The Benefits of Experiential Learning
Educators know that a student learns more quickly and retains more information when the subject matter pertains to them personally, and 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.”
Wikipedia defines experiential learning as “the process of learning through experience” and, more specifically, “learning through reflection on doing.” The process of experiential learning involves both self-initiative and self-assessment as well as hands-on activity, so students and teachers alike can benefit from experiential learning opportunities in the classroom.
Creates real-world relevance: Students may tune out lectures if they think the material doesn’t pertain to the real world. Experiential learning takes data and concepts and applies them to hands-on tasks, yielding 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 perspective, and thus each will interact with the information and the task in different ways—and may have different results. In this way, the experiential classroom emulates “real” society.
Provides opportunity for creativity: In our world, problems often have more than one solution. Experiential learning enables the student to engage the creative portions of their brain and seek their own unique solution to the problem or task. This creative problem-solving, and the variety of results produced, enriches the classroom as a whole.
Provides opportunity for reflection: Reflective observation is an integral component of experiential learning theory. By incorporating concrete experiences with abstract concepts and reflecting on the outcome, students engage more regions of their brains and make personal connections with the material. They analyze how their actions affected the outcome and how their outcome may have differed from those of other students. This analysis helps them better understand how the concepts they’ve learned can be applied to other circumstances.
Teaches the value of mistakes: 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 actually becomes a valuable part of the learning process. Students learn not to fear mistakes, but to benefit from, and remember, them.
Accelerates learning: As discussed in our article about How the Brain Learns, the act of practicing a skill strengthens the neural connections in the 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.
Guides students toward the future: Many experiential learning projects are career-oriented because they’re grounded in real-world activities. Through these activities, students start to discover and develop their skills, aptitudes, and passions. This self-discovery sets them on a more defined path to what they want to pursue after graduation, including college and careers.
Prepares students for adult 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 capitalizing on the unique strengths of each team member. In turn, the students learn how to lead, how to think critically, and how to adapt to changing circumstances.
With all of the ways experiential learning engages students’ emotions while enhancing their knowledge and skills, who wouldn’t want to implement the practice into their classroom? Additionally, when students see the concrete fruits of their labor, they experience greater gratification and pride, enhancing their enthusiasm for continued learning.
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
Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an original article published in October of 2015.