Experiential Learning – A Review of Some Literature

Gabriela Matey and Jessica Fickell

A framework of experiential learning was proposed in 1984 by David A. Kolb who maintained that effective learning requires four components: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization and active experimentation. He suggested that learning must involve full and open engagement, without bias, in new experiences, plus reflection on and observation of, the learning experience from different perspectives. He believed that students should be able to create concepts that integrate their observations into logically sound theories, and use these theories to make decisions and solve problems (Kolb, 1984). Kolb drew upon the work of educational reformist John Dewey, who posited that discovery through experience leads to learning, stressing the intimate and necessary relationship between the process of actual experience and education (Dewey, 1938).

In this Casebook, the authors of “Finding a Voice” describe how the presence of Speakers in a second year course, Social Issues in Education, helped to brake down the barriers that can inhibit meaningful learning experiences among peers and how they worked to prevent student alienation and the “discouragement of dialogue” (Lim, Broughton, DeFazio, Lee-Smith, Liu, & Bingham, 2013). SFU professor John Bogardus (personal communication, October, 2013) emphasized that critical reflection and dialogue are an important part of experiential learning in the classroom, because within dialogue students encounter a multiplicity of perspectives. He also stated that learners are able to develop critical thinking skills through the process of evaluating multiple perspectives that surface within the classroom dialogue. Similarly, Baker, Jensen and Kolb (2005), argue that open dialogue creates a space for reflection and creativity as students construct meaning from their own experiences. The authors describe that through exploration of theoretical frameworks based on five process dialectics (apprehension and comprehension; reflection and action; epistemological discourse and ontological recourse; individuality and relationally; status and solidarity) participants engage in conversation by embracing the differences across these dialectics and how the boundaries of the dialectics open up a “conversational space”. This conversational space in turn allows those in open dialect to stay engaged with one another so that their differing perspectives can create a learning experience that promotes individual and group-based learning (Baker, Jensen, & Kolb, 2005, p.411). In the case, “Finding a Voice” the authors reflect on how the structure of education, the curriculum, and the instruction continue to support and develop a hierarchy of knowledge; teaching is often one-directional – teacher transmits knowledge to students – and students do not possess their own voice. Bingham and Biesta (2010), point out that giving voice to students in the classroom empowers them in their learning, but also evokes more democratic values. Similarly, John Bogardus (personal communication, October 2013) believes that an important aspect of learning through classroom dialogue is that students find a voice for their own opinions. He emphasizes this is an important pedagogical lesson – that dialogue not only develops the student’s confidence as a learner, but also as an individual; it gives them practice in respectfully raising differences.

Keogh, Sterling and Venables (2007) argue that when students engage in problem-based and experiential learning they become active participants in their own learning process. This is achieved by constructing their own internal knowledge framework through the social and physical context of their work. In her chapter “Food for Thought: Moving toward sustainable dining”, Leah Bendell describes why she’s passionate about the application of knowledge to real life. Her students have engaged in learning by becoming aware of where their food originates, in particular, the energy cost of obtaining and processing that food, and the contaminant burden that particular foods carry. Research in authentic learning identify the advantages of Bendell’s pedagogical methods. Stein, Isaacs and Andrews (2004) argue that authentic learning experiences are those that are personally relevant from the learner’s perspective and situated within appropriate social context. For example, Cox (2012) describes how a project which was initially intended to quantify the carbon footprint of the campus, resulted in addressing some the university’s academic objectives by providing a hands-on learning opportunity for students. For many students, their involvement in the project fostered an interest in sustainability as they learned about carbon emissions and sequestration, arboriculture and biogeography.

The cases describing the Social Venture and the Experiential Computing courses discuss how students become engaged when they work with real problems in industry and business. Shawn Smith, instructor at the Beedie School of Business, reports that the most powerful outcome a student can gain through a social venture project is a sense of responsibility. His course is a collaboration with RADIUS (RADical Ideas, Useful to Society), which aims to build a culture of social innovation and create opportunities for learning that inspire new ideas to tackle social problems. David Zandvliet (personal communication, October 2013), Associate Professor in SFU’s Faculty of Education, agrees that direct experience is often life-changing because it exposes students to a deeper meaning; it has the potential to ignite a sense of agency for social and ethical responsibility. He explained that when students attempt to make meaning by reflecting on their own direct experiences, they are more likely to be motivated towards social action than if they are simply gaining “the knowledge of facts”. Others have observed similar impacts on students when they work on real world projects and activities. Mooney and Edwards (2001) describe how students, when working in service-learning, are able to develop important social and intellectual linkages, sharpen problem-solving skills, apply critical thinking and use abstract concepts to gain a desired outcome. Moreover, research suggests that when students are exposed to the structural and institutional causes of problems, they are better able to synthesize information from class, learn “real world” lessons of civic responsibility, and bring social and political values to both the educational and institutional contexts (Mooney & Edwards, 2001; Reynolds, 2009).

