What is Experiential Learning?

Learning can take many forms. One of the most important comes through experience.

For example, those who work in trades often serve an apprenticeship, learning by doing under the watchful gaze of an experienced tradesperson. Those in the medical profession have spent hours applying knowledge learned in the classroom to gain clinical experience.

That’s the idea behind experiential learning. The definitions can get wordy and complex, but it boils down to putting people in immersive experiences where they learn by doing, then allowing them to reflect on the experience and apply what they have learned.

Experiential learning has been around for a long time. Aristotle was essentially laying down the plan for experiential learning when he wrote in The Nicomachean Ethics, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

Advantages of Experiential Learning

The mind can only absorb so much. That’s a challenge for educators, whose goal is to provide students with knowledge they can transfer into the real world. Take learning a foreign language, for example. Years after taking college courses in French, graduates might struggle to order a meal in a Paris restaurant.

C’est la vie? That’s not good enough for educators. They strive to widen the educational experience by taking students out of the classroom and into the community.

When done correctly, experiential learning can bridge the gap between classroom learning and life in the real world. Harvard-educated social psychologist David Kolb, who founded the modern experiential learning movement, outlined four major areas of experiential learning.

  • Concrete experience – Observing or encountering a situation
  • Reflective observation – Reflecting or reflecting on the situation you encountered
  • Abstract conceptualization – Reaching conclusions – learning – from the experience
  • Active experimentation – Trying out what you’ve learned

Kolb believed education is a continuous process that happens with each new experience. The best type of experiential education allows students to transfer knowledge gained through one experience and integrate “new learning into old constructs,” according to the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Experiential learning has been found to accelerate learning, bridge the gap between theory and practice, and improve student engagement, among other things.

Experiential Learning at New England College

New England College incorporates experiential or “learn-by-doing” education into its degree programs.

  • For example, Bryan Partridge, associate professor of writing at NEC, assigns his students to research a friend’s social media post and determine if the post is true or false. Partridge also has taken some of his students to teach English to children in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua.
  • Kevin Martin, Associate Dean of Management Division and an Assistant Professor of Business Administration, has taken students to study abroad in the Meru/Nanyuki region of central Kenya as part of his Sustainable Enterprise and Innovation class. While there, students learned about creating sustainable organizations that impact people’s lives in a positive way. It’s part of the “Triple Bottom Line” ethos Martin teaches in which business should seek not only financial profits but environmental sustainability and social equity.
  • Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at NEC, and the director of the school’s Center for Civic Engagement (CCE), gets students involved in the New Hampshire community by organizing town hall meetings with political candidates, having students introduce the candidates to the audience and sometimes having private meetings with candidates. The CCE also organizes the New Hampshire Primary Student Convention, in which about 1,000 students come to NEC from across the country for a three-day event that includes political conventioneering with presidential candidates.
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