the experience, not merely doing what they feel is required. The process needs to engage students to ensure what is learned and experienced strikes a critical and central chord within them.

The Presence of Meaningful Relationships

One part of getting students to see their learning in the context of the whole world is to start by showing the relationships between learner to self, learner to teacher, and learner to the learning environment.

Learning outside one’s perceived comfort zone

Learning is enhanced when students can operate outside of their own perceived comfort zones. This refers to their physical and social environments and could include, for instance, “being accountable for one’s actions and owning the consequences.”


Biggs, & Tang, C. S. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university : what the student does (4th ed.). McGraw-Hill/Society for Research into Higher Education/Open University Press.

Chapman, S., McPhee, P., & Proudman, B. (1992). What is Experiential Education? Journal of Experiential Education, 15(2), 16–23. (external link, opens in new window) 

National Society for Experiential Education. Presented at the 1998 Annual Meeting, Norfolk, VA