Experiential Learning

Learn about Waterloo ExL and how you can meet with colleagues interested in integrating experiential learning opportunities into courses and programs.

Lectures: A Venerable Tradition

Lectures are a way of transferring the instructor’s lecture notes to students’ notebooks without passing through the brains of either. – Mark Twain

Like a chapter in a good textbook, a lecture is an efficient way to deliver course content. However, delivering course content is not always the same thing as fostering actual learning. Studies have shown that during a typical lecture, student attention begins to diminish after the first ten minutes.[1] Additionally, students usually capture in their lecture notes only a small portion of the content that an instructor conveys verbally [2], and – as Harvard's Eric Mazur has often pointed out – they remember even less of it. Yet despite these limitations, lectures continue to be a dominant pedagogical mode in many universities, probably for three reasons.

First, instructors tend to teach the way that they themselves were taught. If the courses you took as an undergraduate were lecture-based, then that’s probably how you began teaching your undergraduates. We tend to re-enact what is familiar. Moreover, lectures have a venerable history. For centuries – prior to about 1850 when textbooks came to be mass produced – lectures were the only feasible way for scholars to share content with students. 

Second, it’s easy for an instructor – especially one who is teaching a course that is prerequisite to another course – to become focused on covering “content” rather than on ensuring that students are actually learning.

Third, many instructors point out that large class sizes makes it difficult to do anything other than lecture during class. This is a genuine challenge, though there are also some ways to mitigate it.

Experiential Learning

For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them. Men become builders by building." – Aristotle, 

Nicomachean Ethics

One alternative to lectures – or at least a complement to them – is experiential learning. To some extent, experiential learning is self-explanatory: it’s learning that is based on students being directly involved in a learning experience rather than their being recipients of ready-made content in the form of lectures. This kind of experiential learning is probably what Benjamin Franklin had in mind in the eighteenth century when he wrote, “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I will learn.”

The notion of experiential learning was explored further in the twentieth century by educational psychologists such as John Dewey, Carl Rogers, and David Kolb. Kolb asserted that “Learning is the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience,” and he proposed a “learning cycle” that comprises these four phases:

Stage Example
The learner has a “concrete experience.” In a mechanical engineering course, students are asked to use 20 popsicle sticks to build a small bridge that will support 500 grams.
The learner makes observations and reflections based upon that experience. Students note which popsicle sticks failed first, whether the sticks supported more when they were laid flat versus on their edges, and so on.
The observations and reflections are synthesized into a new conceptual understanding and interpretation of the experience. Students develop a list of construction “principles” or best practices.
This conceptual understanding is applied and is used to guide new and purposeful experiences. Students build another iteration of the bridge with the list of construction principles in mind.

Represented as a continuous process, Kolb’s cycle looks like this:

Kolb's four-stage learning cycle: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation

Drawing on Kolb's learning cycle, many universities have developed their own definitions of experiential learning. The University of Waterloo emphasizes the "intentional and reflective learning from experience" component. Simon Fraser University has developed a more extended definition: "the strategic, active engagement of students in opportunities to learn through doing, and reflection on those activities, which empowers them to apply their theoretical knowledge to practical endeavours in a multitude of settings inside and outside of the classroom." 

Proponents of experiential learning say that it helps to motivate learners because it involves them more deeply and extensively in the learning process: rather than being passive recipients of a “product” that the instructor is delivering, they actively engage with the content, the instructor, their peers, and themselves in an ongoing process of meaningful discovery. As David Moore has asserted, experiential learning "provides opportunities for the students to take what they learn in the classroom and apply it in a real world setting where they grapple with real-world problems, discover and test solutions, and interact with others." 

Additionally, experiential learning can result in “deeper” learning which means, among other things, that students are better able to transfer what they have learned in one context to another context. As a result, concerns about not covering as much content are mitigated: an instructor who implements an experiential learning approach might end up covering only nine course units rather than ten, but the students will likely be able to apprehend the tenth unit on their own because of their deeper understanding of the other units.

Building on Experience

Experience plus reflection equals learning. – John Dewey

Experiential learning is more than just getting learners to “do something.” As Donna Qualters notes, “unless experiences outside the classroom are brought into the classroom and integrated with the goals and objectives of the discipline theory, students will continue to have amazing outside experiences but will not readily connect them to their in-class learning.... Without a careful curriculum involving structured, reflective skill building, students may never learn what we hope they will outside the four walls of the classroom.” 

The conditions needed to ensure that experiential learning is effective have been identified by the Association for Experiential Education:

  • Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.
  • Experiences are structured to require the student to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
  • Throughout the experiential learning process, the student is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative and constructing meaning.
  • Students are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully and/or physically. This involvement produces a perception that the learning task is authentic.
  • The results of the learning are personal and form the basis for future experience and learning.
  • Relationships are developed and nurtured: student to self, student to others and student to the world at large.
  • The instructor and student may experience success, failure, adventure, risk-taking and uncertainty, because the outcomes of the experience cannot totally be predicted.
  • Opportunities are nurtured for students and instructors to explore and examine their own values.
  • The instructor’s primary roles include setting suitable experiences, posing problems, setting boundaries, supporting students, insuring physical and emotional safety, and facilitating the learning process.
  • The instructor recognizes and encourages spontaneous opportunities for learning.
  • Instructors strive to be aware of their biases, judgments and pre-conceptions, and how these influence the student.
  • The design of the learning experience includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes and successes.

Examples of Experiential Learning

Learning is experience. Everything else is just information. – Albert Einstein

The co-op program at the University of Waterloo is an example of large-scale experiential learning, as are other programs such as internships, practicums, and so on. It’s also possible, however, to integrate experiential learning in smaller ways into regular courses. Here are some examples drawn from the teaching practice of Waterloo instructors:

More Information

You can learn more about implementing experiential learning in your courses by attending the seminars in the Integrative and Experiential Learning Series, or by contacting Katherine Lithgow


[1] Wolvin, A.D. “Improving Listening Skills” In R. B. (ed.), Improving Speaking and Listening Skills. New Directions for College Learning Assistance, no. 12. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc. 1983.

[2] Dezure, Deborah et al. Research on Student Note-taking: Implications for Faculty and Graduate Student Instructors. CRLT Occasional Papers, No. 16. Center for Research on Learning and Teaching. University of Michigan.