The idea that students learn best when they have the opportunity to apply what they are learning to real-world contexts is the basis of Experiential Learning Theory (ELT). Learning by doing is at its core, and as a high-impact practice, there is increasingly more emphasis on experiential learning in higher education. There is plenty of evidence that supports the benefits of this type of learning. It affords students an opportunity to connect knowledge to authentic situations and increases learner autonomy, motivation, and overall satisfaction (Kolb and Kolb, 2018). Many OSU Ecampus Courses feature such experiences. In fact, OSU’s Honors College requires all courses to include experiential learning components, and this is increasingly the case across disciplines at OSU.
What does experiential learning look like?
Many of us may think of community engagement, project-based learning, or practicums when we consider what constitutes an experiential learning experience. While these are solid examples of ELT in practice, experiential learning can take many forms across learning environments. David Kolb describes experiential learning as a four-stage process in his cycle of learning (Kolb and Kolb, 2018). According to Kolb, learning is a process where knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Students can engage with the cycle at any point in the experience as long as they engage with all four stages. The flexibility of hybrid and online learning presents rich possibilities for incorporating this process. The four stages of Kolb’s experiential learning process include:
- Concrete learning: engage in a new experience or critically interpret a past experience.
- Reflective observation: use experience and background knowledge to understand the relevance or meaning of the experience.
- Abstract conceptualization: gain a new understanding of the experience by adjusting thinking based on reflection.
- Active experimentation: engage experimentally by applying new insights to the situation in a practical way.
Kolb’s theory is not without limitations in that it does not provide clear answers about how collaboration between learners affects reflection, and it doesn’t account for learning that occurs without reflection (Psychology, 2022). While his model isn’t the final word on all of the ways learners make sense of the world, it does provide a good starting point for understanding and designing effective real-world learning opportunities.
What makes a good experiential learning experience?
Regardless of the activity, both the experience and the learning are fundamental in experiential learning scenarios, and the ongoing engagement of both the instructor and the student is critical. In experiential environments, students take ownership of their learning process by taking a more active role such as in posing questions, experimenting, and constructing meaning through their persistent participation in the experience. The role of the instructor, on the other hand, is to ensure that the experience is of high quality and in alignment with the stated learning outcomes while also supporting the learner to develop autonomy in using the principles of experiential learning as defined by The National Society of Experiential Education (NSEE).