Experiential Education

In the last few decades, a resurgence in experiential learning has been occurring in higher education. Many universities, including the University of Nebraska – Lincoln, have graduation requirements that include some form of experiential learning. The underlying reasoning for these requirements is to provide students with opportunities to gain hands-on experience related to their future careers. By prioritizing these opportunities, students can apply classroom content while learning critical work skills including interpersonal communication, critical thinking, and client-centered approaches (O’Conner et al. 2021).

Experiential Learning

Experiential learning encompasses a variety of activities that allow students to engage with course content in applied situations. Internships, service-learning, project-based learning, study aboard programs, cooperative learning, civic engagement, environmental outreach, inquiry-based learning, simulations, and many similar types of activities can be classified as experiential learning if conducted using the experiential learning cycle (see Experiential Learning Theory section below; Kolb et al. 2014, Roberts 2016, Kolb and Kolb 2017).

Although usually associated with off-campus work locations and college or university programs, experiential learning can occur within regular classrooms as project-based or active learning assignments. Since students that engage in more types of experiential learning and for longer periods of time have increased learning, engagement, and job skills acquisition (Coker et al. 2017), it is important to provide students with an array of different types of experiential learning opportunities.

Student success has been shown to increase when students are required to complete experiential learning courses or experiential projects. After the addition of experiential learning to different degree programs, students showed higher course grades (Walker 2019, Smith and Gibbs 2020), program retention (Prussia and Weis 2004, Jin et al. 2019), and degree completion (Bradberry et al. 2019, Walker 2019). When experiential learning was added to individual courses, students show increased engagement and learning across a range of disciplines (Vasbinder and Koehler 2015, Li et al. 2019, Hammond and Albert 2020, Smith and Gibbs 2020, O’Connor et al. 2021, Warren and Sellnow 2021).

For example, incorporating Model United Nations simulations in a political science course showed student improvements in nine skills (including critical thinking, team collaboration, interpersonal communication, time management, and creativity) measured using pre- and post-surveys (Hammond and Albert 2020). And students earned higher course grades when an optional stock market trading simulation was used in a business course (Smith and Gibbs 2020) and from participating in service-learning activities in an accounting course (Walker 2019). Additionally, student surveys show increased course satisfaction when courses included experiential learning (Li et al. 2019, O’Connor et al. 2021).

Experiential Learning Theory and Experiential Education

Experiential Learning Theory (ELT) is the basis for all types of experiential learning strategies and the foundation for Experiential Education. ELT originated with John Dewey and was formalized into an educational theory by David Kolb in the 1980s by incorporating the works of William James, Jean Piaget, Kurt Lewin, Lev Vygotsky, Carl Rogers, Paulo Freire, Carl Jung, and Mary Parker Follett (Kolb and Kolb 2017). The main characteristics of Experiential Education (based on ELT) are the adoption of a learner-centered, experience-based curriculum delivered through non-directive facilitation (Kolb et al. 2014).

Essentially, the instructor becomes a facilitator and coach in addition to a subject matter expert who creates opportunities where students can learn from their own experiences, research, collaborations, and actions. In many forms of experiential learning, students and instructors become co-learners as the problems they work to solve are dynamic and require everyone to learn new material and skills to accomplish the project goals. Thus, high-quality experiential education becomes subject matter driven with all participants (instructors, students, collaborators) being equally involved in the generation and evaluation of facts, data, and experiences (Kolb and Kolb 2017).

Figure 1. Experiential Learning Cycle

Diagram depicting the experiential learning cycle

Diagram modeled after image in Kolb and Kolb 2018.

The main framework for Experiential Learning Theory is based on the experiential learning cycle with dialectic poles of learning (Figure 1). The Experiential Learning Cycle consists of four steps that provide learners with opportunities to engage with a concrete experience (Concrete Experiences or Experiencing), reflect on the experience to internalize their understanding of what they have done (Reflective Observation or Reflecting), incorporate their experience with the current understanding of the subject matter (Abstract Conceptualization or Thinking), and then creating and implementing a plan for an application activity that expands their understanding of the topic and how it relates to their own lives (Active Experimentation or Acting; Kolb and Kolb 2018). Within the experiential learning cycle, Experiencing and Thinking are paired activities that require the learner to interact with and grasp a topic (grasping experiences) in opposing ways: concrete experiences and abstract thinking.

