VIU Campus

Experiential Learning

Combining real world experience with curriculum is the most powerful of all teaching strategies. It allows students to connect what's in their course books to the lives and needs of real people. This transfer does not apply only to the obvious service fields such as health care, social work, trades, vocational education and training, it applies to all disciplines. For example, imagine students in English doing scenes from Shakespeare for a community organization; or math majors tutoring local elementary students; or business students helping a local non-profit organization with a marketing plan. What matters most is that through the implementation of Experiential Learning strategies students are able to make connections between their academic goals and graded assignments to real life contexts.

Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) is the application of theory to real-world authentic experiences, either within the classroom, the workplace, or the community. ELT adapts well to a variety of learning environments, including cooperative learning, internships, situated learning, and apprenticeship, just to name a few.  The focus of Experiential Learning Theory is grounded in the notion that levels of understanding are both challenged and deepened through the practice of ‘learning by doing’.

Learning by doing encourages active, student centered engagement which in turn requires the practice of reflection. It invites the learner to apply, reflect, and then revise, in order to build on their existing knowledges and experiences.

Experiential Learning is constructivist in nature and requires the learner to be actively engaged while being immersed in an authentic ‘real-life’ situation. It requires them to be curious, to experiment, investigate, and problem solve. The learner assumes responsibility in such situations by posing questions, providing creative solutions and testing them, before reflecting on the findings and their own cognitive process.

So Experiential Learning is grounded in the practice of metacognition, meaning purposefully thinking about one’s own thinking strategies. It fosters self-awareness, leading learners to become aware of how they learn, what strategies meet their needs, and evaluating the effectiveness of such strategies before implementing the best plan of action to optimally learn.

It cannot be assumed that all hands-on experience provides the essential elements of Experiential Learning. Throughout the implementation of Experiential Learning strategies, both the instructor and the student must remain focused on what is learned throughout the experience  rather than pre-specified outcomes, and can be seen to differ from the aims of competency-based education in which competencies are clearly defined upfront and measured using predetermined criteria.

In other words,

 “simple participation in a prescribed set of learning experiences does not make something experiential”

(Chapman, McPhee, & Proudman, 1995, p. 243)

The origin of Experiential Learning can be traced back to the work of John Dewey (1938) but is better known today through the work of David Kolb (1984).

Kolb’s Experiential Learning cycle guides the development of Experiential Learning activities, involving four stages:

  • Concrete experience: doing, having an experience
  • Reflective observation: reviewing, reflecting on the experience
  • Abstract conceptualization: concluding/learning from the experiment
  • Active experimentation: planning/trying out what you have learned

Although effective learning results when the learner progresses through the cycle, the learner can also enter at any stage of the cycle and follow a logical sequence.

The key characteristic of ELT is its recursive cycle where knowledge is constructed through Doing, Reviewing, Concluding, and Planning within real-world applications. These ELT elements should be present in order to define an activity or method as experiential.

 Doing, having an experience: Experiences should provide students with the opportunity to apply their theoretical knowledge and challenge their assumptions within real - world situations. Yet there is a need for balance between the experiential activities, the application of theory, and the overall outcome. If, for example, the completion of the task becomes the focus of the experience, it ceases to be an Experiential Learning opportunity.

Instructors must value each element of ELT equally, so as to create a safe space for students to work through their own process of self-discovery.

Reviewing, reflecting on the experience: Real- life situations are full of unexpected experiences requiring the learner to think critically, make judgements, and predict outcomes, all of which provide opportunities for higher order thinking.  The value of such experience is realized when the learner is required to reflect both during and following the actions, ultimately bringing “the theory to life”. This reflective practice provides space for learners to analyze their assumptions and to gain insight into their own thinking and their interactions with the world. The instructor’s role is to strategically engage the learner into dialogue to build and foster the practice of reflection.

Concluding/learning from the experiment: The aim of ELT is to combine direct experience with focused reflection. The instructor plays a critical role to ensure that these connections are made by setting suitable real-world experiences, posing problems, and asking deliberate questions that challenge students’ assumptions and, at the same time, nurture learners to explore their own values.

