Experiential learning is the process of learning by doing, connecting theories and knowledge to real-world situations.

Experiential learning is a constructivist learning theory defined as ‘learning by doing’. The learner is an active participant in the educational process, and learning is achieved through a continuous cycle of inquiry, reflection, analysis and synthesis (Bartle, 2015 (PDF, 803.8 KB)).

David A. Kolb described experiential learning as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combinations of grasping and transforming the experience.” (Kolb, 1984).

By participating in experiential learning, students are engaged in authentic learning experiences that position them as active participants in their learning. They develop the ability to bridge the gap between theory and practice and integrate learning beyond the classroom. Experiential learning can increase student engagement, improve learning effectiveness and enhance work and life skills.

Best practice

The teacher’s primary role in experiential learning is to create suitable learning experiences and facilitate the learning process, rather than direct instruction.

Kolb’s experiential learning cycle is comprised of four major modes of learning:

  • Concrete experience: the learner has a hands-on experience connected to the learning outcome.
  • Reflective observation: the learner reflects and reviews the experience from a range of different perspectives.
  • Abstract conceptualisation: the learner analyses and connects the experience to previous learning and develops new ideas about the content being taught.
  • Active experimentation: the learner acts on their new ideas by experimenting in an experiential setting.

All four learning modes must be addressed for learning to be most effective. As new ideas are put into action, a new cycle of experiential learning begins.

Engaging students in authentic, hands-on activity

Experiential learning can be used to support students to undertake learning in a variety of campus-based, project-based, work-integrated and community contexts. It is beneficial to identify experiences that students will have an interest in. These experiences should be structured to require the learner to take the initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results, including learning from natural consequences, mistakes and successes.

Examples of experiential learning activities include:

  • applied research projects
  • case studies
  • field experience
  • simulations
  • labs
  • work integrated learning.

Taking time for reflection and the construction of meaning

Students are supported in reviewing and reflecting on their experience, often through a set structure or activity to focus on reflection. This activity could include written reflections, reflecting with others or creative reflections. Critical reflection and reflective practice are not innate skills. Students will often need to be actively taught these. Reflections serve as valuable formative assessments and help students construct meaning and draw connections between new information and their existing knowledge, experiences and ideas.

For guidance regarding the assessment of experiential learning, view the Authentic assessment page.

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Technology considerations

Blackboard journals can include links to resources, multimedia as well as text. It can only be viewed and commented on by teaching staff and not by other students in the course.

An ePortfolio is an evolving electronic/online resource that acts to record, store and archive the artefacts of learning and reflection for an individual learner. Students can include text, multimedia, images or links as part of their reflection.

Kaltura (video server) allows staff and students to upload videos they have produced and embed them into course sites. You can create video assignments for students to submit videos as assessments.

View centrally-supported active learning tools

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Case studies

Case study 1 – Video experiment

Associate Professor Chris Clarkson

In consultation with staff, students nominate a course-related topic to design a practical, replicable or experiential archaeological experiment.

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Case study 2 – Ethnographic fieldwork (supervised placement)

Dr Sally Babidge

This assessment is designed to facilitate ‘contextually situated’ or ‘experientially-based knowledge’ and may enhance student employability in direct and indirect ways: It may lead to direct employment opportunities through networking possibilities.

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View more case studies (UQ Assessment Ideas Factory)

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