Experiential learning resources for the innovative educator
Misconceptions about Experiential Learning
I talk about experiential learning a lot in my life. It's in the name of my blog and my TpT store, Experiential Learning Depot. I consider "experiential educator" to be my job title and path of focus. "Experiential learning" is strongly built into my daily lexicon and philosophy of education. I get a lot of inquiries about experiential learning and how it can be worked into curriculum, especially in a traditional learning environment. The good news is that it's a great learning tool for people of all learning environments, backgrounds, skill levels, and interests, and it's fairly easy to implement if you know the essential components. There isn't really any bad news other than there are some misunderstandings floating around about what it is and who can benefit from it.
The Instagram hashtag, #experientiallearning, is loaded with photos of company team- building retreats, groups hiking, traveling, or digging around in the dirt. One common misconception is that experiential learning has to happen outdoors. Experiential learning activities can be outdoors, but certainly don't have to be. Taking students outside on a sunny spring day for lecture and worksheets is not experiential learning. An indoor open inquiry activity would be more experiential than passive learning activities taken outdoors.
I worked at an experiential high school for almost 10 years. Although we had a travel program and provided daily authentic experiences for students, 90% of my time was spent in the building, in my classroom. Don't use the fact that you're confined to your classroom as an excuse for not providing experiential learning opportunities to your learners. If you're a homeschooler, you have no excuses! ;)
I very recently discovered that a common use of the term experiential learning is in association with corporate team building activities. Experiential learning in the world of education is not this. Any educator, from any learning environment can do experiential learning with students.
So let's iron out experiential learning, what it is exactly, and how your students can do experiential learning starting today, beyond the walls of a classroom AND within a classroom.
Components of Experiential Learning
1. Students are actively involved:
Students should be actively, not passively, learning throughout the activity at hand. Experiential learning IS NOT lecture. It is NOT prescribed worksheets or even prescribed activities such as a science lab that includes a recipe to follow. Just because the activity gets learners out of their chairs or even out of the building doesn't mean they are involved in the concepts.
Getting involved requires inquiry on the part of the student, that learners ask questions that challenge prior thinking or explain unexpected results, develop solutions to real-world issues, and embrace failure and enthusiastically go back to the drawing board. Learning activities should be authentic and largely, if not entirely, student-led.
2. Students have the freedom and support to make mistakes, and outright fail at times:
Part of learning through experience is gaining skills and knowledge throughout the entire process. Allowing students to feel they can fail, revise, and try again takes off some pressure and encourages learners to strive to improve. This is an important competency for lifelong learners. STEM, STEAM, and maker education, among others, are experiential learning activities that support this line of thinking. All of these activities can be implemented in any learning environment, inside and out, home or in a classroom, in a traditional setting and alternative setting.
Check out some of my PBL maker challenges for an experiential learning resource that welcomes mistakes, failure, and trial and error.
3. The experience is personalized:
An activity is experiential when it's meaningful to each individual student. The activity should meet the diverse need, backgrounds, interests, goals, and skill levels of each student.
Student-led project-based learning encompasses every element of experiential learning when implemented correctly, but it's also the easiest way to make learning personalized in my opinion. Check out past posts on project-based learning here if you missed them. If you want to incorporate experiential learning into your curriculum, especially if you are confined to a classroom, project-based learning is a great place to start. Check out some of my PBL resources here.
If you're just starting out, I recommend my PBL Bundle and Implementation guide. If you're ready to dive right into student-directed PBL, I would recommend my PBL Tool Kit.
4. Students see a connection between content and the real world:
Connecting an activity with real-world context helps students find meaning and purpose in what they're doing. The brain needs real-life connections to retain information. They need to see how what their learning applies to life. That doesn't mean students need to swim with sharks to learn about shark conservation, but they might get involved in the real-world issue of overexploitation and poaching of sharks by working with marine scientists to develop solutions. These are authentic experiences that not only help students learn about sharks as they relate to real-world issues, but they help learners develop the skills that are pertinent to life in the 21st-century.
Problem-based learning is a fantastic experiential learning activity that fosters real-world connections, critical thinking, creativity, problem-solving and more. It can also be done beyond the walls of the classroom, in the community, or right in the classroom. Check out some of my problem-based learning resources for more info.
5. Students can see purpose in the activity:
Students should know why they're doing what they're doing. If students see their final score or grade as the sole purpose of the activity then something is missing. With purpose comes intrinsic motivation to learn. This element of experiential learning ties in well with the others. Personalization and involvement as already mentioned, along with student-directed learning and reflection mentioned below, organically engender purpose and meaning.
6. The experience is student-directed:
Students should have control and investment in their learning. Any experiential learning activity should be student-driven or at a minimum, student-centered. Student-directed learning gives students choice in topic, process, and outcome. Check out my student-directed learning series for more info.
All of the resources in my TpT store are student-directed. Most of them are project-based, but there are also inquiry-based learning activities, maker projects, problem-based learning, and loads of freebies.
John Dewey said, "We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on experience." Without reflection, everything said up to this point is moot. Students need ample opportunity to look back at their successes and failures, which there will be a lot of in experiential learning. They should analyze their work, not just the final outcome, but the entire learning process. It encourages acceptance of constructive feedback and continuous self-improvement throughout life.
Bonus: Use the community as a resource:
Community outreach is a huge plus when it comes to experiential learning. It might mean bringing students out of the classroom to utilize a community resource, or inviting community experts into your classroom. You could bring community members in as speakers, helpers, or teachers. Utilizing community experts in an important part of project-based learning, making the experience authentic, but I think it enhances ANY learning experience and shouldn't be limited to PBL.
Experiential Learning in the Classroom and Beyond
Now take a hands-on activity that you like to do with your students. Do the above elements fit in with the experience? If they don't it's not exactly experiential learning, and you may not be getting the outcome or understanding of the content that you're hoping for.
Go through the checklist with a favorite activity to see if it's experiential. If it's not, consider modifying the lesson to make it experiential. The outcome is learners that have a lifelong passion for learning and actually understand and absorb the content.
I hope a solid takeaway from this post is that experiential learning is not exclusive to outdoor education programs. I'm a huge advocate for outdoor learning experiences. Getting out and getting involved in the local community, removing oneself from the conveniences of urban living and experiencing the natural world, traveling to places outside of one's comfort zone, are all powerful learning experiences. But if you are teaching in an environment that deems those experiences unlikely or even impossible (I know there are many of you), you can and should still grant experiential learning opportunities to your learners.
Start with any student-directed learning activity. All of my resources are child-led and are designed in a way that makes implementation seamless. Personalization, authentic/real-world connections, purpose, student choice, and reflections are all a part of each experience.
Good luck to you as you launch into the new school year!
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Observe. Question. Explore. Share.
To provide innovative educational resources for educators, parents, and students, that go beyond lecture and worksheets.
Sara Segar, experiential life-science educator and advisor, curriculum writer, and mother of two.