Experiential Learning and the Power of Reflection

Dr. Helen King, Higher Education Consultant

Experiential learning is a term that has different meanings depending on the individual and the context. Learning by doing is a useful definition as it suggests hands-on learning and active participation; compared with the passive, listening approach that might be taken in traditional lectures. However, for me, it also may have some connotations such as simply doing what you're told or following the recipe. Learning by doing brings to mind my own formalised work experience when I was studying at high school, I spent a week at an accountancy firm – the main thing I learnt was that I knew I didn't want to become an accountant! This was a strong contrast to the learning I gained from my various weekend and vacation jobs where I developed a variety of skills such as time management, team working, inter-personal communication, self-motivation and so on. So what was the difference between this formal work experience arranged through my school and my learning through work at the weekends? Well, in the former example I was 'doing' but in the latter I was 'being'.

I believe that the notion of learning by being a geologist, is much more powerful than simply doing geology. For the teacher, it can stimulate more interesting curriculum development ideas and, for the student, a more authentic experience that can help to induct them into the discipline. This might be considered synonymous with learning by inquiry which refers to diverse ways in which scientists study the natural world, propose ideas, and explain and justify assertions based upon evidence derived from scientific work. And so learning by being or learning by inquiry suggests more authentic ways in which learners can investigate the natural world. The learning is hands-on and active; but provides more opportunity for exploration and self-directed learning. Students may work as scientists in either a simulated or real research or consultancy project.

Experiential learning can occur in any well-designed learning environment including lectures; however, geoscience provides many opportunities for active learning outside the classroom and closer to the realm of the professional scientist, particularly through fieldwork and lab work. But is experience by itself enough to ensure learning will happen? What is it that turns experiences into learning? What specifically enables learners to get maximum benefit from the situations they find themselves in? How can they apply their experiences in new contexts? Why can some learners appear to benefit more than others? There are a variety of generic models of experiential learning, the most familiar being that of David Kolb (1984), and as Andresen et al note in their 2000 review of experience-based learning "One consistent feature [of these models] is the central place of reflection [my emphasis]." Similarly, the Geography, Earth & Environmental Sciences Subject Centre Guides to Laboratory & Practical Work (Williams, 2006) and Employability (Gedye & Chalkley, 2006) are both clear on this role of reflection within labwork and work-based learning.

So where might reflection happen within an experience? Boud et al (1985), in their book 'Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning' provide an outline case study of a geology student on a week-long field trip. The experience has three stages: preparation, engagement in the activity and processing what has been experienced:

  • Preparation may involve briefings from the lecturer, practice in field techniques and so on. During this time the student will start to explore what is required from them, what the demands of the field setting might be and what resources they have themselves to bring. This phase can often be one of high anxiety (e.g. Boyle et al, 2003).
  • The field experience itself may initially be overwhelming with new environments, complex features, busy days and little time to reconcile what they are doing in the field with what they have learnt in the classroom.
  • In the final phase there may be a formal requirement to consolidate their learning, perhaps through report writing, and it is here that students may have more opportunity to look back on and make sense of their experience.

So during the experiential process "Learners are having to cope with a considerable amount of new information, they are facing personal demands and the situation forces them into active involvement whether they like it or not. Reflection is needed at various points: at the start in anticipation of the experience, during the experience as a way of dealing with the vast array of inputs and coping with the feelings that are generated, and following the experience during the phase of writing and consolidation."

So what is reflection and how can we support it? Jenny Moon suggests in her book (Moon, 1999) that common usage of the word implies "a form of mental processing with a purpose and/or anticipated outcome that is applied to relatively complicated or unstructured ideas for which there is not an obvious solution." Perhaps we could translate this into 'taking the time to think about stuff'. Giving this a formal name makes it sound like something else we have to try and fit in the curriculum and, if seen in this way can be prohibitive. However, reflection is not something new or different but something we do all the time as researcher learners. When we go into the field we don't blindly take measurements and analyse them. We observe, we link our observations to our prior experience, we note (mentally or otherwise) any anomalies, we're thinking 'What's going on here?'. But for students the case is somewhat different; if they've never been in the field before they don't know what they should be looking for or how they should go about their work. They will follow instructions. Reflection is the process we go through to make meaning – so it's part of learning how to do science or how to be a scientist. It's not a one-off but part of the whole curriculum. Also it's hard to reflect on something that you've done for the first time as you have nothing to benchmark it against. Reflection should be developed progressively in the same way that other research skills are developed throughout the curriculum to support the student on their journey from novice to expert.

