Experiential learning

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Editors: Vyara Dimitrova and Paul A. Kirschner, Centre for Learning Sciences and Technologies, Open University of the Netherlands

Contributors: .../...


  1. Experiential learning is the learning and “education that occurs as a direct [result of] participation in the events of life” (Houle 1980, p. 221).
  2. Experiential learning is “ [the] direct encounter with the phenomena being studied rather than merely thinking about the encounter, or only considering the possibility of doing something about it” (Borzak 1981, p. 9, quoted in Brookfield 1983).

Comments on the history

Although the beginnings of the term may be marked a lot earlier, its popular introduction arguably took place with Kolb’s (1984) publication on experiential learning theory (ELT). His main argument is that unlike most theories of human learning, “Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) provides a holistic model of the learning process and a multilinear model of adult development, both of which are consistent with what we know about how people learn, grow, and develop” (Kolb, Boyatzis, & Mainemelis 2000, p. 2). The theory bears the name ‘experiential’ to underscore its “intellectual” origins as well as the essential role of experience in adult learning (Kolb 1984, p. 20). An adult individual, thus, accumulates knowledge through the cyclical process of going through an experience, which serves as substance for reflection. Reflecting on experiences generates abstract concepts whereas these abstractions, in their own right, engender outputs for actions. The end of the cycle, before a new one commences, amounts to active experimentation with these very outputs. Thus, in Kolb’s terms, the kernel of experiential learning lies in “the process whereby knowledge is created through transformation of experience” (p. 41). Ever since the 1984 publication, the rationale behind ELT has been used as the basis of multiple methodologies and design practices among which experience-based learning, gaming, computer-based simulations, narratology, etc., as well as in various learning and educational contexts including formal and informal, business and academic, organizational and individual (for an overview see Silberman, 2007).

Related terms

Informal learning, experience-based learning, constructivism, constructionism, learning by doing, empirical inductivism, inquiry learning, learning by discovery

Translation issues


Disciplinary issues

Depending on the context, both definitions suggested above can be equally applicable to research into (technology enhanced) learning. The latter definition, more specific to educational practitioners’ point of view, implies that experience is utilized as an instrument in planned and probably structured activities aiming at achieving the educational goal of direct application of knowledge, skills and attitudes in relevant to this very knowledge, skills and attitudes settings.

These two definitions should not be considered exclusive since they both represent different forms of identical underlying learning mechanisms. In this respect, most experiential learning follows what Ohlsson (2011) calls ‘empirical inductivism’ which is when a person first extrapolates regularities from past experiences storing them in their episodic memory and then consequently applies these stored regularities to future situations. Learning from experiences may also occasionally result in construction of knowledge that qualitatively surpasses the already formed structures, a process which has been described as the so-called learning paradox (Bereiter, 1985)

In spite of its popularity and its merit of drawing the public’s attention to learning from real life experiences, Kolb’s ELT and its related methodological implications have undergone much criticism from different perspectives. Although numerous, the most serious criticism might concern the theoretical claims of its capability to represent a wholesale theory of how adult learning comes about. These claims, however, can hardly be sustained without considering a likewise wholesale scientifically testable and tested model of knowledge structure organization (i.e., cognitive architecture). Lacking it, ELT does not present a viable way of validating its educational design applications (Kirschner, Sweller, & Clark, 2006).

More recently, attempts have been made at grounding learning through experience in a broader and also theory verifiable perspective, especially in terms of looking into one’s declarative knowledge acquisition. Yet, unlike our relatively rich understanding of how procedural knowledge is acquired, very little is known about the conditions under which an individual or a group of individuals can construct declarative knowledge which overrides, in Ohlsson’s (2011) words, the basis upon which it has been created (i.e., one’s experiences). To date, phenomena causing the learning paradox have remained by and large a subject of speculations (Chi & Ohlsson, 2005). Given the complexity of human learning in real-life conditions which encompasses not only knowledge and skills but also attitudes (Kirschner & Merriënboer, 2008), the incorporation of self-regulation mechanisms in the whole account might provide more directions to understanding the yet missing pieces.

Key references

[1] Berieter, C. (1985). Toward a solution of the learning paradox. Review of Educational Research, 55(2), 201-226

[2] Borzak, L. (ed.) (1981). Field Study.A source book for experiential learning. Beverley Hills: Sage Publications

[3] Brookfield, S. D. (1983). Adult Learners, Adult Education and the Community. Milton Keynes, Open University Press

[4] Chi, M.T. H., & Ohlsson, S. (2005). Complex declarative learning. In K. J. Holyoak, & R. G. Morrison, The Cambridge Handbook of thinking and reasoning (pp. 371-399). New York: Cambridge University Press

[5] Houle, C. (1980) Continuing Learning in the Professions, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

[6] Kirschner, P.A., & Merriënboer, J.J.G. (2008). Ten steps to complex learning: A new approach to instruction and instructional design. In T.L. Good (Ed.), 21st century education: A reference handbook (Vol. 1 &2, pp. 244-253). Thousand Oaks: Sage

[7] Kirschner, P.A., Sweller, J., & Clark, R. E. (2006). Why minimal guidance during instruction does not work: An analysis of the failure of constructivist, discovery, problem-based, experiential and inquiry-based teaching. Educational Psychologist, 41(2), 75-86

[8] Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall

[9] Kolb, D., Boyatzis, R. E., & Mainemelis, C., (2000). Experiential learning theory: Previous research and new directions. (on-line accessed 14.02.2013)

[10] Ohlsson, S. (2011). Deep learning: How the mind overrides experience. New York: Cambridge University Press

[11] Silberman, M. (2007). The handbook of experiential learning. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.