Planning/trying out what you have learned: Practice in real-life authentic situations engage the learner intellectually, emotionally, physically, and socially. They encourage big picture perspective, allowing the learner to make connections between the learning, what they are contributing/doing, and the world. Experiential activities must allow the students to safely take responsibility at levels out of their comfort zones in situations where the outcomes of such an experience cannot be guaranteed. Such authentic experiences place the learner within complex systems that require risk-taking, problem solving, and decision making, ultimately leading to success or failure.  Activities should build, in students, the ability to see the relationship between failure, problem solving, and success. 

Types of Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning can take place in a wide variety of real-world settings. In some disciplines however, such as medicine, the risks may be too high for hands-on experience. In such cases, capstone projects, case studies, and problem-based learning provides equally valuable authentic Experiential Learning opportunities.

Although there are many forms of Experiential Learning, the following list capture many of the current practices implemented at VIU:

  • Applied research project
  • Apprenticeships
  • Campus entrepreneurships/incubators
  • Capstone projects
  • Case studies
  • Co-op
  •  Field experience
  • Industry/community-based research projects
  • Interactive simulations
  • Internships
  • Labs
  • Performance-based learning
  • Practicums or placements
  • Service learning 

Examples of Experiential Learning at VIU

To learn more about Experiential Learning at VIU, watch this short video from VIU’s centre for Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning in the context of Trades, Vocational Education and Training at VIU

In the context of trades, vocational, education and training (TVET), many programs offer authentic Experiential Learning opportunities through the operation of auto shops, bakeries, salons, and spas that provide services to the general public. Also partnerships with industry- where for example an apprenticeship class will build a house for Habitat for humanity. At first glance, these learning environments take on the façade of industry, yet, without the economic pressure of business, they provide real-life problem-based learning opportunities for students to develop and apply knowledge and skill at the situational level in a safe learning environment, with the support of their instructors. Authentic Experiential Learning opportunities such as these are intended to encompass the cognitive actions of experiencing, reflecting, thinking, and acting, which situates theory in action with practice (Kolb & Kolb, 2009).

If you would like to visit an Experiential Learning classroom in action, such as the ones listed above, please connect with CIEL through so that arrangements can be made.

For a short introduction to Experiential Learning, watch this video 

How do students benefit from Experiential Learning?

According to David A. Kolb 

“There are two goals in the Experiential Learning process. One is to learn the specifics of a particular subject, and the other is to learn about one’s own learning process.”

Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) aims to go beyond the learning of specific disciplines, it aims to prepare learners with knowledge and skills plus the abilities to apply theoretical knowledge to real life, ever changing situations. ELT assumes that learning is an ongoing process, meaning that learning never ends and continues throughout one’s life journey. With this principle underlying ELT, students immersed in the learning cycle of Experiencing, Reflecting, Thinking, and Acting report increased levels of critical thinking abilities and the capacity to apply and connect theoretical knowledge to ongoing real-life situations.

ELT embraces the notion that workplaces will continue to change at an accelerated pace throughout the foreseeable future. It assumes that graduates  entering the workforce today are a new generation of workers who have different expectations than their predecessors.  This generation accepts that a job for life won’t exist and that workplaces will be innovative and creative in which lifelong learning will be expected and required, and that technology will allow for flexible working conditions, therefore Experiential Learning aims to impact learners far beyond their years of formal education.

How do I adapt my teaching style to incorporate Experiential Learning?

CIEL specialists are available for a consultation to discuss Experiential Learning and ways to integrate any of the above approaches (and others!) into the classroom.  To book a consultation, contact

What resources are available so that I can learn more about ELT?

There are many resources available online that can support you as you begin to explore implementing Experiential Learning Theory in your practice. Here is one that is openly available:

OER Commons:   provides 24 results in multiple disciplines, ranging from Sustainability, Instructional Design, Agency in the First - Year Writing Classroom, to Biodiesel Inquiry and beyond. Check out these resources