What is experience-based learning?

Initial Publication Date: June 1, 2007


Experiential learning is a well-known model in education. Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory (Kolb, 1984) defines experiential learning as "the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Knowledge results from the combination of grasping and transforming experience."

A diagram of Kolb's cycle of experiential learning
Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory presents a cycle of four elements
  1. Concrete Experience
  2. Reflective Observation
  3. Abstract Conceptualization
  4. Active Experimentation
The cycle begins with an experience that the student has had, followed by an opportunity to reflect on that experience. Then students may conceptualize and draw conclusions about what they experienced and observed, leading to future actions in which the students experiment with different behaviors. This begins the cycle anew as students have new experiences based on their experimentation (Oxendine, Robinson and Willson, 2004) . Although this continuum is presented as a cycle, the steps may occur in nearly any order. This learning cycle involves both concrete components (steps 1 and 4) and conceptual components (steps 2 and 3), which require a variety of cognitive and affective behaviors.

The Essential Components of Experience-Based Learning

Andresen, Boud and Choen (2000) provide a list of criteria for experience-based learning. The authors state that for a project to be truly experiential, the following attributes are necessary 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.

Implications for Environmental Topics and Projects

Some examples of experience-based projects include role playing, service learning, internships, studying abroad, open-ended projects (guided discovery), group projects and field study. The more open-ended and non-formulaic an assignment is, the more likely students will rely on their own experience and reflection and immerse themselves in the topic. Environmental subjects are especially suited to experience-based learning because humans play a role in just about every environmental issue. Thus using an experience-based approach to an environmental topic invites students to examine their own effects on the environment, whether positive or negative. Once students have become concretely aware of the ways in which they impact their environment, they can reflect on that and experiment with different environmentally-conscientious behaviors.

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