E is for experiential learning

Welcome to the fifth post in the ABCs of Pedagogy, cross-posted at the university blog Teche. This series is progressing slowly!

Its aim is to provide university teachers with the theoretical language to describe their teaching practice. This is useful for the purposes of reflection, scholarship of learning and teaching, career progression and recognition such as teaching awards and fellowships.

See the previous posts in the series here.

What scholarship can you use to describe your experiential or experience-based teaching practice?

Your initial definition of experiential learning might be something like ‘learning by doing’ but, as with most things, it’s a bit more complicated than that. A key part of experiential learning is reflection, so a better definition would be ‘learning by reflecting on doing’.

Experiential learning builds on the principles of constructivism (see C is for Constructivism): students are active participants in their learning, which occurs through social interaction and is based on prior knowledge. Experience is central to learning. “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience.” (Kolb 1984, p 38).

As a pedagogical practice, experiential learning recognises that learners have an ever-increasing reservoir of experience that can be a valuable resource for learning. It is a holistic approach incorporating the cognitive, affective and psychomotor domains of learning (Bloom et al, 1956). More on these ideas when we reach L is for learners and learning.

Ongoing reflection is crucial for experiential learning. As Andresen, Boud & Cohen (2001) put it: “The quality of reflective thought brought by the learner is of greater significance to the eventual learning outcomes than the nature of the experience itself” (p 226). Students individually and collectively reflect, evaluate and reconstruct their experiences in order to make meaning and stimulate deeper understanding.

When reflecting on your teaching for experiential learning, consider the following questions:

  • Does your unit include experiential learning activities such as  practicums, fieldwork, community engagement, work-integrated learning or an interactive simulation? What background knowledge, skills and experiences do your students have?
  • How do learning activities invite students to draw on their life experiences to make sense of disciplinary concepts, theories and methods?
  • What feedback do students provide on experiential learning opportunities?
  • How do you address inclusion and accessibility in experiential learning activities?
  • Do you promote reflection for learning? What opportunities do students have to practice various approaches for reflection?
  • Do students learn independently and collaboratively? How is experience assessed?
  • In what ways to you incorporate the cognitive, affective and psychomotor learning domains?

Kolb’s (1984) model for experiential learning includes four stages:

Image: Harvey, Lloyd, McLachlan, Semple & Walkerden (2020)

Students start with a concrete learning experience. This might be something new or a learning opportunity inspired by previous experience. Experiences can be life events, informal or incidental learning, as well as participation in learning activities in the classroom, within the community and in work contexts.

Reflective observation enables students make meaning of their experience by questioning their actions and understandings. Reflection can defined as “a deliberate and conscientious process that employs a person’s cognitive, emotional and somatic capacities to mindfully contemplate past, present or future actions in order to learn, and to better understand and potentially improve their actions (Harvey et al., 2020).

In the abstract conceptualisation stage, students make connections between practice and theory leading to new, modified or deeper understanding and a greater capacity for analytical and critical thinking.

Finally, active experimentation involves applying new knowledges and understandings to different contexts and participating in new experiences for ongoing learning.

How do you scaffold the stages of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle for your students?

Other topics in the series will expand on the ideas in this post, including O is for outdoor education, R is for reflective practice and W is for work-integrated learning.


References

Andresen, L., Boud, D. & Cohen, R. (2001) Experience-based Learning: Contemporary Issues.  Foley, G. (Ed.). Understanding Adult Education and Training. Second Edition. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, pp 225-239.

Bloom, B. S.; Engelhart, M. D.; Furst, E. J.; Hill, W. H.; Krathwohl, D. R. (1956). Taxonomy of educational objectives: The classification of educational goals. Handbook I: Cognitive domain. New York: David McKay Company.

Harvey, M., Lloyd, K., McLachlan, K., Semple, A-L. & Walkerden, G. (2020). Reflection for learning: a scholarly practice guide for educators. AdvanceHE.https://www.advance-he.ac.uk/news-and-views/Learning-to-reflect%E2%80%93a-guide-for-educators

Kolb, DA (1984). Experiential Learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Acknowledgement: In developing this series on the ABCs of Pedagogy, I would like to acknowledge the teaching and scholarship of current and former Macquarie University staff members including Vanessa Fredericks, Marina Harvey, Mathew Hillier, Olga Kozar, Danny Liu, Karina Luzia, Margot McNeil, Anna Rowe, Cathy Rytmeister, Theresa Winchester-Seeto and others.