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Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning is the sense-making process of active engagement between the inner world of the person and the outer world of the environment. We are aware that traditional learning with the teacher or trainer spouting facts and figures and with pupils or participants regurgitating the information without deeper involvement is very ineffective form of learning. Therefore, a much more effective and long-lasting form of learning is to involve the learner by creating a meaningful learning experience. It enables him/her to unleash some of the more potent ingredients of learning.

 Active engagement is one of the basic tenets of experiential learning which involves the whole person, through thoughts, feelings, and physical activity. The recognition of this “whole environment” both internally and externally is very important. Thus experiential learning takes on many appearances in life such as recreational or leisure activities, exhilarating journeys or adventures, experimentation or play, games and service projects.

 Therefore experiential learning offers techniques that help learners make sense of their experiences as well as methods to develop and practice new positive behaviours. It helps the developers, educations and trainers to focus on the design of new ideas and explore ways to improve professional practice and ethical responsibility through self-monitoring and feedback techniques.

 Teachers’ Orientation Workshops on Education in Universal Human Values include introduction to Experiential Learning and training participants on some aspects of Experiential Learning such as educational games, interactive theatre called Happy Hippo Show, and Service Learning Activities.

 Read below about Experiential Learning and how it is employed in the Bahá’í Academy programme.


 Experiential Learning: How It Is Employed In The Bahá’í Academy Programme 

by Aryana Samawaki, Universitat Konstanz (Germany),

International Intern at the Bahá’í Academy,

April-Sept. 2013


Being represented in almost all the learning theories, Experiential Learning is one of the most powerful means of learning that currently exists. It is the most natural and fundamental way of learning. Defining Experiential Learning we can say that it is,

“...the insight gained through the conscious or unconscious internalization of our own observed experiences, which builds upon our past experiences or knowledge” (Beard &Wilson, 2007: 43).

Theoretical Background

In Experiential Learning educators purposely engage with students in active experience and meaningful reflection to increase knowledge, skills and qualities. As Benjamin Franklin has said, “Tell me and I forget, Teach me and I remember, Involve me and I will learn.” This being said, it becomes clear, that the idea of learning by doing is not a new concept. The philosophy on the significance of experience goes back to the ancient Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, Plato and Socrates (Allison, Carr & Stonehouse, 2009). Three renowned thinkers of the 20th century have also been putting emphasis on learning through experience: John Dewey (1859-1952), Carl Rogers (1902- 1987), and David Kolb who has been one of the most influential writers (b. 1939) (Beard & Wilson, 2007, Giesen, 2011).

Figure 1: Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle


Dewey explained the learning process in the three stages of observation, knowledge and judgement. Kolb who draws upon the work of Dewey moreover refers to the work of Lewin who describes the learning process as a concrete experience, followed by observation and reflection, the formation of abstract concepts and generalization and the testing of implications of concepts in new situations. Kolb summarises his approach to learning in a four-stage Experiential Learning Cycle, which can be seen in Figure 1. In this cycle immediate or concrete experiences provide the basis for interpretation and reflection, which are then generalized into abstract concepts which can be applied and tested in new situations, thereby creating again a new experience (Beard &Wilson, 2007, Chapman, 2013a).


Active Experimentation (doing)

Reflective Observation (watching)

Concrete Experience (feeling)



Abstract Conceptualization (thinking)



Figure 2: Kolb’s learning style matrix

Educational researchers have found that there is not one learning style that fits for all learners, but rather each learner has his/her own preferences how to learn (Clark, Ewing & Threeton, 2010). In this context, Kolb defined four types of learning styles. Kolb understands the learning style preference as the product of two choices that we make in the learning process. It is easily understood through a two-by-two matrix (Figure 2).The first question is how we approach a task, through Active Experimentation (doing) or through Reflective Observation (watching); the second question is how we emotionally transform the experience into something meaningful, through Concrete Experience (feeling) or through Abstract Conceptualization (thinking). As seen in the matrix, four different learning styles emerge: Diverging, Assimilating, Converging and Accommodating. These serve more as guidelines rather than rules, though most people show a clear learning style preference (Chapman, 2013a). A brief outline of these learning styles, taken from Clark, Ewing & Threeton, 2010:

(a)    Converging (Abstract Conceptualization and Abstract Experimentation): Learners that prefer this style tend to excel at finding pragmatic mythologies of working with ideas and theories and are inclined to be good at problem solving and technical tasks.

(b)   Diverging (Concrete Experience and Reflective Observation): Learners that prefer this style tend to perform well in situations that call for generation of ideas (brainstorming).

