What is Experiential Learning?
You may have heard the terms experiential education and experiential learning. Both terms identify learning through experience as a foundational understanding. However, experiential learning is associated with individual learning.
Traditionally experience-based learning in higher education has been presented as educational opportunities complimentary to classroom instruction. These experiences might include clinical experiences, cooperative education experiences, apprenticeships, fellowships, field work, volunteerism, study abroad, practicum and internships, service learning, and student teaching experiences. These types of learning experiences are offered in and across many different disciplines (Giesen, 2012). These familiar experiential education programs demonstrate the value of individual experiential learning. But, the question remains: Is experiential learning a viable approach for online instruction?
Understanding the potential for experiential learning for online courses turns upon recognizing experiential learning as a process. The experiential learning process has been described as a cycle of learning (Kolb and Kolb, 2018). The model below illustrates The Experiential Learning Cycle.
Experiential learning is understood as constructive pedagogy approach that is highly student centered. The Experience Learning Cycle begins with a concrete experience of some kind. Commonly we think of this as a real world event. That experience is followed by reflective observation of the experience, abstract conceptualization of what was learned, and the application of new learning via active experimentation. That experimentation is integrated as part of the next concrete experience.
The interactive and progressive nature of the experiential learning cycle is considered a driver of personal growth and development. The dialectics between concrete experience and abstract conceptualization as well as reflective observation and active experimentation are theorized to drive motivation for learning.
Online Experiential Learning In Practice
Problem-based learning, case-based learning, and project-based learning are examples of design models that may include learning via experience in the real world (Bates, 2014). These models are often used as a way of bringing engagement into online instruction. So, if you have been incorporating these models of learning in an online course you are engaged at some level with experiential learning. But, what if you wanted to design an experiential learning assignment that does not fall within one of these models? What might that look like?
Let’s examine the application of the experiential learning cycle to an online learning experience in a course recently offered through Ecampus at Oregon State University. The asynchronous course, Introduction to Organic Agriculture Systems, is a survey style course with an enrollment of students from Oregon and more distant.
Let’s step through The Cycle of Experiential Learning with an assignment from this course as our sample context. Hopefully it will reveal some insights into both the process of experiential learning and its practice.
1. Concrete Experience
The concrete experience for this course was an organic scavenger hunt assignment that was to be completed in the first week of the course. Although the overt activity of was a guided scavenger hunt the learning experience focus was to begin to learn systems thinking in organic agriculture. This is important to identify, as it is the authentic learning goal of the experiential learning.
As the professor framed this assignment: “This introductory activity will provide you the opportunity to explore organic availability, marketing, and farming in your community.”This concrete experience is the direct experience of organics in the student’s community.
The objectives of the scavenger hunt were to:
- Identify organic products and marketing techniques that differentiate organic from conventional products
- Conduct a survey of organic availability in your local store and region
- Participate in hands-on exploration of different components of the organic system
Students were provided with a detail scavenger hunt instruction set and told to complete there first part of the assignment in a local store using an organic scavenger hunt questionnaire-work sheet. Time estimates for completion of the scavenger hunt was up to three hours at the store site. Completed work sheets were turned in to the instructor.
The key to this assignment is the real life exploration of the local organic system. Although this will be elaborated on in subsequent weeks of the course, this concrete experience will become a touchstone students can reference as they build new knowledge and skills in systems thinking in organic agriculture.
2. Reflective Observation
Part 2 of the scavenger hunt assignment includes independent student work guided by questions that ask about the presence of organic farms in the student’s area, type of organic farms, scale of the farms and evidence of their independent research work.
This element of the assignment encourages students to search for, identify, and reflect upon gaps in the local organic system in their own backyard. This work encourages students to reflect upon their own concrete experience, the quality of their work, and its linkage to understanding systems thinking.
3. Abstract Conceptualization
In week three of the course students were assigned a course discussion to share their findings from the scavenger hunt with peers. Here they compare and contrast their scavenger hunt findings and observations. In particular, students were asked to connect the social, environmental and economic dimensions of sustainability in organic agriculture to their observations taken from the scavenger hunt experience. Additionally students were asked to review other student work from different locals and explore common understandings about organic agriculture systems.
The value of this exercise from an experiential learning perspective is the application of concrete experience to more abstract concepts described by others or found in other agricultural regions. This provides opportunities for the re-conceptualizing of prior experiences with the goal of expanding on the process of organic agriculture systems thinking.
4. Active Experimentation
The Cycle of Experiential Learning rounds out with planning and applying new learning about organic agriculture systems thinking to a future concrete experience. Abstract conceptualization completed in the previous discussion will contribute to the formulation of new questions and ways of examining a local organic agriculture system. Students will likely apply these ideas to ongoing organic agriculture systems thinking in the course. In this way prior reflective observation becomes the root of new questions and predicted results for the next learning experience in organic agriculture systems thinking.
The final project of this course is the production of an organic systems map that explains the relationships between organic system stages (i.e., production, processing, distribution/marketing, consumption, and waste) and the dimensions of sustainability (ie. social, environmental, and economic).
In order to complete the final project students learn a great deal between their initial scavenger hunt and the final project. Their original concrete experience in systems thinking will likely inform decisions about how to re-apply new organic agriculture systems thinking.
The experiential learning assignment we just examined only works if students perceive that moving through the cycle of experiential learning addresses an authentic learning need. As the course is focused on introducing organic agriculture systems the idea of learning systems thinking makes sense. It captures the fundamental truth of what is expected to be learned (Jacobson, 2017) making the learning appropriate.
As you explore the possibility of using experiential learning in your online course it is valuable for you to first consider formulating answers to a number of questions.
- What is the authentic learning needed?
- What concrete experience provides students with access to that learning?
- How will students carry that concrete experience through the cycle of experiential learning?
- How will you provide the opportunity for concrete experiences for remote learners in a way that fosters individual learning and contributes to large scale learning in the course?
As you explore experiential learning for your online course revisit the model shared in this article. For help in this process contact your Ecampus instructional designer. They can help focus the key questions and suggest instructional strategies and tools to help you achieve your online experiential learning goals.
Bates, T. (2014). Can you do experiential learning online? Assessing design models for experiential learning. Retrieved from https://www.tonybates.ca/2014/12/01/can-you-do-experiential-learning-online-assessing-design-models-for-experiential-learning/
Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Giesen, J. (2012). Experiential Learning. Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, Northern Illinois University. Retrieved from https://www.niu.edu/facdev/_pdf/guide/strategies/experiential_learning.pdf
Jacobson, J. (2017). Authenticity in Immersive Design for Education. In Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed Realities (Ch 3). Singapore, Springer Nature.
Retrieved from https://link.springer.com/book/10.1007%2F978-981-10-5490-7
Kolb, A. & Kolb, D. (2018). Eight important things to know about The Experience Learning Cycle. Australian Educational Leader, 40 (3), 8-14.
Experiential Education Resources
Association for Experiential Education
Journal of Experiential Education
Experience Based Learning Systems Inc.
Experiential Learning & Experiential Education