Experiential and Applied Learning

Experiential learning is the active engagement of students in learning through doing, and reflecting on those activities. This experience and reflection enable them to apply theoretical and abstract concepts to practical contexts. Experiential learning takes various shapes and takes place in various settings.

Figure 8.13.1. Experiential design models.

Learning that is considered “experiential” contains all the following elements: reflection, critical analysis, and synthesis, and opportunities for students to take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for the results. It provides opportunities for students to engage intellectually, creatively, emotionally, socially, or physically.

There are several benefits to employing experiential learning:

  • Increases student motivation to learn. When students are engaged in learning experiences that they see the relevance of, and the product has more significance than a grade, they have increased motivation to learn and produce a more thoughtful product. Experiential learning stimulates academic inquiry to enrich and apply the content students are learning, as well as encountering authentic opportunities for applying their learning to motivate students.
  • Produces more autonomous learners. To solve problems and complete tasks in unfamiliar situations in a real-world context, students need to figure out what they know, what they do not know, and how to learn it.
  • Reflection deepens learning. Students transfer their previous learning to new contexts, master new concepts, principles, and skills, as well as articulate how they developed this mastery.
  • Most transferable and marketable skills are forged in “real world” settings. Real-world competencies such as civic engagement, teamwork, and leadership that most employers look for in candidates, are best practiced in the “real world” not sitting in a classroom. These skills need to be practiced in many different settings. They are not “remembered” but instilled by using and honing them through practice.

Experiential Learning Design Principals

Experiential learning focuses on learners reflecting on their experience of doing something, so as to gain conceptual insight as well as practical expertise. Kolb’s experiential learning model suggests four stages in this process: active experimentation, concrete experience, reflective observation, and abstract conceptualization.

  • Activity. Do something–anything, in fact. Run a meeting, give a presentation, and have a difficult conversation. (One of the most valuable aspects of this model is the way in which it allows us to turn every experience into a learning opportunity. 
  • Reflect. Look back on your experience and assess the results. Determine what happened, what went well, and what didn’t.
  • Conceptualize. Make sense of your experience. Seek to understand why things turned out as they did. Draw some conclusions and make some hypotheses.
  • Apply. Put those hypotheses to the test. Don’t simply re-act. Instead, have a conscious plan to do things differently to be more effective. And begin the cycle again.

There are parallels between the experiential learning cycle as we typically define it (based on Kolb’s work), and Roger Greenaway’s Active Reviewing Cycle, and Chris Argyris and David Schon’s work on Theories of Action. These models aren’t identical, but they’re similar enough that they can be overlaid on a 4-stage cycle.

Experiential Learning Cycles

Figure 8.13.2. An integrated model of experiential learning cycles.

Experiential Learning Design Models

There are many options for including experiential and applied learning in the classroom and out. We will review a few design models.

Community Engagement

Community engagement pedagogies, often called “service learning,” are ones that combine learning goals and community service in ways that can enhance both student growth and the common good.  In the words of the National Service Learning Clearinghouse, it is “a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.”  Or, to quote Vanderbilt University’s Janet S. Eyler (winner of the 2003 Thomas Ehrlich Faculty Award for Service Learning) and Dwight E. Giles, Jr., it is

a form of experiential education where learning occurs through a cycle of action and reflection as students. . . seek to achieve real objectives for the community and deeper understanding and skills for themselves. In the process, students link personal and social development with academic and cognitive development. . . experience enhances understanding; understanding leads to more effective action.

Typically, community engagement is incorporated by way of a project that has both learning and community action goals.  This project is designed via collaboration between faculty and community partners, such as non-governmental organizations or government agencies.  The project asks students to apply course content to community-based activities.  This gives students experiential opportunities to learn in real-world contexts and develop skills of community engagement while affording community partners opportunities to address significant needs. Vanderbilt University’s Sharon Shields has argued that service-learning is “one of the most significant teaching methodologies gaining momentum on many campuses.”Indeed, when done well, teaching through community engagement benefits students, faculty, communities, and institutions of higher education. Below are some of the benefits that education researchers and practitioners have associated with community-engaged teaching.

Student Benefits of Community Engagement

  • Learning Outcomes. Students experience a positive impact on academic learning, improved ability to apply what they have learned in “the real world,” gains in the complexity of understanding, problem analysis, problem-solving, critical thinking, and cognitive development, as well as improved ability to understand complexity and ambiguity.
  • Personal Outcomes. Students gain a greater sense of personal efficacy, personal identity, spiritual growth, and moral development, as well as greater interpersonal development, particularly the ability to work well with others and build leadership and communication skills.
  • Social Outcomes. These experiences reduce stereotypes and increase greater inter-cultural understanding, improve social responsibility and citizenship skills, as well as increase the likelihood of involvement in community service after graduation
  • Career Development. Students make connections with professionals and community members for learning and career opportunities and greater academic learning, leadership skills, and personal efficacy can lead to greater opportunity.
  • Relationship with the Institution. Students have stronger relationships with faculty, greater satisfaction with college, and improved graduation rates.

As you might suspect, though, making service learning successful is not automatic. For one thing, service-learning lends itself well only to certain curriculum areas (for example, community studies or social studies). For another, some students may initially resist service-learning, wondering whether it benefits them personally as students (Jones, Gilbride-Brown, & Gasiorski, 2005). Also, some service projects may inadvertently be invented only to benefit students, without adequate consultation or advice from community members. Bringing food hampers to low-income families may seem like a good idea to middle-class students or instructors, but some families may perceive this action less as a benefit than as an act of charity which they therefore resent. But none of these problems are insurmountable. Evaluations generally find that service-learning, when done well, increases students’ sense of moral empowerment as well as their knowledge of social issues (Buchanan, Baldwin, & Rudisill, 2002). Like many other educational practices, insuring success with service learning requires doing it well.

