5b. Experiential Learning

Chris Oxendine, James Robinson, and Ginger Willson
The University of Georgia

Greek translation provided by Dimitris Galatas

German translation provided by Fijavan Brenk

Danish translation provided by Mille Eriksen

Experiential learning is a cyclical process that capitalizes on the participants’ experiences for acquisition of knowledge. This process involves setting goals, thinking, planning, experimentation, reflection, observation, and review. By engaging in these activities, learners construct meaning in a way unique to themselves, incorporating the cognitive, emotional, and physical aspects of learning.

“Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand” (Confucius circa 450 BC).

This is supposed to be a flash animation. You’ll need the flash plugin and a browser that supports it to view it.

Caption: In the animation, are three scenes, in the first scene is an animation depicting the phrase ‘tell me and I will forget.’ The learners are being told how to use a fire extinguisher by the Fireman and they promptly forget while trying to recollect the information. In the second scene of the animation, we are depicting the phrase, ‘show me and I may remember’. The learners are being shown how to use the fire extinguisher and when the learners again try to recollect the memory is not so clear. In the third scene, the animation is explaining the term ‘involve me and I will understand. The learners are practicing how to use a fire extinguisher by following a modeled example from the expert (Fireman) and finally they understand. Concept and creation by Bin Guo, Audra Edwards, Rita (Hsing mei) Kung and Oluremilekun Ojo (2006).

This is supposed to be a flash animation. You’ll need the flash plugin and a browser that supports it to view it.

Caption: The Flash animation above depicts the story of Jane, a student who has been studying French. She wants to travel to France and be able to communicate with the citizens there. She realizes her studies did not prepare her enough and decides to learn more by using other methods. This story depicts the 4 stages of Kolb’s model, the Experiential Learning Cycle. The story begins with Jane at the end of her third year studying French. When she tries to talk to her tutor in French, she has problems understanding him, which is her concrete experience. She realizes her skills are not adequate to speak fluently in French, which represents stage two, critical reflection. She understands that in order to travel to France and speak with the people there she will have to improve her skills. She begins practicing French using other methods before her trip as a form of abstract conceptualization. She then takes the actual trip to France, applying what she learns as active experimentation. Flash animation and story written and developed by Emily Pitts, Daisy Barreto, Marly Paz and Matthew Flanders (2006).


Experiential Learning Theory “provides a holistic model of the learning process and a multilinear model of adult development” (Baker, Jensen, Kolb, 2002, p. 51). In other words, this is an inclusive model of adult learning that intends to explain the complexities of and differences between adult learners within a single framework. The focus of this theory is experience, which serves as the main driving force in learning, as knowledge is constructed through the transformative reflection on one’s experience (Baker, Jensen, Kolb, 2002).

The learning model outlined by the Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) contains two distinct modes of gaining experience that are related to each other on a continuum: concrete experience (apprehension) and abstract conceptualization (comprehension). In addition, there are also two distinct modes of transforming the experience so that learning is achieved: reflective observation (intension) and active experimentation (extension) (Baker, Jensen, Kolb, 2002). When these four modes are viewed together, they constitute a four-stage learning cycle that learners go through during the experiential learning process. The learners begin with a concrete experience, which then leads them to observe and reflect on their experience. After this period of reflective observation, the learners then piece their thoughts together to create abstract concepts about what occurred, which will serve as guides for future actions. With these guides in place, the learners actively test what they have constructed leading to new experiences and the renewing of the learning cycle (Baker, Jensen, Kolb, 2002).

Figure 1. The graphic above is a representation of the Experiential Learning Cycle, which includes the components of experience, critical reflection, abstract conceptualization, active experimentation, and more critical reflection. Real experiences help the individual learn advanced abstract concepts. The experiences might result in paths, which allow the individual to actively collect information to learn and become a member of the community of practice. Perhaps critical thinking and reflection may refine ideas or lead the individual to consider alternate possibilities. Each phase potentially leads to another and builds upon the former. By Frank LaBanca (2008).

The ELT model for learning can be viewed as a cycle consisting of two distinct continuums, apprehension-comprehension and intension-extension. However, these dialectical entities must be integrated in order for learning to occur. Apprehension-comprehension involves the perception of experience, while intension-extension involves the transformation of the experience. One without the other is not an effective means for acquiring knowledge (Baker, Jensen, Kolb, 2002). Another way to view this idea is summarized as follows, “perception alone is not sufficient for learning; something must be done with it” and “transformation alone cannot represent learning, for there must be something to be transformed” (Baker, Jensen, Kolb, 2002, p. 56-67).

