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Experiential Learning Theory

Jun 8, 2020

What is experiential learning?

Learning by doing. This is the basis for the experiential learning theory. Experiential learning focuses on the idea that the best ways to learn things is by actually having experiences. Those experiences then stick out in your mind and help you retain information and remember facts. 

For teachers, creating opportunities for students to have experiences based on the things they are learning about is key. Teachers can help create environments where students can learn and have experiences at the same time. 

If you’re a current teacher, or studying to become one, it’s important to get a degree that will give you qualifications and knowledge for your career, and help prepare you to be licensed. Additionally, it’s key to understand how different students learn and understand how different learning theories impact education. Teachers who understand learning theories can better optimize their classroom and help more students learn in ways that work for them. Being a successful teacher means focusing on how best to help students succeed. 

Learn more about the experiential learning theory and how teachers can use it to help their students. 

Kolb’s experiential learning theory

David Kolb is best known for his work on the experiential learning theory or ELT. Kolb published this model in 1984, getting his influence from other great theorists including John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget. The experiential learning theory works in four stages—concrete learning, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. The first two stages of the cycle involve grasping an experience, the second two focus on transforming an experience. Kolb argues that effective learning is seen as the learner goes through the cycle, and that they can enter into the cycle at any time.

Concrete learning is when a learner gets a new experience, or interprets a past experience in a new way. 

Reflective observation comes next, where the learner reflects on their experience personally. They use the lens of their experience and understanding to reflect on what this experience means.

Abstract conceptualization happens as the learner forms new ideas or adjusts their thinking based on the experience and their reflection about it.

Active experimentation is where the learner applies the new ideas to the world around them, to see if there are any modifications to be made. This process can happen over a short period of time, or over a long span of time. 

Kolb went on to explain that learners will have their own preferences for how they enter the cycle of experiential learning, and that these preferences boil down to a learning cycle.

Kolb's experiential learning cycle model.

The experiential learning cycle rests on the idea that each person has a specific type of learning tendencies, and they are thus dominant in certain stages of experiential learning. For example, some learners will be more dominant in concrete learning and reflective observation, while others will be dominant in abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. 

The four learning styles are:

Diverging. The diverging learning style is full of learners who look at things with a unique perspective. They want to watch instead of do, and they also have a strong capacity to imagine. These learners usually prefer to work in groups, have broad interests in cultures and people, and more. They usually focus on concrete learning and reflective observation, wanting to observe and see the situation before diving in. 

Assimilating. This learning style involves learners getting clear information. These learners prefer concepts and abstracts to people, and explore using analytic models. These learners focus on abstract conceptualization and reflective observation in the experiential learning style.

Converging. Converging learners solve problems. They apply what they’ve learned to practical issues, and prefer technical tasks. They are also known to experiment with new ideas, and their learning focuses on abstract conceptualization and active experimentation.

Accommodating: These learners prefer practicality. They enjoy new challenges and use intuition to help solve problems. These learners utilize concrete learning and active experimentation when they learn.

Experiential learning examples.

There are many ways that experiential learning is used every day. Some examples include:

  • Going to the zoo to learn about animals through observation, instead of reading about them.

  • Growing a garden to learn about photosynthesis instead of watching a movie about it.

  • Hoping on a bicycle to try and learn to ride, instead of listening to your parent explain the concept

Benefits of experiential learning.

There are many benefits of experiential learning for teachers and students, including:

  • Opportunity to immediately apply knowledge. Experiential learning can allow students to immediately apply things they are learning to real-world experiences. This helps them retain the information better.

  • Promotion of teamwork. Experiential learning often involves working in a team, so learning in this setting allows students to practice teamwork.

  • Improved motivation. Students are more motivated and excited about learning in experiential settings. Experiments are exciting and fun for students, and they will be passionate about learning.

  • Opportunity for reflection. Students using the experiential model are able to spend time reflecting about what they are experiencing and learning. This is valuable as they are able to better retain information when they can think about what’s happening to them.

  • Real world practice. Students can greatly benefit from learning that helps them prepare for the real world. Experiential learning is focused on using real situations to help students learn, so they are then better prepared for their future.

Experiential learning activities to include in the classroom.

It’s important for current and aspiring teachers to work to include experiential learning opportunities in their classroom. There are many ways teachers can work to include these learning activities in their class including:

  • Field trips

  • Art projects

  • Science experiments

  • Mock cities and trials

  • Role playing

  • Reflection and journaling

  • Internship opportunities

  • Interactive classroom games

Students can greatly benefit from experiential learning inside their classroom. If you’re a teacher or studying to become one, this learning theory can help  you connect with your students more effectively. Utilizing projects and experiences inside the classroom will help students learn more effectively and enjoy their learning experiences. 

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