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Experiential Learning: A Primer: What is it?

Active Learning vs Experiential Learning
There is significant difference in the literature on the relationship between active learning and experiential learning. Depending on the source the relationship is either one of different (but equally viable) didactical principle approaches or one is among many subsets of the other - active learning being the overarching concept, and the other sub-concepts including (but not limited too) case studies, analysis, role-playing, peer teaching, problem-based learning, project-based learning or game-based learning  (Misseyanni et al., 2018, p.1).

What is Experiential Learning? (EL theory and pedagogy)
"Experiential Learning is simply learning by doing" according to StratXExel: Experiential Learning.  This simple definition of EL is a common one and is widely held and propagated.  Is that it then? 

Not exactly. Because, "experiential learning is not learning by doing" according experiential trainer and author Mark Collard in a video by this very name.  Collard goes on to say that experiential learning is simply, "The process by which we reflect on what we have done. The learning through the reflection of what we have done."  He goes on to say that, "a whole lot of doing is not enough" and that" reflection is the key," because, "doing, doing doing, devoid of reflection, will not create learning."

This concept of reflection of the act of doing does seem to be the common denominator in the literature when defining experiential learning. It is the experience plus the act of reflecting on the experience. Indeed the Association for Experiential Education defines it just this way: "Experiential Education is a hands-on form of learning that begins with a concrete experience.  After solving a problem, learners reflect on the process and are able to apply lessons more broadly to their lives.”   

What experiences actually constitute the experience of experiential learning are not mutually exclusive, but they do tend to vary widely. This seems to add a bit of confusion when defining what is - and what is not - experiential education at the bare tactical level where it is often hard to exclude Kolbs learning cyclean educational act that is not "learning by doing."  For example writing is an act that is done "by doing."  Then, is writing  - and then reflecting on that writing - experiential learning?  Well, maybe....sort of.  Is not doing lab work for a science class and then reflecting on it (maybe by writing a lab report for example) "learning by doing?"  Gym class is "learning by doing." What else would you do - except somehow reflect on it afterwards to make it officially experiential learning?

But, though these traditional learning acts seem to be able to fall into the bucket of experiential learning,  it seems that true "experiential learning" -at least on a broader level - should be a bit more substantive than that.  Indeed, Knud Illeris of the Learning Lab Denmark notes that, "the more complex the type of individual acquisition is, the more likely it is that the learning could be characterized as experiential" (Illeris, 2007,p.93).  As adapted by educational and training institutions, the term experiential learning thus refers to the holistic model of experiential learning theory developed by David Kolb who drew on the work of prominent 20th educational thinkers who themselves “made experience a central role in their theories of human learning and development ” (EBLIS, 2020).

Like most institutions including the aforementioned Association for Experiential Learning, then, the Center for Experiential Learning at Boston University describes experiential learning as "an engaged learning process whereby students “learn by doing” and by reflecting on the experience. Experiential learning activities can include, but are not limited to, hands-on laboratory experiments, internships, practicums, field exercises, study abroad, undergraduate research and studio performances" (Boston University).

Boston University. (n.d.). Experiential Learning. Center for Teaching and Learning. Retrieved April 27, 2020, from  

EBLIS. (May 15, 2020). This is Experiential Learning. [Video]. Youtube. 

Illeris, K. (2007). What Do We Actually Mean by Experiential Learning? Human Resource Development Review, 6(1), 84–95. 

Misseyanni, A., Lytras, M. D., Papadopoulou, P., & Marouli, C. (2018). Active Learning Strategies in Higher Education: Teaching for Leadership, Innovation, and Creativity. Emerald Publishing Limited.



Categories of Experiential Learning Experiences

Determining the focus of what constitutes “experiential learning” varies across institutions.  In the interests of trying to more clearly define common perceptions of experiential learning, I have contrived two different (unstated) category themes that institutions use when listing and categorizing those experiences considered “experiential learning.“ 

Video 8 things to know about the experiential learning cycle | Experience  Based Learning Systems, LLC (EBLS)One is based on where (in-class vs out of class) and how (simulated vs OJT) the experience is practiced.  Thus, the experiences are subdivided into (1) those specific to practice or training in a career field or field work, (2) a university/institution sponsored study experience, (3) an in-class hands-on/“learning by doing” experience, and (4) a simulated system/process/entity/phenomenon experience.

The other category has three areas that are more to do with how the experiences are seen in different types of Centers for Experiential Learning - through the bureaucratic, departmental structure of the institution and the type and mission of the university.  Thus, one category of Experiential Learning Centers is housed in career services or career developmental centers, thus emphasizing the importance of experiential learning for job skills and attaining a career.  Another group of such centers is associated with schools that require repeated technical practice for proficiency such as medical universities and law and business schools.  While the third association of experiential learning centers is associated with innovative and excellence in teaching and learning programs.

I have detailed each of the two main categories in two tabs in this guide.


Research Librarian, Media Services Coordinator

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Jared Seay
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