The ELT model attempts to explain why learners approach learning experiences in such different manners but are still able to flourish. Indeed, some individuals develop greater proficiencies in some areas of learning when compared to others (Laschinger, 1990). The ELT model shows that during the learning process, learners must continually choose which abilities to use in a given learning situation and resolve learning abilities that are on opposite ends of a continuum (Baker, Jensen, Kolb, 2002). Indeed, learners approach the tasks of grasping experience and transforming experience from different points within a continuum of approaches. However, it is important that they also resolve the discomfort with the opposite approach on the continuum in order for effective learning to occur. Thus, if a learner is more comfortable perceiving new information in a concrete manner and actively experimenting during the processing of the experience, the learner must also undergo some abstract conceptualization and reflective observation in order to complete the cycle and lead to effective learning. Thus, a learner who experiments with models and manipulates them in the process of learning must also be able to conceptualize and form observations based on what s/he experiences. This must occur, even if the learners do not consider themselves strong in these areas (Baker, Jensen, Kolb, 2002). This is at the heart of the ELT model and Kolb’s view of the adult learner.


There are currently many applications of Experiential Learning Theory within educational systems, especially on college campuses. These examples include field courses, study abroad, and mentor-based internships (Millenbah, Campa, & Winterstein, 2004). Additional examples of well established experiential learning applications include cooperative education, internships and service learning. There are also numerous examples of computer-based interventions based on experience.

Cooperative education, internships and service learning

by Tamara Pinkas, Cooperative Education Coordinator

Lane Community College, Eugene, Oregon

Cooperative education (co-op) is a structured educational strategy integrating classroom studies with work-based learning related to a student’s academic or career goals. It provides field-based experiences that integrate theory and practice. Co-op is a partnership among students, educational institutions, and work sites which include business, government, and non-profit community organizations. Students typically earn credit and a grade for their co-op experience while working in a paid or unpaid capacity. College and university professional and career-technical programs such as engineering, media arts and business often require cooperative education courses for their degrees. The National Commission for Cooperative Education (http://www.co-op.edu/) supports the development of quality work-integrated learning programs.

Closely related to cooperative education are internships. An internship is typically a temporary position, which may be paid or unpaid, with an emphasis on on-the-job training, making it similar to an apprenticeship. Interns are usually college or university students, but they can also be high school students or post graduate adults seeking skills for a new career. Student internships provide opportunities for students to gain experience in their field, determine if they have an interest in a particular career, create a network of contacts, and, in some circumstances, gain school credit (this definition of an internship is adapted from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intern).

Service learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities with the emphasis on meeting community needs. Because of its connection to content acquisition and student development, service-learning is often linked to school and college courses. Service-learning can also be organized and offered by community organizations. Learn and Serve America (http://www.servicelearning.org/) supports the service-learning community in education, community-based initiatives and tribal programs, as well as all others interested in strengthening schools and communities using service-learning techniques and methodologies.

Field Course Scenario

A university offers a field-based campus course in wildlife and research management that requires students to actively participate in activities other than those normally encountered during a lecture or recitation section of class. These students are introduced to various vegetation sampling techniques in the one-hour lecture period, but application and use of the techniques occurs when students must describe the vegetation’s structural differences between two woodlots on campus.

Students are provided with a general goal statement requiring them to differentiate between the two areas based on structure but are not told how to determine these differences or how detailed the description of structure must be (e.g., vertical cover or vertical cover broken out by height strata). Students must first determine the objectives of the project before proceeding. Once these have been agreed on with all members of the group, methods for collecting the data are determined. Students may work with others in the class or with the instructor to determine the most appropriate sampling design. After selecting an appropriate sampling design, students are required to collect the data, and thus learn about the technique(s) through experience with it (concrete experience). By doing so, students learn how to use the technique and are able to more readily decide if the technique is suitable under different sampling regimes (reflection and generalization).