In what ways might we help students to think more about their experiences? One way might be to make the most of / make explicit what do already. For example, in the field note book prompt students to note not just what they see but to write down any links between that and what they've learnt in the classroom; any questions they might have and so on. Assessment, including self / peer assessment, feedback and group discussions, all provide opportunities for students to process their experience and enhance their learning.

An additional opportunity for reflection might be through participation in geoscience education research. In order to find out what students thinking about when they are on a field trip or working in the laboratory or classroom, it is necessary to get them to be explicit about their experiences and thinking, i.e. getting them to reflect.

If learning to reflect is a progressive process then, at the beginning it perhaps needed to be more strongly guided. Jenny Moon offers lots of interesting ideas of how this might be done but I'd like to share with you an example from the environmental sciences. Paul Wright at Southampton Solent University runs a problem-based learning module in marine pollution management. The aims of the module are to develop student research skills using learning, teaching and assessment approaches which simulate research processes. One of the assessments is by Learning Journal that requires the students to give a week-by-week diary of the content they have read, and to reflect upon this material, identify gaps, and set new learning objectives. Prompts used for the journal include:

  • What were the main ideas presented in this week's session, and what are my objectives for the coming week?
  • Have I any difficulties in learning this material? If so, where, and why? Do I need guidance from the lecturer or my group?
  • What is my opinion of what I learned? Do I believe the issues raised? What are the plus and minus sides of the arguments? Can I criticise the work?
  • How is the group functioning? Am I being heard?

So experiential learning involves a lot more than simply 'an experience'. Andresen et al (2000) suggest that for a truly experiential environment the following attributes should be present in some combination:

  • The goal of experience-based learning involves something personally significant or meaningful to the students.
  • Students should be personally engaged.
  • Reflective thought and opportunities for students to write or discuss their experiences should be ongoing throughout the process.
  • The whole person is involved, meaning not just their intellect but also their senses, their feelings and their personalities.
  • Students should be recognized for prior learning they bring into the process.
  • Teachers need to establish a sense of trust, respect, openness, and concern for the well-being of the students [experiential learning environments can be out of students' comfort zones, in addition reflection activities may require them to express personal feelings].


Andresen, L., D.Boud & R.Cohen (2000) Experience-based learning. In: Foley, G. (Ed) Understanding Adult Education and Training. Second Edition. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, pp 225-239. http://www.education.uts.edu.au/ostaff/staff/publications/db_27_abc_00.pdf

Boud, D., R.Keogh & D. Walker (1985) Reflection: Turning Experience into Learning. Routledge Falmer.

Boyle, A. S. Conchie, S.Maguire, A.Martin, C.Milson, R.Nash, S.Rawlinson, A.Turner & S.Wurthmann (2003) Fieldwork is good? Student experiences of field courses. Planet Special Edition No.5, pp 48-51. http://www.gees.ac.uk/pubs/planet/pse5back.pdf

Gedye, S. & B. Chalkley (2006) Employability within Geography, Earth and Environmental Science. GEES Subject Centre.

Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. New Jersey, Prentice Hall.

Moon, J. (1999) Reflection in Learning and Professional Development: Theory and Practice. Kogan Page, London.

Williams, I. (2006) Practical & Laboratory work in Earth & Environmental Sciences: guide to good practice and helpful resources. GEES Subject Centre.

Wright, P. 'Mutant algal Blooms Wreak havoc on the South Coast' - A PBL exercise for marine pollution students. GEES Subject Centre Case Studies on Linking Teaching & Research. https://www.climate.gov/news-features/event-tracker/summer%E2%80%99s-west-coast-algal-bloom-was-unusual-what-would-usual-look