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Students and Experiential Learning

To date as far back as the 17th century, experienced-based learning is a education that many have learned to embrace throughout their educational career. One of the first scholars to reference this type of education was philosopher John Locke. When responding to the question, “Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge?” he said, “In one word, from experience. In that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself…Experience here must teach me what reason cannot” (Andresen, Boud, Cohen 2000).

Locke recognizes here that there is more to learning than typical classroom education, and that not all things can be taught via logic and reasoning. This paper aims to address the importance of experience-based learning, and the impact that it makes on a student’s education.

Learning in the Classroom

Before students had the opportunity to explore career paths and educational opportunities outside of the classroom educators focused mainly on exposing students to situations and practices that they would see in the workplace.

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According to Brent Ruben of Rutgers University, teaching was thought of in terms of information transfer (1999). This meant that individuals weren’t progressing in their learning, but instead only able to learn what was taught in a classroom setting from the perspective of their educator. Yes, this introduced theories, solutions, and information, but there was a cap to what could be taught.

There are many limitations to in-class learning, but among the most significant are (1) humans learn in more than just formal settings, (2) a teacher’s view of a subject may not always be the most important, and (3) traditional teaching can oftentimes be too predictable and students may not be challenged. These limitations alone made it clear that educators needed to introduce a more comprehensive learning experience from which students could take more of their education into their own hands.

At this point, simulations and games were added into classrooms. These activities give individuals the opportunity to no longer look at themselves as students, but instead as a character or profile as part of a larger narrative. Students could make their own choices that would impact others and have the opportunity to put what they learned in the classroom to work.

While this gives students more opportunity to engage with the content they’re taught, they oftentimes do not see the real impact that they could have on the world. Since these learning opportunities are just stimulatory, students lose the ability to analyze some of the real-life applications that come along with the experience.

Experienced Based Learning

In 1984 David Kolb published his research on learning styles and introduced the world to a process of learning now known as the experiential learning theory. This theory consists of a four stage cycle that defines how an individual learns by experience rather than through traditional teaching styles. Kolb describes the theory as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” and success is defined in an increase in knowledge which comes from “combinations of grasping and transforming the experience” (Andresen, Boud, Cohen 2000).

This style of learning is beneficial to students, especially at the undergraduate level because it gives them the opportunity to explore career opportunities and paths, while also continuing their education. It is more comprehensive than a typical internship or job because it encourages students to reflect and problem solve throughout their experience, which helps them retain knowledge and learn new content.

There are four stages to Kolb’s model: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation (Andresen, Boud, Cohen 2000).

Concrete Experience

Concrete experience is the first stage of the cycle, and is also known as feeling. This stage focuses on the individual’s participation and how they feel about their experience. During the phase, the individual is beginning to participate in their new setting and understand the basics of their position. Once they are comfortable in their space and actively participating they move into the next stage.

Reflective Observation

Also known as watching, reflective observation is the next phase in which an individual should reflect on what they are doing and why they are doing it. In the case of a student, an individual in this phase would begin to connect their experiences to theories. While on the job, they would observe what others are doing and how it could benefit them in the future.

Abstract Conceptualization

This phase is where one with solidifies the concepts that they use on a regular basis and is also known as thinking because it allows time for them to think more critically about their tasks. This adds value to the experience because it acknowledges that theories are valued in the real world. This stage is what sets experiential learning apart from an average job because it gives employees the opportunity to digest what they are doing and why they are capable of doing it.

Active Experimentation

The final stage of the cycle, also known as doing, is where individuals can hypothesize where their experience is going to take them next. They will take what they have learned in the first three phases and predict what they will be able to use in the future and what they are now equipped to do. For students hoping to enter the professional world, this phase is relevant because it helps them identify their strengths and weaknesses. This gives these individuals the chance to identify spaces for career growth and to identify which practices they will continue to use in their careers.

Case Studies

Based on Kolb’s model, it is clear that there are benefits to individuals who have experiential learning based educations. These individuals have the opportunity to not only respond to the information that they are taught, but also can act on that information and challenge it with real life experience. The following case studies highlight how experiential based opportunities benefitted students and gave them the chance to expand their curriculum outside of the classroom.

Montepelier High School- Vermont, USA

In 2014 75% of Montepelier High School’s senior class took part in an internship-based program that would give them the opportunity to help them learn about potential career fields and opportunities (Community-Based Learning 2015). While the program was not required, many students chose to opt-in, showing administration that students were willing to devote extra time to an opportunity from which they knew that they would benefit.

In this study, the high school stated that the most important aspect of the internship was the initial conversation between the student and the organization they were working for. This conversation entailed how the internship would be a meaningful experience in which the student would benefit personally and contribute to the organization as a whole.

This conversation parallels to Kolb’s first stage, where the individual must have a concrete understanding of what their purpose is. Expectations set by the school ensured that students would not be doing menial tasks and would have the chance to impact the organization with which they worked.

During the placement students attended a seminar in which they had the chance to discuss problems they faced at their placement, and practices that could benefit them in the workplace. This gave students the opportunity to think critically, or conceptualize, what they were doing at their placements and how they would bring their experiences back to the classroom.

After the placement, mentors would file evaluations for the students, which would help them understand their successes and areas for growth. Like the fourth stage of Kolb’s theory, this helped students recognize what skills they gained and where they could improve in their futures.

This programs success at the high school level makes it clear that programs like this would benefit students in the undergraduate and master’s levels as well, especially as they move into more specific career paths.

International Accounting Program

Chmielewski-Raimondo, McKeown, and Brooks (2016) published the piece “The field as our classroom: Applications in a business-related setting” which highlighted two programs which were based on Kolb’s model.

