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What is experiential learning?

Experiential learning (EL) is learning by doing. This is an active, hands-on process where learners apply their knowledge and practise their skills, while also engaging in reflection.

Reflecting before, during and after the experience is crucial to the learning process, as it engages learners more deeply with what was learned, thus getting them closer to mastery of the subject.

Through an EL activity, students:

  • Apply knowledge, skills and values from readings, lectures, etc. to an analysis of the real-world context in which they are working.
  • Use the experiences to describe the impact on their understanding of the course material.
  • Synthesize and articulate how the ideas and experiences provided might inform their personal, academic, and/or professional pursuits.

A learning model

A cyclical diagram with arrows between four phases labelled Experience, Reflection, Abstraction, Experimentation Kolb's (1984) EL model

David Kolb* developed a cyclical learning model for EL, where learners:

  • start the experience;
  • reflect on what they have done;
  • abstract what they have learned;
  • apply and test their learning through experimentation; and then
  • engage in the next phases of their experience or in a new experience.

The key to mastery is to integrate new knowledge and skills into what is already known, and to applying them to what will be done in the future.

*Kolb, D. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience As the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Best practices for implementing EL

The National Society for Experiential Education (NSEE, 2011) identifies eight principles of good practice:

  1. Intention: Why this experience? What knowledge will be gained?
  2. Preparedness and planning: What foundation does the learner need?
  3. Authenticity: How is this useful or meaningful in the real world?
  4. Reflection: What ideas were tested, and what can be applied in the future?
  5. Orientation and training: What background information or preparation is needed for the learner, facilitator and partners?
  6. Monitoring and continuous improvement: What formative evaluation tools and feedback loops can be used?
  7. Assessment and evaluation: How will processes and outcomes be documented?
  8. Acknowledgement: How will learning be recognized and reported?

These principles emphasize the importance of each stage in the EL cycle. The practices of planning, training, monitoring and assessment directly address the challenges of integration, feasibility and sustainability, and impact, giving learners the best opportunity to succeed.

You will find resources throughout the EL website to help you succeed in implementing your experiential learning activity. See the sections for students, faculty and staff, and partners.

Learning outcomes

Learning outcomes are key in an EL experience — they describe the knowledge, skills and values that students are expected to have acquired at the end of the EL activity, with a clear notion of why they are important and useful.

Learning outcomes focus on the potential applications of the knowledge and skills, help students connect learning in various contexts (within and outside of the context of the academic program), and help guide assessment and evaluation.

Outcomes can be stated in terms of core knowledge and skills, but can also include transferable knowledge and skills, such as communication, self-awareness, social responsibility, etc.


It is important to assess the impact of EL. Once learning outcomes are articulated, a critical step is to assess them. Assessment describes how well a student is achieving an outcome, and how to improve. Various assessment tools can be used to measure these outcomes. Students should be asked to provide work that evaluates whether, and to what extent, the learning objectives have been met.


Reflection is an integral component of EL — it links the ‘concrete experience’ to the ‘learning,’ facilitating the connection between the theory learned in class and the practical experience gained. Different types of reflection can take place:

  • Cognitive: looks at new knowledge and skills you have learned
  • Affective: looks at how you feel from the experience
  • Process: reflects on the steps taken in the process

Reflection is ongoing. It should take place before, during and after the EL experience. Depending on the nature of the activity, the reflective exercises may look different.

21st century skills

The RBC Future Skills Report states that “An assessment of 20,000 skills rankings across 300 occupations and 2.4 million expected job openings shows an increasing demand for foundational skills such as critical thinking, coordination, social perceptiveness, active listening and complex problem solving.” These are also called transferable skills because they allow students to transfer them to a variety of different contexts and future opportunities, whether they are academic, vocational or charitable.

A survey was conducted at Concordia University in 2017-18 and faculty and staff were asked to indicate the most relevant skills needed to prepare and support students before, during and after EL.

Relevant skills before, during and after an EL experience

Pre-EL experience skills help students prepare for the journey.

  • Time management
  • Communication
  • Active listening
  • Coordination
  • Self-awareness, initiative and self-direction
  • Teamwork
  • Empathy
  • Global and cultural awareness
  • Judgment and decision-making
  • Job search, résumé, cover letter, and interview skills
  • Active listening, recognition of marginalization groups, self-awareness
  • Conflict style, preliminary understanding of charity versus justice approaches to community development, conflict resolution
  • Reflection

In-process EL skills help students assess learning and reflect on the process and outcomes.

  • Communication
  • Leadership and collaboration
  • Social perceptiveness
  • Judgment and decision-making, negotiation
  • Coordination
  • Persuasion
  • Creativity
  • Public speaking
  • Active listening
  • Self-awareness
  • Reflection
  • Preparation, time, resources and financial management
  • Global and cultural awareness
  • Initiative and self-direction
  • Personal reflection, journaling, group reflection, critical discussion

Post-EL Experience skills allow students to process, understand and articulate the learning experience.

  • Judgment and decision-making
  • Self-awareness
  • Reflection: articulation of skill and knowledge gained, integration with program/degree objectives

An ideal EL experience follows Kolb’s cycle presented above. A well-rounded EL experience includes support for students in the form of well-defined learning objectives, assessment of these objectives, relevant reflective exercises, and access to key skills development opportunities, and a means to articulate what a student has learned.

FutureBound works in conjunction with the EL Office to offer skills development opportunities related to EL to all students. For more information on how your students can gain access to these opportunities, please contact the EL Office.

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