Similarly, Reflecting and Acting are opposing methods used by the learner to transform their understanding of a topic (transforming experiences). The dialectic poles in the cycle (between grasping and transforming experiences) act as motivating forces and perpetuate the cycle of learning (Kolb and Kolb 2017). When done correctly, the cycle repeats with learners engaging in new concrete experiences and ultimately results in an Experiential Learning Spiral that promotes deeper understanding of content knowledge (Kolb and Kolb 2018).

Figure 2. Educator's Roles in Experiential Learning Cycle

Educator’s Roles in Experiential Learning Cycle

Diagram modeled after image in Kolb and Kolb 2018.

When implementing the experiential learning cycle, instructors need to develop different roles to assist learners in completing and moving to the next stage in the cycle. The four main instructional roles within experiential learning are the facilitator, the subject expert, the evaluator, and the coach (Kolb and Kolb 2018). Each of these roles roughly corresponds to the four parts of the experiential learning cycle (Figure 2). Thus, educators need to be facilitators during the concrete experience and into the reflection stage.

As a facilitator, the instructor helps students engage in the experience, relate the experience to the student’s prior knowledge, and assists the students in self-reflection by providing inquiry-based questions and formative feedback. During the reflecting and thinking stages, the instructor becomes a subject expert who helps students organize their reflections and provides instruction (e.g., lectures) or guidance (e.g., research strategies) on developing a deep understanding of the subject matter.

At the end of the thinking stage, educators switch to an evaluator role to ensure that students have mastered the knowledge or skills needed to move into the acting stage of the learning cycle. And finally, instructors are coaches during the acting stage aiding students in the creation and implementation of plans for new experiences related to the topic area. These roles may need to be adapted to the specific curriculum used for an experiential learning cycle and thus could be implemented at different times or jointly to better fit the subject matter topic and goals for the student’s learning (Kolb and Kolb 2018). Depending on an instructor’s experience and teaching preferences, some roles may be more easily taken and performed by an instructor than others. (A free Educator Role Profile is available to help determine your educator role preferences.)

Additional Resources

University of Nebraska Experiential Learning Websites

Experiential Education Organizations

Other University Websites


Bradberry, L. A. and J. De Maio (2019). Learning by doing: the long-term impact of experiential learning programs on student success. Journal of Political Science Education 15:94-111.

Coker, J. S., E. Heiser, L. Taylor, C. Book (2017). Impacts of experiential learning depth and breadth on student outcomes. Journal of Experiential Education 40:5-23.

Hammond, A. and C. D. Albert (2020). Learning by Experiencing: improving student learning through a model United Nations simulation. Journal of Political Science Education 16:441-158.

Jin, L. D. Doser, V. Lougheed, E. J. Walsh, L. Hamdan, M. Zarei, and G. Corral (2019). Experiential learning and close mentoring improve recruitment and retention in the undergraduate environmental science program at a Hispanic-serving institution. Journal of Geoscience education 67:384-399.

Kolb, A. Y. and D. A. Kolb (2017). Experiential Learning Theory as a Guide for Experiential Educators in Higher Education. ELTHE: A Journal for Engaged Educators 1, 77-44.

Kolb, A. and D. Kolb (2018). Eight important things to know about the experiential learning cycle. Australian Educational Leader 40:8-14

Kolb, A., D. A. Kolb, A. Passarelli, and G. Sharman (2014). On becoming an experiential Educator: The Educator Role Profile. Simulation & Gaming 45:204-234.

Li, H., A. Ochsner, and W. Hall (2019). Application of experiential learning to improve student engagement and experience in a mechanical engineering course. European Journal of Engineering Education 44:283-293.

O’Connor, E., J. Cianciotta, and D. Crete (2021). Exploring student satisfaction in experiential learning at the University of Ottawa. New Directions for Teaching and Learning 2021:23-32.

Prussia, G. E., and W. L. Weis (2004). Experiential learning effects on retention: results from a required MBA course. Journal of College Retention 54:397-407.

Roberts, J. W. (2016). Experiential education in the college context: What it is, how it works, and why it matters. Routledge, New York.

Smith, C. M., and S. C. Gibbs (2020). Stock market trading simulations: Assessing the impact on student learning. Journal of Education for Business 95:234-241.

Vasbinder, W., and W. Koehler (2015). Socially Conscious Ventures and Experiential Learning: perceptions of student engagement. Universal Journal of Education Research 3:85-92.

Walker, C. (2019). Experiential learning as a strategy for student completion and course success in the community college. Community College Journal of Research and Practice 43:803-806.

Warren, J. L. and D. D. Sellnow (2021). Increasing learning while serving the community: student engagement as the key to learning in a basic public speaking course. Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement 25:25-35.

This page was authored by Michele Larson and last updated on June 28, 2022