During this process, students gain a broader understanding of the technique and its applicability; much of this may never be addressed or presented in a classroom setting. Based on the prerequisites for the course, the instructor workd from the assumption that students have an understanding of ecological concepts and basic statistics. Having these prerequisites facilitates students putting the techniques to use in the environment being studied. An additional benefit of allowing students to experiment with techniques is that unexpected events may occur e.g., it rains halfway through sampling. These unstructured events can further increase a student’s confidence, excitement, and familiarity with a technique requiring the student to make decisions about how to proceed or when to stop (active experimentation). These types of events are difficult to model in a classroom, and even if possible, many students do not know how to deal with unexpected circumstances when their only training has been through discussion. Feeling adequately trained to handle these circumstances will require students to have firsthand knowledge and experience with real-world situations.

Another popular use of experiential learning which has been around for a long time is role play. It has been used for educational and training purposes, for military strategic and tactical analysis and simply as games. We role play in childhood – imitating our parents, playing with dolls and cars, building sand castles and pretending we are princes and warriors – with the result that learning takes place, preparing us for life .

Role Play Scenario

The subject of this lesson is a controversy that has deep roots in American History, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Using the PBS documentary video In The Light Of Reverence, the teacher has the students closely examine the struggles of the Lakota Sioux to maintain their sacred site at Mato Tipila (Lakota for Bear’s Lodge) at Devils Rock in Wyoming. Although the site at Devil’s Rock was never ceded by treaty to the U.S. government, it is now under the administration of the National Park Service. Rock climbers claim any U.S. citizen should have complete access to the site because it is on federal land. In deference to the religious practices of the Lakota, the National Park Service asks that people do not climb there during the entire month of June. The case has been litigated up to the Supreme Court.

After watching the video and discussing various aspects of the controversy, students role-play members of four teams: the Lakota, rock climbers, National Park Service and the courts. Using extensive online resources linked to the lesson, students research the issues and evaluate the sources. The first three teams present their demands in a hearing. The court tries to help them reach a compromise and then adjudicates any unresolved issues. The lesson continues as students compare the plight of the Lakota to that of the Hopi and Wintu, (as presented in the video) who also struggle to maintain their sacred lands. The students will understand the concept of “rights in conflict” arising under the First Amendment (freedom of religion), interpret a current conflict from multiple perspectives, learn to advocate for a point of view, and learn to resolve a conflict through a conflict resolution scenario.

Click Here to Play the Presentation Caption: In this narrated slide show of Experiential Learning, the student and the instructor are working together to create Key Lime Pies by following 4 steps: 1) Setting goals, thinking and planning, 2) Experimenting and decision making, 3) Final actions, and 4) Observations, reviewing, and reflecting. The student and instructor begin by looking through cookbooks to find a recipe. Then, together seek ways to improve the recipe before preparing the pies. They add flavor to the whipped cream to make it taste better as well as prepare for the cooking process by assembling any tools or ingredients needed. This would also be the time in which they could alter the recipe to make it low in fat or increase or decrease the serving size. While the pies are baking, the instructor shows the student how to make decorations to place on top of the pie and then start placing them on the desserts. They then reflect on the process and make notes for future reference. Finally, after all steps are complete, they get to taste the key limes pies. Stephen Dudley and Rebecca Parker (2004).

Steps to Integrating Experiential Learning in the Classroom

  1. Set up the experience by introducing learners to the topic and covering basic material that the learner must know beforehand (the video in the above scenario as well as discussion).
  2. Engage the learner in a realistic experience that provides intrigue as well as depth of involvement (mock trial).
  3. Allow for discussion of the experience including the happenings that occurred and how the individuals involved felt (discussion afterwards).
  4. The learner will then begin to formulate concepts and hypotheses concerning the experience through discussion as well as individual reflection (discussion afterwards, but also could be done with journaling).
  5. Allow the learners to experiment with their newly formed concepts and experiences (interpreting current conflict and conflict resolution scenario).
  6. Further reflection on experimentation (discussion, but could also be done through journaling).
Click Here to Play Video of a middle school classroom example even though Experiential Learning is usually associated with Adult Learning. If you would like to see a transcript of the audio, click here for the audio transcript as a pdf document. This summary was created by Rachelle Acitelli, Megan Bracewell, and Cheryl Stanga (2014).

