What is Experiential Education? | Faculty Focus


This article first appeared in the Teaching Professor on November 21, 2017. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved. 

For many years, I have tried to explain what experiential education (EE) is to my colleagues. In the process, I often found myself bogged down in the technical jargon of my discipline (outdoor and adventure education) as well as the writings of thinkers such as John Dewey. I’m writing here to clarify my own understanding of EE and to present a simple model that can be understood regardless of academic discipline. In doing so, I am hesitant to even use the phrase EE, because I believe it represents sound educational pedagogy no matter what it’s called.

From my understanding and experience, at the heart of EE are three key elements: content, experience, and reflection. Central to effective EE is establishing a clear and relevant relationship between these three elements in our teaching practice; ideally, content, experience, and reflection are seamlessly intertwined. I imagine three overlapping circles with EE in that space where they overlap.

The traditional lecture course is an example of content-focused practice. A teacher delivers the content, and it is up to students to experience or reflect on it. I think it is fair to say that the shortcomings of content-only practices are well understood and that most teachers are trying to distance themselves from relying solely on this tradition.

A potential solution to the content-only practice is the addition of experience. For example, in outdoor education, we might include a canoe trip. However, to be effective, the canoe trip must provide an experience in which the content of the course is actually experienced. If we’re teaching about outdoor leadership, then students must experience outdoor leadership. The teacher can model leadership, or the students can experience it by leading. Ideally, they would experience both instructor modelling and their own leadership. The more diverse the experience, the better. In contrast, if the focus of the canoe trip is canoe-skill development, then it won’t be an experience that advances students’ understanding of outdoor leadership. Experiential education ensures that the experiences are relevant and allow students to experience the content. It’s not just experience for experience’s sake.

Content-driven courses are also enhanced by the addition of a reflective component. In the case of outdoor education, we might add a journal assignment or include sharing circles for students to discuss their experiences. However, for this to be meaningful and relevant, the journal assignment and sharing circles must facilitate the students’ understanding of the content; in this case, outdoor leadership. From an EE perspective, reflecting on content alone without experience is incomplete learning; students must be able to reflect on both the content and the experience. Again, adding reflection for reflection’s sake does not improve learning.

Although adding these experiential and reflective elements in content-driven courses is a step in the right direction, the real strength of EE involves the intentional design of learning opportunities that weave together content, experience, and reflection. For example, in outdoor education, rather than simply presenting the theory of outdoor leadership, adding a meaningful experience of outdoor leadership that includes emotional, social, and kinesthetic experiences and opportunities for formal and informal (and group and individual) reflection heightens the likelihood of a powerful EE learning experience.

The sweet-spot of EE is the overlap of content, experience, and reflection. To find it, teachers must ask:

  • What is the primary content of the course?
  • How can students best experience that content?
  • How can I include meaningful opportunities for reflection so students can make connections between the content and experience?
  • How can I design a learning experience that includes content, experience, and reflection so the content is clearly and meaningfully connected to the students’ past, helps students situate the present, and prepares students for the future?

We need to bear in mind that experience and reflection come in many forms: experience is much more than “learning-by-doing” or “hands-on”; experience is also “brains-on,” “emotions-on,” “social-on,” “spiritual-on,” and more. And reflection is much more than journaling and group discussions. Boud writes in his 2001 article on enhancing reflective practice that it is “taking the unprocessed, raw material of experience and engaging with it as a way to make sense of what has occurred. It involves exploring often messy and confused events and focusing on the thoughts and emotions that accompany them (p. 10).”

At the intersection of content, experience, and reflection is the art of teaching. Those teachers who successfully lead their students to this nexus use their senses and intuition to craft the overlap. Teaching techniques (i.e., team-based learning, flipped classrooms, service learning, e-portfolios) can be very helpful, but on their own, they are not enough. We must first understand the vital relationship between content, experience, and reflection and then use technique to facilitate the relationship. The most talented teachers are those who regularly lead their students to the fertile ground where content, experience, and reflection grow together.

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Morten Asfeldt is an associate professor at the University of Alberta.



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