Problem-Based Learning

The earliest form of systematized problem-based learning (PBL) was developed in 1969 by Howard Barrows and colleagues in the School of Medicine at McMaster University in Canada, from where it has spread to many other universities, colleges, and schools. This approach is increasingly used in subject domains where the knowledge base is rapidly expanding and where it is impossible for students to master all the knowledge in the domain within a limited period of study. Working in groups, students identify what they already know, what they need to know, and how and where to access new information that may lead to the resolution of the problem. The role of the instructor (usually called a tutor in classic PBL) is critical in facilitating and guiding the learning process.

Usually, PBL follows a strongly systematized approach to solving problems, although the detailed steps and sequence tend to vary to some extent, depending on the subject domain. The following is a typical example:

Figure (derived from Gijeselaers, 1995)

Figure 8.13.2. Problem-based learning method (derived from Gijeselaers, 1995).

Traditionally, the first five steps would be done in a small face-to-face class tutorial of 20-25 students, with the sixth step requiring either individual or small group (four or five students) private study, with the seventh step being accomplished in a full group meeting with the tutor. However, this approach also lends itself to blended learning in particular, where the research solution is done mainly online, although some instructors have managed the whole process online, using a combination of synchronous web conferencing and asynchronous online discussion.

Developing a complete problem-based learning curriculum is challenging, as problems must be carefully chosen, increasing in complexity and difficulty over the course of study, and problems must be chosen so as to cover all the required components of the curriculum. Students often find the problem-based learning approach challenging, particularly in the early stages, where their foundational knowledge base may not be sufficient to solve some of the problems. (The term ‘cognitive overload’ has been used to describe this situation.) Others argue that lectures provide a quicker and more condensed way to cover the same topics. Assessment also has to be carefully designed, especially if a final exam carries heavy weight in grading, to ensure that problem-solving skills, as well as content coverage, are measured.

However, research (see, for instance, Strobel and van Barneveld, 2009) has found that problem-based learning is better for long-term retention of material and developing ‘replicable’ skills, as well as for improving students’ attitudes towards learning. There are now many variations on the ‘pure’ PBL approach, with problems being set after initial content has been covered in more traditional ways, such as lectures or prior reading, for instance.


Apprenticeship is a particular way of enabling students to learn by doing. Learning by doing is particularly common in teaching motor skills, such as learning to ride a bike or play a sport, but examples can also be found in education, such as vocational training, practicums, internships, and laboratory study.  It is often associated with vocational training where a more experienced tradesman or journeyman models behavior, the apprentice attempts to follow the model, and the journeyman provides feedback.  Besides learning motor or behavioral skills, students may also learn how to think like an expert through cognitive apprenticeship. Like motor-skill or behavior apprenticeships, cognitive apprenticeships also involve an experienced person modeling cognitive and metacognitive skills, the student practicing those skills, and the expert providing feedback.

Key Features of Apprenticeship

Schön (1983) argues that apprenticeship operates in ‘situations of practice that…are frequently ill-defined and problematic, and characterized by vagueness, uncertainty and disorder‘. Learning in apprenticeship is not just about learning to do (active learning), but also requires an understanding of the contexts in which the learning will be applied. In addition, there is a social and cultural element to learning, understanding, and embedding the accepted practices, customs, and values of experts in the field.

Pratt and Johnson (1998) identify the characteristics of a master practitioner, whom they define as ‘a person who has acquired a thorough knowledge of and/or is especially skilled in a particular area of practice‘. Master practitioners:

  1. possess great amounts of knowledge in their area of expertise, and are able to apply that knowledge in difficult practice settings;
  2. have well-organized, readily accessible schemas (cognitive maps) which facilitate the acquisition of new information;
  3. have well-developed repertoires of strategies for acquiring new knowledge, integrating and organizing their schemas, and applying their knowledge and skills in a variety of contexts….;
  4. …are motivated to learn as part of the process of developing their identities in their communities of practice. They are not motivated to learn simply to reach some external performance goal or reward;
  5. frequently display tacit knowledge in the form of:
    • spontaneous action and judgments;
    • being unaware of having learned to do these things;
    • being unable or having difficulty in describing the knowing which their actions reveal.

Cognitive Apprenticeship

An intellectual or cognitive apprenticeship model is somewhat different because this form of learning is less easily observable than learning motor or manual skills. Pratt and Johnson argue that in this context, master and learner must say what they are thinking during applications of knowledge and skills, and must make explicit the context in which the knowledge is being developed because context is so critical to the way knowledge is developed and applied.

Pratt and Johnson suggest five stages for cognitive and intellectual modeling (p. 99):

  1. modeling by the master and development of a mental model/schema by the learner;
  2.  learner approximates replication of the model with master providing support and feedback (scaffolding/ coaching);
  3. learner widens the range of application of the model, with less support from master;
  4. self-directed learning within the specified limits acceptable to the profession;
  5. generalizing: learner and master discuss how well the model might work or would have to be adapted in a range of other possible contexts.


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Educational Psychology Copyright © 2020 by Nicole Arduini-Van Hoose is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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