Clark and White (2010) describe their experiential learning program as truly a win-win situation, as three participating corporations (Southern Aluminum, Rodney D. Young Insurance, and Schawn) have all used the ideas generated by participating university teams (Clark & White, 2010). The companies appreciate the quality of the business students from the selected universities and the students gain a list of mentors through networking which can lead to interviews and job opportunities. Keogh, Sterling and Venables (2007) discuss how it has been well reported that software team projects also help students develop more generic skills such as problem-solving, and allow them to assume responsibility and improve their communication abilities. Many of the cases, in both this casebook as well as other literature, emphasize that experiential frameworks often allow students to network with professionals in their field, as well as learn non-disciplinary skills such as time management, leadership, event coordination, team management and presentation skills.

Tommy Rodengen, (personal communication, October 2013) instructor and PhD candidate in SFU’s Faculty of Environment, cited a common concern with regard to implementing experiential learning – the cost. Instructors are rarely given credit for the extra work required to plan and organize experiential learning activities, such as organizing guest lectures, or communicating with sponsors, businesses or NGOs. It is time consuming to adapt the course curriculum to incorporate experiential projects and there are also institutional constraints. Finally, Rodengen pointed out that project time frames established for a business venture or collaboration with a non-profit organization, might not correspond with the the semesterly timeframe and grading system of the university. He emphasized that the interests of non-university collaborators should be kept in mind throughout the duration of projects, and their cooperation and need be respected. Rodengen also mentioned how he was able to overcome the obstacle of burnout of guest speakers by capturing their ideas on video and revising the curriculum to accommodate the needs of guest speakers.

Experiential learning is a complex construct and therefore difficult to measure. Careful analysis of learning effectiveness is necessary within learning institutions to identify the intended learning outcome and determine the extent to which their students achieve these. In a survey of research on assessment of experiential learning, Gosen and Washbush (2004) found that assessment criteria can be illusive. They point out that learning is an internal mental process and what is learned and how it is learned is unique for each individual. They conclude that the most reasonable approach to assess any experiential learning depends on the context of the learning activity, but should always be free from social presumptions, relate to agreed-on learning objectives, and provide a means for individual assessments of participants (Gosen & Washbush, 2004).


Andrews, T., Isaacs, G., & Stein, S. J., (2004). Incorporating authentic learning experiences within a university course. Studies in Higher Education, 29(2), 239-258.

Baker, A. C., Jensen, P. J., & Kolb, D. A. (2005). Conversation as experiential learning. Management learning, 36(4), 411-427.

Clark, J., & White, G. W. (2010). Experiential learning: A definitive edge in the job market. American Journal of Business Education, 3(2). Retrieved from: http://journals.cluteonline.com/index.php/AJBE/article/view/390/379

Cox, H. M. (2012). A Sustainability Initiative to Quantify Carbon Sequestration by Campus Trees. Journal of Geography, 111(5), 173-183.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Gosen, J., & Washbush, J. (2004). A review of scholarship on assessing experiential learning effectiveness. Simulation & Gaming, 35(2), 270-293.

Keogh, K., Sterling, L., & Venables, A. (2007). A Scalable and Portable Structure or Conducting Successful Year-long Undergraduate Software Team Projects. Journal of Information Technology Education: Research, 6(1), 515-540.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development.(Vol.1) Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Mooney, L. A., & Edwards, B. (2001). Experiential learning in sociology: Service learning and other community-based learning initiatives. Teaching Sociology, 29(2), 181-194.

Reynolds, M. (2009). Wild frontiers – reflections on experiential learning. Management Learning, 40(4), 387-392.

Comments are closed.