Experiential Learning

What is Experiential Learning?

Experiential learning is ‘learning by doing.’ David Kolb is considered the father of the Experiential Learning Theory, and in his words, “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Institute for Experiential Learning). His theory includes a learning cycle that learners apply multiple times throughout any learning experience:

  • A concrete experience
  • Reflection about that experience
  • Critical thinking to form conclusions about the experience
  • Acting on your conclusions to test their validity

The Development of Experiential Learning

The value of experience in creating knowledge and advancing development was recognized by Aristotle, who said, “Using the language of knowledge is no proof that [you] possess it” (UC Davis). According to Aristotle, then, one cannot prove understanding of a concept until one shows the ability to apply it.

Perhaps experiential learning theory, although it didn’t have that name yet, had its earliest application in the apprenticeship programs of old. As far back as ancient Egypt and throughout the middle ages in Europe, artisans taught their crafts to the next generation through apprenticeships, a time period of usually seven years, during which novices bound themselves by contract to master tradesmen to learn the ins and outs of plying a specific trade and upholding its standards. In other words, they learned a trade or profession through the experience of observing an expert and then doing it themselves. Apprenticeships were practiced in every industry from cobblers to surgeons and from blacksmiths to monks. In fact, you couldn’t enter certain fields of work until you had completed an apprenticeship (Britannica).

Experience is still considered the best teacher in the workplace, the classroom, and the training room. Apprenticeships, also called internships, are an attractive option for college students, recent graduates, or those looking to change careers to gain qualification and experience through work-based (a.k.a., experiential) learning (Kaplan). Fields such as accounting, finance, banking, recruiting, consumer goods and services, federal agencies, healthcare, nonprofits, and technology always encourage and often require experiential training, internships, in order to enter as a qualified professional (Chegg Internships). 

Benefits and Challenges

According to certain studies, experiential learning provides the following benefits (Academia ERP):

  • It creates real-world/actionable experiences.
  • It opens up more opportunities for critical thinking and creativity.
  • It accelerates learning.
  • It integrates theory and practice.
  • It provides opportunities for trial and error.
  • It is future-focused.

The experiential learning process can also come with some challenges:

  • It requires more patience, preparation, and guidance from the teacher, trainer or leader.
  • Learners may come up with different “right” answers.
  • It requires a level of self-motivation not present in all learners.
  • Learning outcomes may not be universal.

Dedication, ingenuity, and determination are all you’ll need to overcome these challenges and make experiential learning an integral part of your corporate education.  

Because of the skills gap that companies are currently seeing, apprenticeships and internships are ideal because one the characteristics of this type of learning is critical thinking and problem solving.  These two skills are absent in many people entering the workforce, but experiential learning can help employees gain these skills and begin to minimize the skills gap.