(c)    Assimilating (Abstract Conceptualization and Reflective Observation): Learners that prefer this style tend to excel at understanding and organizing a range of information and would often times rather work with concepts than people.

(d)   Accommodating (Concrete Experimentation and Reflective Observation): Learners that prefer this style tend to excel at hands on learning activities and enjoy completing new experiences and complex tasks.

With this understanding of different learning styles, educators can through conscious effort adapt their teaching styles (Clark, Ewing & Threeton, 2010).

Examples of Experiential Learning Activities


Figure 3: Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience, Bilash, O. (2009)

In Experiential Learning (sometimes referred to as EL) the learning environment is being transformed; it is no more restricted to the classroom, but reaching out to the community. Creating a variety of opportunities to learn is the essence of Experiential Learning. Students learn with the help of real projects, such as outdoor adventures and environmental or community work. One fundamental principle of Experiential Learning is the understanding that learning is enhanced when students discover things for themselves, through their own emotional engagement with the topic. Some of these Experiential Learning Activities are outdoor-activities (rock-climbing, sailing, canoeing, camping, rafting etc.), games, video projects, drama/role-play (performed or imagined, scripted or improvised, involving one individual or many, playing oneself or someone else, familiar or unfamiliar set of circumstances, etc.), adventurous journeys, expeditions, sculpting, arts, stories, metaphors, guided fantasy, comics, cartoons, reading, writing (Beard &Wilson, 2007) and teaching others (Chapman, 2013). According to Dale’s ‘Cone of Experience’ (Figure 3) lower levels of abstraction involve the student as a participant, include more stimuli, provide more natural feedback in form of consequences and thus encourage active learning. On the other hand higher levels of the cone provide information faster by summarizing necessary information (Beard &Wilson, 2007). Apart from hands-on experiences, EL furthermore encourages conditions for reflection. In this context negative experiences can also have a great impact in contributing to the learning. In EL the value of problems is emphasized; without any problems it would be unlikely that we change what we are already doing and thus we fail to progress -- in meeting challenges the learner has an opportunity to grow (Beard &Wilson, 2007).


Designing Experiential Learning Activities

The structure of Experiential Learning is designed to facilitate a process in which students cooperate and learn from each other. The experiences are structured in such a way, that the student has to take initiative, make decision and is held responsible for her results. In this semi-structured approach the focus lies on the process of learning and not on the final product of it. This design inculcates the possibility to learn from consequences, mistakes as well as victories. The experience of the student becomes a personal learning and builds the basis for future endeavours. The role of the instructor is that of a facilitator, who encourages, supports, sets opportunities for learning, poses problems, ensures physical and emotional safety, and sets boundaries (Giesen, 2011).

For the help of designing Experiential Learning activities Beard and Wilson (2007) offer a seventeen point typology. To set the target for the experience, to create a sense of journey, allowing participants to exercise many forms of intelligence, creating a sequence of social, mental, psychological and physical activities, thereby involving mind spirit and boy, adjusting elements of reality, stimulating the senses, using constructions or deconstruction, designing collaborative strategies, creating restrictions, providing elements of risk and challenge, setting time constraints, allowing people to deal with risk, change, success and failure, designing sorting or organizational skills, including functional skills, giving quiet time for reflection and allowing the story of the experience to be told. These are the points mentioned in the typology, which can help educators design Experiential Learning activities. Good practice, designing skills and a sound theoretical understanding must always guide the process of creating an activity. In creating the activity, levels of reality can be lowered or raised to support more effective learning. In this connection the pedagogy of space should also be considered. Very rewarding is the use of humour, metaphors and storytelling to influence the emotional connection to what has been learnt (Beard & Wilson, 2007).

Collaborative and Reflective Learning Experience

This paragraph describes the collaborative and reflective learning experience and the different steps thereof. The first step “Doing” is where the students experience, with either little or no help from their instructor. Playing a game, having a project, or role-playing are examples for such experiences. Having experienced the activity, students share with each other the results and reactions they have observed and discuss “what happened”. In a next step they analyze “what is important”, they discuss how the activity was carried out, which themes, problems and issues emerged as a result of the activity, and how these challenges were addressed. Connecting the experience with examples from the real world and finding trends or common truth help them to identify some real life principles --“So what?”. In the last step “now what?” Students discuss how the identified learning can be applied to other situations and apply what they have learned from the experience to new scenarios, making behaviour more effective. The task of the instructor is to help each student to have a sense of ownership for the learning (Giesen, 2011).