Simulations and gaming within instruction also involve direct experience and thus are valid examples of experiential learning. Within game interactions, there are often several cycles presented to the participant. These cycles generally consist of participation by the user, decision making, and a period of analysis. This process coincides greatly with the Experiential Learning Cycle outlined above (Marcus, 1997). In addition, it has been found that simulations which shorten the debriefing period at the end of the game session can diminish their own effectiveness. This means that games which do not allow for appropriate reflection are not as effective as if proper reflection occurs. Thus, it is apparent that the reflective observation and abstract conceptualization portions of simulations and games are vital to learning, which has also been established by the Experiential Learning Theory (Ulrich, 1997).

Yet another application of experiential learning is in the field of e-learning. Specifically, there has been an effort to utilize this model to increase the effectiveness of Continuing Professional Development (CPD) e-learning courses. It was found that many of these courses did not allow for concrete experience and active experimentation due to the fact that the learning processes were based on more traditional learning methods and not capitalizing on the self-directed nature of the learners (Friedman, Watts, Croston, & Durkin, 2002). However, with the use of different technologies such as multimedia resources, web-based discussions, online planners, and creative tasks, e-learning courses could be improved in a manner that would strengthen the entire experiential learning cycle for the learner (Frank, Reich, & Humphreys, 2003).


Since Kolb created the Experiential Learning Theory and the accompanying learning model, his work has been met with various criticisms about its worth and effectiveness. One of the criticisms of this model is that the concrete experience part of the learning cycle is not appropriately explained in the theory and remainslargely unexplored. Herron (as cited in Yorks, Kasl, 2002 p. 180-81) believes that “the notion of feeling is nowhere defined or elaborated, thus concrete experience is not properly explored · the model is really about reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation.” Another common criticism of the theory that exposes a weakness is that the idea of immediate and concrete experience is problematic and unrealistic (Miettinen, 2000).

Other criticisms of the ELT are that the concepts outlined by Kolb are too ill-defined and open to various interpretations and that the ideas he presents are an eclectic blend of ideas from various theorists that do not fit logically together. Another, perhaps more biting criticism of Kolb’s work is that his ELT model is only an attempt to explain the societal benefit of his Learning Styles Inventory and thus may actually be a well derived marketing ploy (Miettinen, 2000). Also, it is believed that the phases in the ELT learning model remain separate and do not connect to each other in any manner (Miettinen, 2000).

However, the most tangible weaknesses of the ELT and the ELT learning model are the vast differences between it and the ideas established by John Dewey, whose beliefs are largely attributed to the establishment of the ELT. Dewey believed that non-reflective experience borne out of habit was the dominant form of experience and that reflective experience only occurred when there were contradictions of the habitual experience. But, in a glaring weakness of the ELT, Kolb does not adequately discuss the role of non-reflective experience in the process of learning (Miettinen, 2000). In addition, Dewey believed that observations of reality and nature were the starting point of knowledge acquisition. Kolb, however, believes that the experience is the starting point of knowledge acquisition and disregards the observations concerning the subjective reality of the learner, another blatant weakness (Miettinen, 2000). A final weakness in the ELT that was noticed is its lack of discussion concerning the social aspect of experience. The ELT learning model focused on the learning process for a single learner and failed to mention how the individual fit into a social group during this process and what role this group may play. Also, there was no discussion on how a social group may gain knowledge through a common experience.


With all of the criticisms of the Experiential Learning Theory, it may be too easy to overlook its merits in the field of adult education. Each adult has his/her own unique set of experiences and set of learning abilities that he/she feels comfortable utilizing. Kolb’s theory accounts for this fact and shows how the learner can utilize his/her experiences and learning strengths in the process of constructing knowledge. Kolb also did a good job of integrating the two dialectical entities into the model to create a complete learning cycle in which the entire learning process can be traced. In addition, Kolb did a great job of showing how the learner can be effective utilizing his/her learning strengths, while at the same time using skills that are underdeveloped to complete the learning cycle.

