Experiential Learning

Experiential learning is the current darling of adult education. Some universities, such as Northeastern University, use it as a marketing tool to recruit students by promising to alternate blocks of instruction with blocks of experience in a co-op relationship (Northeastern University, 2012).

This theory, proposed by David Kolb, suggests that students learn best by direct experience followed by reflection, which allows them to form new ideas to test out in a recurring cycle (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2009). Learners gain their experience by drawing upon their dominant learning styles (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2009).


One advantage of the experiential learning theory is that students get to learn according to the modes that work best for them while they draw upon their unique experiences (Oxendine, Robinson, & Willson, 2004). I had not been teaching very long when I found that some of my students learned best by doing simulations while others preferred to read a book. One student in my class could not memorize basic multiplication facts until I found a rap that chanted them. This led me to design project-based lessons that allowed students to choose different learning methods and prove their knowledge through various types of output. My classes tended to score very well on the standardized tests, possibly in part to using some aspects of experiential learning.

Another advantage is in the realm of motivation. Students get to learn according to strategies that are more interesting than pencil-and-paper drills. Using lessons students find more enjoyable can improve intrinsic motivation (Brophy, 1987). Students who are more motivated learn more.

In my last few years in the classroom, I worked in a district that had won a technology grant. Each classroom had a projector linked up to the teacher’s computer, a DVD player, and a document camera. My class had shown a definite deficit in characterization and plot analysis for fictional works. After trying to teach the lessons using leveled readers and activities, which failed spectacularly, I brought in some old, 1930-1940’s era movie serials. We would watch a piece of the serial and I would pause the video so we could discuss the characterization and plot. The students not only looked forward to the days scheduled for the serial, by the third or fourth lesson, many of them were mastering the concepts. Using the old serials as a different type of entry point, the students picked up the material more readily (Ginsberg & Wlodkowski, 2009).


Experiential learning has its detractors. Some see this theory as little more than an effort to market a learning style test (Oxendine, Robinson, & Willson, 2004). Others insist that counting only reflective experience as important is short-sighted (About.com: Psychology, 2013).

Aside from the philosophical criticisms, there are some concerns about using experiential learning. First, a great deal more burden is placed on the instructor. I used a number of activities that allowed students to pick and choose different types of projects or different kinds of outputs. Meanwhile, my coworkers often stayed with the more traditional types of strategies outlined in our curriculum. I spent more time grading and preparing than many of them did. Over the years, that contributed to the catastrophic burn-out that drove me from teaching in the elementary.

From a student standpoint, some cultures place a higher value on the expertise of the teacher. Placing more authority in the hand of the student might make some students more reluctant to participate for fear of looking foolish or of insulting the teacher.

Some students may also make assumptions about the abilities of others due to cultural or linguistic differences.

For example, I often had students who were still learning English. Some were more fluent than others, but the second-language learners were often treated as if they were less intelligent because their communication abilities were limited in English.

In one case, the class divided into groups to make Rube Goldberg devices for a physics project. I had an unbalanced group that year with many more girls than boys, so one group had only one boy in it. This group also had one student who did not speak English well, but she was very skilled at three-dimensional spatial thinking. The boy assumed that he was the only one with a scientific clue in the group, but as the group got going, his solution to a problem was not working.

The Spanish-speaking student figured out how to solve the problem and made the changes to the device without explaining because she did not have the necessary language skills. The boy undid her change. One of the other girls in the group caught on that the Spanish-speaking student’s solution would work and put it back. The boy became upset and declared, “How does she know anything? She doesn’t even know English!”

The Spanish-speaking student, who understood English better than she could speak it, started crying. I came over to the group, tapped the boy on the shoulder, and asked, “You think physics doesn’t work in Spanish? Try it her way.” He huffed and let the group try it. It did not work immediately, but it was much closer than before. With a little more tweaking, the Spanish-speaking student’s idea worked.

In this situation, the boy thought he could take control of the group and ignore the input of another student on grounds of race, gender, and linguistic ability. He didn’t consider that the other student might have a strength in an area related to the project.

Like many theories, experiential learning has its strengths and weaknesses. Some effort to balance the weaknesses and take advantage of the strengths can be helpful.


About.com: Psychology. (2013). Experiential learning: David Kolb’s theory of learning. Retrieved November 19, 2013, from http://psychology.about.com/od/educationalpsychology/a/experiential-learning.htm

Brophy, J. (1987). Synthesis of research on strategies for motivating students to learn. Educational Leadership, 45(2), 40–48. Retrieved from the Walden Library using the Academic Search Complete database.

Ginsberg, M. B., & Wlodkowski, R. J. (2009). Diversity & motivation: Culturally responsive teaching in college (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Northeastern University (Producer). (2012). Experiential Learning [Video Webcast]. Retrieved from http://www.northeastern.edu/experiential-learning/

Oxendine, C., Robinson, J., & Willson, G. (2004). Experiential learning. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved November 19, 2013, from http://projects.coe.uga.edu/epltt/


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