Definition: Experiential learning is a cyclical process of learning through experiencing, reflecting, developing generalizations and applying the learning to a new situation. Reflection and the intentional process of thinking and expanding on the experience is critical to completing the learning cycle. Without reflection, generalization and application, the learner cannot fully process the experience and transfer the learned knowledge. In experiential education (EE), it is the role of the teacher/ educator to guide students through all phases of the learning cycle.
Kolb, 1984 & Sporarski et al., 2016
Why use EE: Many wildlife centers and informal science centers utilize experience within their programs/ lessons, however the entire learning process is rarely completed. Reflection often gets left out of the cycle leaving students with an experience to remember but no way to apply and transfer their learning. When EE is used successfully within wildlife centers, participants can apply their learning in their daily lives, becoming informed citizens and stewards of the community and environment.
Example: Below is an example of a program designed through experiential learning, called Sharing Spaces: Living with Coyotes, which was used in Cape Breton Highlands National Park of Canada to help locals understand coyotes and how to coexist with them. Between each module, participants engaged in reflection of experience, made generalizations and applied their learning to the next module.
Module 1: Understanding Personal Attitudes – Participants shared personal experiences and stories about coyotes with the group. They reflected on experiences and perceptions of coyotes among the group.
Module 2: Perceived and Actual Risk of Human- Coyote Interaction – Participants were engaged by creating visual representations about the perceived risk of being attacked by a coyote, while doing the activity. Then they compared their perceptions to Canadian statistics of coyote attacks.
Module 3: Being a Coyote– Participants were given maps with unconnected GPS data points of collared coyotes in the park. They were asked to think about how the coyotes move, connect the dots on the map and tell a realistic story about the coyotes movements based on known behaviors.
Module 4: Stop Being a Coyote Yard Sale –This module focused on coyote attractants in someone’s backyard. Participants were given a poster of an average backyard and pictures of coyotes. They were instructed to stick a coyote picture on everything in the yard they believed would attract a coyote. This was followed by a discussion on how to safely store items kept outside.
Module 5: Being a Coyote Ninja– Participants learned about personal safety while in coyote country and how to use defense tools such as a noise maker and mace. They practiced ‘BAM’ (back away, act big and make noise).
For for information please see: Sponarski, C. C., Vaske, J. J., Bath, A. J., & Loeffler, T. (2016). Changing attitudes and emotions toward coyotes with experiential education. The Journal of Environmental Education, 47(4), 296-306.
EE Best Practices: Association for Experiential Education
- Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.
- Experiences are structured to require the learner to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
- Throughout the experiential learning process, the learner is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative, and constructing meaning.
- Learners are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully and/or physically. This involvement produces a perception that the learning task is authentic.
- The results of the learning are personal and form the basis for future experience and learning.
- Relationships are developed and nurtured: learner to self, learner to others and learner to the world at large.
- The educator and learner may experience success, failure, adventure, risk-taking and uncertainty, because the outcomes of experience cannot totally be predicted.
- Opportunities are nurtured for learners and educators to explore and examine their own values.
- The educator’s primary roles include setting suitable experiences, posing problems, setting boundaries, supporting learners, insuring physical and emotional safety, and facilitating the learning process.
- The educator recognizes and encourages spontaneous opportunities for learning.
- Educators strive to be aware of their biases, judgments and pre-conceptions, and how these influence the learner.
- The design of the learning experience includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes and successes.
- Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall
- Dewey, J. (1997). Experience and education. Touchstone Edition (ed.). New York, Simon and Schuster.
- Wurdinger, S. D., & Carlson, J. A. (2010). Teaching for experiential learning. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.
Sponarski, C. C., Vaske, J. J., Bath, A. J., & Loeffler, T. (2016). Changing attitudes and emotions toward coyotes with experiential education. The Journal of Environmental Education, 47(4), 296-306.