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Understanding experiential education

What is experiential education?

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Experiential education is a form of teaching and learning that emphasizes experience and reflection on that experience. There are many different types of experiential education, and there are many different ways to do experiential education in and out of the classroom.

Some key features of experiential education include intentional design of the learning experience, which requires you to plan and design the learning experience, emphasizing key learning goals, connecting them to experiences in and out of the classroom, and then reflecting and assessing those experiences. Another key element is crafting the experience that happens outside of the classroom or learning program.

There are many different types of experiences. It could be work integrated learning or internship experiences. It could be service learning or community-based learning experiences. There are also examples of undergraduate research or study abroad and domestic travel programs that could be forms of experiential learning. Crafting those learning experiences are really important as well as crafting the reflection on those learning experiences.

Reflection is another key component that requires you to make sure that you’re guiding the learning for the students, crafting guided learning questions that allow students to reflect and describe, analyze and critically reflect on those experiences.

In addition, creating feedback or assessment opportunities for the learners, which will allow them to change courses, adapt to the situation as well as build capacity in learning about their experiences and the reflection on those experiences.

And finally, action. What is the action plan going forward that the learners want to take with them? All of these key components are really effective ways to craft active learning experiences in and out of the classroom, known as experiential learning.

Experiential education has many definitions but can be best understood by considering the main characteristics of this approach to applied learning. 

As the name implies, experiential education is “learning through experience and reflection on that experience.”

Examples of experiences include:

  • Working on a project in the community
  • An immersion experience in a new location
  • A pre-professional experience such as an internship or work-integrated experience
  • Developing and implementing an original research project, or
  • A study trip to a different location domestically or to a different country.  

What are the characteristics of experiential education?

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Building experiential learning takes a lot of planning and intentional design. The way to first get started is responding to the question, what are the learning goals or learning outcomes for this activity, course or program? Next, how do you plan to assess or evaluate those learning activities? And finally, what activities or experiences do you want students to have to get to those learning goals?

So utilizing this backward design process will allow you to craft the type of experiential learning activities within your program, or course. However, I hear from educators time and time again, that the reflection portion is sometimes a struggle. How do you build in those reflection activities with the experiences? Research tells us that the reflection needs to be continuous, connected, challenging, and contextualized.

For example, when we say reflection activities need to be continuous, they need to be offered in multiple ways at multiple times, and they need to be ongoing pre, during and post the experience. When we say connected, reflection activities need to be connected to the topic of study. They need to be clearly articulated and on how and why students are doing these activities based on the experience and the theme or topic that they are studying and exploring at the time. They need to be contextualized with real-world issues or issues that are happening in the local neighborhood, community, the larger world or important real-world topics. And lastly, they need to be challenging. They need to move the learner from their current state of thinking to new perspectives, new insights, and new levels of thinking on the topic of study. So reflection activities are the opportunity for the learner to transform their experience into new learning.

There are many features of experiential education that make this applied form of learning unique. Let’s look at the main characteristics:

Intentional Design

In experiential education, we begin by defining the learning outcomes of the course or program and thinking how these can be achieved through experiential education. It’s important to be explicit about how the outcomes and the experience are linked, especially when working with an external organisation that provides community-based or work-based learning opportunities. Intentional design involves a lot of pre-planning to structure the learning experience.

Crafting the Experience

The learning experience can be virtually anything outside the classroom. The important feature is that learning is shared with another space. Letting go of control and letting the experience happen can be one of the most nerve-wracking but also most rewarding aspects of experiential education.


Reflect is an essential aspect of experiential education. These meaning-making activities may be written, oral, or creative in nature, and can be curated in a digital portfolio, as we will see. Research indicates that learners need to reflect before, during, and after the experience to get the most impact. Reflection helps students process and connect their experiences with their new learning.

Feedback and Assessment

Experiential education is structured with checkpoints and both formative and summative assessment. A student working in a business or community group might receive a mid-point and final evaluation from a site supervisor. Alternatively, a student working for a non-governmental organisation may ask for feedback on a first draft, second draft, and final draft of a presentation or proposal. Students often present their final projects or experiences to an external audience at the end of the learning experience.

Evaluative Action

Students are expected to integrate their learning from their experiences with their studies and other learning experiences. Creating an action plan with next steps is an example of an assignment or exercise that supports this aspect of experiential education. Another example might be celebrating an outcome with a community group with which a student has been involved and creating a plan for future steps together.

What are the principles of good practice that underpin experiential education?

As we have seen, the characteristics of experiential education are very broad and there are many ways in which it can be applied.

Since there are so many possible applications, NSEE has developed 8 Principles of Good Practice in Experiential Education. These are:

  • Intention
  • Preparedness and Planning
  • Authenticity
  • Reflection
  • Orientation and Training
  • Monitoring and Continuous Improvement
  • Assessment and Evaluation
  • Acknowledgment

You can hear our expert practitioners describe how they apply these principles in the next section.

Read more about the 8 Principles of Good Practice at the NSEE website.


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