The Benefits of Experiential Learning
Wikipedia defines experiential learning as: “the process of learning through experience” and, more specifically, “learning through reflection on doing.”
Educators know that a student learns more quickly and retains more information when the subject matter pertains to them personally. The act of doing makes learning extremely personal. As Sir Richard Branson says, “You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.” The process of experiential learning involves both self-initiative and self-assessment, as well as hands-on activity.
“Real World” – Students may tune out lectures if they think the material doesn’t pertain to the “real world.” Experiential learning takes data and concepts and makes them “real” by applying them to hands-on tasks, with real results. As the student interacts with the information, it becomes real to them. Of course, each student’s learning experience will be guided by their unique past experiences, and thus each will interact with the information and the task in different ways – and with different results. Thus, the experiential classroom is more like “real” society.
Opportunity for Creativity – In the “real world,” problems often have more than one solution, and “two heads are better than one.” Experiential learning enables the student to engage the creative portions of their brains and seek their own unique and most fulfilling solution to a hands-on task. This creativity, and the variety of results produced, enriches the classroom – and society – as a whole.
Opportunity for Reflection – Reflection is an integral component of the experiential learning process. By incorporating concrete experiences with abstract concepts, and then reflecting on the outcome, students engage more regions of their brain and make true, personal connections with the material.
They analyze how their actions affected the outcome, and how their outcome may have varied from other students’. This analysis helps them better understand how the concepts learned can be applied to other, varied circumstances.
Mistakes Become Valuable – Experiential learning involves trial by error. As students engage in hands-on tasks, they find that some approaches work better than others. They discard the methods that don’t work, but the act of trying something and then abandoning it – ordinarily considered a “mistake” – actually becomes a valuable part of the learning process. Thus, students learn not to fear mistakes, but to value them.
Accelerated Learning – As discussed in our article on How the Brain Learns, the act of practicing a skill strengthens the neural connections in our brain, making us, in effect “smarter.” Hands-on activities require practice, problem-solving and decision-making. As student engagement increases through these processes, learning accelerates and retention improves.
Improved Attitudes toward Learning – The personal nature of experiential learning engages the students’ emotions as well as enhancing their knowledge and skills. When students see the concrete fruits of their labor, they experience greater gratification and pride, thus enhancing their enthusiasm for continued learning.
Guides Students toward College Majors and Careers – Many experiential learning projects are career-oriented, because they are, by nature, grounded in “real-world” activities. Through these activities, students start to discover and develop their own skills, aptitudes and passions. This discovery in turn sets them on a more defined path to college and careers.
Prepares Students for Real Life – Most experiential learning activities are communal in nature, with students working in groups. Through these team projects, students learn to work more effectively together, developing a plan of action, and utilizing the unique qualities of each team member. In turn, the students learn real-life leadership skills, as well as how to apply critical thinking and adapt to changing circumstances.
The old adage sums up experiential learning perfectly:
I hear and I forget
I see and I remember
I do and I understand
Want more? These related articles provide additional teacher resources on the topic of Experiential Learning:
Experiential Learning Activities for Your Classroom
Book Review: Experiential Learning: A Best Practice Handbook for Educators and Trainers
Experiential Learning Around the U.S. - Part 1 of Our New On-going Series