However, due to the weaknesses of the ELT model as created by Kolb, it is necessary to construct another model, which includes Kolb’s beliefs and at the same time confronts the weaknesses that have been found. Below is a representation of a model that could be used for this purpose. The idea behind this model was to include the observations of the learners’ own subjective reality as a starting point for experience. Then, a disruptive experience occurs, which challenges the habitual patterns of the learner. Once the experience has been encountered learners enter a stage of emotion inventory in which they become cognizant of their emotions in reaction to the experience. These emotions then play a role in the next step, which is a stage of reflective observation similar to that outlined by Kolb in his model. After this stage, learners enter a stage of conceptualization and hypothesis formation in which they attempt to piece the information gathered thus far concerning the experience into logical chunks. Once this occurs, learners address the experience in some manner. This may include active experimentation to test a hypothesis. Or, it may also include higher order planning which requires even more in-depth examination of the experience. This stage can lead to two different types of experiences, expected and disruptive, both of which lead to repetition of the learning cycle. The expected experiences include those which can be predicted by the concepts and hypothesis that were established in the learning cycle. Disruptive experiences, on the other hand, include those that conflict with the concepts that were formulated in the experiential process. It is also readily evident in the model that the experiential learning cycle can occur individually or within a social group.

Figure 2. The graphic above depicts the revised experiential learning cycle. It includes the encompassing circle of the environment as well as cycle of events in the learning process that can occur individually or in a group. The different elements are explained below in the order that they appear on the cycle.

Performed individually

  • Subjective stimuli: Observations about an individual’s surrounding environment and nature made by the individual, as well as more affective and temporal judgments about things not really seen but that are definitely felt. It is possible that individuals can learn from this activity and not enter the cycle depicted below.

Can occur individually or in a social group

  • Disruptive Experience: Experience that is a disruption of the habitual manner in which an individual experiences things. This is in contrast to a non-reflective experience borne out of habit.
  • Emotion Inventory: Inventory of emotions that are created by the disruptive experience.
  • Reflective Observation: Observations concerning the experience and reflection upon the event including causes, possible effects, etc.
  • Conceptualization/Hypothesizing: Further processing of the experience; creating concepts to explain the experience and construction of explanatory hypotheses.
  • Addressing: The concepts and hypotheses that have been constructed are formulated and the experience is addressed in some manner. There is an attempt to predict future experience. This may involve planning, active experimentation, or cautious testing.

The encompassing circle of the environment depicts how all of the activities take place in the context of a certain environment and are affected somehow by the environment.

Experiential Learning Theory outlines the manner in which learners gain knowledge and understanding through experiences. Though some may debate which steps are present in experiential learning, there is no debate about the worth of experience in learning. Through experience, learners are able to construct firsthand a sense of understanding of the events going on around them. Educators have begun to harness the power of experience in study abroad courses, field studies, role plays, and numerous computer-based interventions. The future could bring even more applications of this theory, a possibility as exciting for the learner as much as it is the facilitator.

Websites on Experiential Learning:





Baker, A., Jensen, P., Kolb, D. (2002). Conversational Learning: An Approach to Knowledge Creation. Wesport: Quorum.

Frank, M., Reich, N., Humphreys, K. (2003). Respecting the human needs of students in Development of e-learning. Computers & Education, 40, 57-70.

Friedman, A., Watts, D., Croston, J., Durkin, C. (2002). Evaluating online CPD using Educational criteria derived from the experiential learning cycle. British Journal Of Educational Technology, 33, 367-378.

Laschinger, H. (1990). Review of experiential learning theory research in the nursing profession. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 15, 985-993.

Ulrich, M. (1997). Links between experiential learning and simulation & gaming. Retrieved Mar 30, 2004, from http://www.ucs.ch/service/download/docs/articleexplearning.pdf

Miettinen, R. (2000). The concept of experiential learning and John Dewey’s theory of reflective thought and action. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 19(1), 54-72.

Millenbah K. F., Campa H. III, and Winterstein S. R. (2000). Models for the infusing experimental learning in the curriculum. In W. B. Kurtz, M. R. Ryan, and D. E. Larson (eds.), Proceedings of the Third Biennial Conference in Natural Resource Education (pp.44-49), Columbia, MO, USA.

Yorks, L., Kasl. E. (2002). Toward a theory and practice for whole-person learning: Reconceptualizing experience and the role of affect. Adult Education Quarterly,52(3), 176-192.


APA Citation: Oxendine, C., Robinson, J., & Willson, G. (2004). Experiential learning. In M. Orey (Ed.), Emerging perspectives on learning, teaching, and technology. Retrieved <insert date>, from http://epltt.coe.uga.edu/