The first, an International Accounting Study Program (IASP) at an Australian University, was an elective for students who applied based on interest or to “enhance their curriculum” (Chmielewski-Raimondo, McKeown, and Brooks 2016). Students would not receive credit for their program, but would visit multiple businesses and learn over a three-week period.

It was important that the IASP fulfilled the 4 stages of Kolb’s experiential learning cycle so that students would be getting more out of their experience then simply visiting businesses and learning their values and practices. Assessments and participation assignments throughout the IASP made it possible for instructors to be sure that students were benefitting from the program. Students analyzed their own positions within the organizations as well as what they saw from an outsider perspective.

It is also interesting to highlight that within five years of the program happening, at least four students obtained internships with companies they were working with while part of the IASP. The Vice President of a major entertainment company said, “There cannot be a better investment in experiential education for Australian students anywhere to undertake a program such as this to understand global business from a real world perspective rather than see it entirely through a classroom prism,” which exemplifies why the out-of-classroom experience is so crucial for an emerging professional (Chmielewski-Raimondo, McKeown, and Brooks 2016).

Academic Credit and Experiential Learning

Based on the abovementioned examples, it is clear that experiential learning can have a positive impact on a student’s education and give them integral experience for their careers. This raises a new question: should students receive academic credit for experience-based courses?

Parilla and Hesser (1998) make the argument that academic credit is deserved based on if students have met a certain criterion. Individuals can only reach this level of learning when they are able to perform at a high level which shows that they can reflect, analyze, and critique their own experiences.

In terms of internships, students should be able to show what they would have learned in the classroom and concepts and skills they actually learned in order to have a successful internship. Young and Baker (2013) compare this to the academic rigor that one would find in a traditional classroom. Internships must address specific learning outcomes, have a project or capstone experience, and involve self and formal evaluations to be beneficial to the student and count for academic credit.

This shows students that while it is possible to learn outside of the classroom, they must also be reflecting on what they learned in order to be successful. Students would need to take introductory courses and be prepared to enter an internship, and could potentially gain a better understanding of lower level coursework which explains the basic of their career path. This also ensures that students will not take on internship or work opportunities for the sole reason of getting out of their in-classroom schoolwork.

Continuing with Experiential Learning in the 21st Century and Lifelong Learning

One of the major benefits of experiential learning is that individuals can continue to learn throughout their careers and in all facets of life, so long as they follow the guidelines. According to Medel-Anonuevo, Ohsako, and Mauch (2001) lifelong learning is “increasingly cited as one of the key principles in the fields of education and development.” This means that if one wants to continue to grow throughout their adult life, they must continue to actively learn and problem solve to succeed.

In addition to this, Medel-Anonuevo, Ohsako, and Mauch (2001) suggest that learning experiences humans have today impact the decisions and experiences for the generations that follow us. Today, it is necessary to use experiential learning to broaden formal education so that we leave a more comprehensive mark on those who will follow our paths.

Today, a more forward-looking view on experiential learning is known as “authentic learning” (Lombardi 2007). Authentic learning, like experiential learning, is praised for its ability to not only teach individuals content, but focuses on the way that humans can turn what they know into skills and transferable knowledge.

The difference between these two types of learning is that authentic learning takes the individuals one step further and begins in the fourth stage of Kolb’s model. Learners start by looking for connections, and try to immediately familiarize themselves with information they learn based on passed experiences. Lombardi (2007) highlights that often when we cannot connect new knowledge with something we know, we simply reject it because it is not familiar to us.

From a student perspective, this makes clear sense as to why as individuals learn more about a specific field or practice they become more interested. Student success is driven by the active form of learning that encourages deeper research into areas that are familiar, and eventually lead to a career path.

To further research in this area scholars should look into the educational system and take a closer look into how much of a broad education one needs to be successful. Hopefully, in the future the educational system will support individuals who succeed with a more experience-based program. For now educators should continue to support students through their experiences and be willing to mentor them through their learning.


  1. Andresen, L., Boud, D., & Cohen, R. (2000.). Experience-Based Learning. In Understanding Adult Education (pp. 225-239). Syndey: Allen&Unwin.
  2. Chmielewski-Raimondo, D. A., Mckeown, W., & Brooks, A. (2016). The field as our classroom: Applications in a business-related setting. Journal of Accounting Education, 34, 41-58. doi:10.1016/j.jaccedu.2015.11.002
  3. Community-Based Learning: Connecting Students With Their World. (2015, February 03). Retrieved December 3, 2018, from https://www.edutopia.org/practice/community-based-learning-connecting-students-their-world
  4. Darlene S. Young & Robert E. Baker (2004) Linking Classroom Theory to Professional Practice: The Internship as a Practical Learning Experience Worthy of Academic Credit, Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 75:1, 22-24, DOI: 10.1080/07303084.2004.10608536
  5. Lombardi, Marilyn. (2007). Authentic Learning for the 21st Century: An Overview. Añonuevo, C., Mauch, W., & Ohsako, T. (2001). Revisiting Lifelong Learning for the 21st Century. Hamburg: UNESCO Inst. for Education.
  6. F. Parilla, Peter & Hesser, Garry. (1998). Internships and the Sociological Perspective: Applying Principles of Experiential Learning. Teaching Sociology. 26. 310. 10.2307/1318771.
  7. Ruben, B. D. (1999). Simulations, Games, and Experience-Based Learning: The Quest for a New Paradigm for Teaching and Learning. Simulation & Gaming, 30(4), 498–505. https://doi.org/10.1177/104687819903000409

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Students and Experiential Learning
To date as far back as the 17th century, experienced-based learning is a education that many have learned to embrace throughout their educational career. One of the first scholars to reference this type of education was philosopher John Locke. When responding to the question, “Whence has it all the materials of reason and knowledge?” he said, “In one word, from experience. In that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself…Experience here must teach me what
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Students and Experiential Learning
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