Advantages and Disadvantages of Experiential Learning

Some of the advantages of Experiential learning are learning by doing, the immediacy of learning, thoroughness of learning, retention, and the emphasis on understanding rather than memorizing. Through learning by doing, it is ensured that the student is actually able to apply what has been learnt; furthermore the skills are being learnt quickly, with learning taking place almost immediately; through active engagement in activities thoroughness of the learning is ensured; the emotional involvement in the learning experience helps better retention of the concepts, and lastly the emphasis of understanding concepts rather than just memorizing them, makes learning valuable (Sivakumar, 2013).

Kolb’s theory on Experiential Learning has also received several critiques. Some argue, that in the learning circle the concrete experience is not adequately explained. That many of the concepts in Experiential Learning are ill-defined and thus open to various interpretations. The role of non-reflective experiences and their impact on learning have not been discussed, and it furthermore disregards the subjective reality of each individual learner, created by their observations. Critics have mentioned the lack of discussion concerning the social aspects of experiential learning as well as how learning through experience occurs for social groups (Oxendine, Robinson & Willson, 2004). Beard and Wilson (2007) name the lack of direction caused by a student centred approach as one of the disadvantages of Experiential Learning. With students determining the direction of their learning, difficulties in following the curriculum can arise. They furthermore name the difficulty to link EL with complex areas of technology (such as theoretical physics), as well as the subjectivity of EL, which lacks scientific objectivity, since each students creates their own reality.

 Experiential Learning as a Useful Methodology for Value Education at College/ University levels

In his article N. Sivakumar (2013) describes Experiential Learning as a useful methodology to integrate value education into higher education. He mentions three different techniques:

  • Introducing the concept of human values using experiential case-studies,
  • Highlighting the importance of cooperation through experiential games,
  • Teaching the value of “search for truth” through situation analysis.

In its programme “Education in Universal Human Values”, the Baha’i Academy ( uses several Experiential Learning Activities to enrich the participants’ learning experience: the interactive theatre used for addressing and working towards solving social issues, called The Happy Hippo Show; the Service Learning Activity, which students undertake after the completion of each module, to apply their learning to the needs of communities through Service Projects; various Cooperative Games, which are being used throughout the study of the Academy’s Modules; Practicals in which students identify situations and issues within their extended families and subsequently undertake actions to promote human values in the identifies situations.



Useful URLs and Books for Further Study about Experiential Learning:


Website of the Institute of Experiential Learning in Bangalore:


Disha India, Centre for Experiential Learning:


UNESCO, Teacher Education Programme, Experiential Learning:


Association for Experiential Education, USA:

Learning by Doing: A guide to Teaching and Learning Methods (Graham Gibbs)



Books for further reading:

Jeffrey A. Kantor, Experiential Learning in Higher Education: Linking Classroom and Community, 1997

Michael Reynolds & Russ Vince, The Handbook of Experiential Learning and Management Education, 2007,


Andy Martin, Dan Franc & Daniela Zounkova, Outdoor and Experiential Learning: An Holistic and Creative Approach to Programme Design, 2004,



Allison, P. & Carr, D., Stonehouse, P. (2009). Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates: Ancient Greek perspectives on experiential learning. In T. Smith & C. Knapp (Eds.) Beyond Dewey and Hahn: Standing on the shoulders of influential experiential educators (pp.29-41), Raccoon Institute Publications, Wisconsin.


Beard, C., Wilson, J.P. (2007). Experiential Learning: A Best Practice Handbook for Educators and Trainers (2nd Ed.), Gopsons Papers Ltd, Noida (India).

Bilash, O. (2009). Dale’s Cone of Experience., accessed on September 4, 2013.

Chapman, A. (2013). Experiential Learning, accessed on September 4, 2013.

Chapman, A. (2013a). Kolb Learning Styles., accessed on September 11, 2013.

Clark, R.W., Ewing, J.C. & Threeton, M.D. (2010). The Potential of Experiential Learning Models and Practices In Career and Technical Education & Career and Technical Teacher Education., accessed on September 11, 2013.

Giesen, J. (2011). Experiential Learning, accessed on August 30, 2013.

 Oxendine, C., Robinson, J., & Willson, G. (2004). Experiential learning. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology., accessed on August 31, 2013.

Sivakumar, N. (2013). Integration of Human Values in Higher Education Pedagogy Through Experiential Learning, Published in University News, Vol. 51(No. 18), pp 17-20, Association of Indian Universities, New Delhi, India

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