Experiential Learning 101


Highlighting how students most effectively learn through experience, experiential learning theory is well-known for its application to higher education teaching and learning, and the facilitation of educational experiences both within and beyond the classroom.

The concept of deliberate exposure and practice in influencing higher order thought, learning, and development dates back to the early work of Plato and Aristotle.

Experiential learning is considered the specific process by which a student acquires knowledge or meets learning goals through experience.

Whereas, experiential education refers to the pedagogically grounded development and facilitation of the learning experience.

This resource includes information on:

  • The pedagogical foundations of experiential learning and Kolb’s experiential learning theory.
  • Alternative theories that can be applied to enhance the quality of student experience.
  • Quality criteria for facilitating student’s learning through experience.

Early Experiential Learning Philosophies

Philosophies specifically centered on experience as a form of learning have since developed over time, with the theories of Piaget, Lewin, Dewey and Kolb being widely referenced in current conceptions and applications of experiential learning and experiential education.

(Rogers, 2001)

Experiential Learning in Higher Education

While the theory of experiential learning is not a new concept, popularity and attention to experiential learning has grown significantly in the past few years. Please join Professor Ashley Stirling, in the video below, as she discusses experiential learning and its application to the higher education experience.

Professor Ashley Stirling, Vice Dean, Academic Affairs and Associate Professor, Teaching Stream, Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education

Introduction to Experiential Learning

David A. Kolb (1981; 1984) conceptualized experiential learning theory as the process of learning by doing.

It was initially theorized as a process of adaptation and development, and has since become a highly regarded student learning theory.

Experiential Learning is “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of experience” (Kolb, 1984).

Experiential learning theory serves as a theoretical basis for enhancing students’ learning and informs:

  • How students learn through experience.
  • Ways in which student’s learning may be enhanced.

Simply experiencing something is not enough.

Despite substantial support for experience as a cornerstone of learning, learning is not an automatic result of experience.

Instead, deliberate engagement with an experience is required for effective experiential learning.

For a learner to gain genuine knowledge from an experience, the experience must include:

  • Hands-on experience.
  • Reflection.
  • Integration of the experience with previous learning.
  • Opportunity to test new ideas.

Six Core Tenets of Experiential Learning Theory

Experiential learning theory integrates existing experiential, perceptive, cognitive, and behavioural theories of learning and development.

According to Kolb (1984), experiential learning is characterized by six core tenets:

  1. Learning is a process.
  2. Learning is grounded in experience.
  3. Learning involves mastery of all four learning modes.
  4. Learning is a holistic process of adaptation.
  5. Learning occurs when an individual interacts with his or her environment.
  6. Knowledge is created through learning.

Cycle of Learning

Kolb outlines a cycle of learning through experience, comprised of four major modes of learning:

  1. Concrete experience (feeling dimension).
  2. Reflective observation (watching dimension).
  3. Abstract conceptualization (thinking dimension).
  4. Active experimentation (doing dimension).

In order for learning to be most effective, each of these learning modes must be adequately applied in the experience.

Importantly, despite what the name may imply, there is not a sequential cycle or order in which the modes of learning should be applied in the experience.

All four learning modes must be addressed for learning to be most effective.


(Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010)

Learning Style Model

Tied to the four major modes of learning, Kolb identifies four basic learning styles adopted when acquiring new or building on existing knowledge, including converger, diverger, assimilator, and accommodator.

Individual learning styles are typically influenced by contextual factors such as parents, peers, education and employment, and reflect an orientation toward two learning modes.

In 2005, the original four learning styles were expanded to nine styles adding four learning styles reflecting an individual’s orientation to a single mode of learning: northerner, easterner, southerner, westerner; and a holistic, most ideal learning style where all learning modes are equally preferred: balancing.


This image describes the four basic learning styles adopted when acquiring new or building on existing knowledge, including converger, diverger, assimilator, and accommodator. These were identified by Kolb.

(Evans, Forney, Guido, Patton, & Renn, 2010)

Some instructors find it helpful to understand the preferred learning style of the student(s) in order to inform the student’s comfort level with various aspects of the learning experience, but importantly the learning style of the student should not affect whether or not a specific stage of the learning cycle is addressed. Addressing all stages of the learning cycle is required for learning to be most effective.

Learning and Development

The ability to integrate all four learning modes over the lifespan is important for personal fulfillment and development.

According to experiential learning theory, as individuals develop through the learning process they progress through the developmental phases of acquisition, specialization, and integration.

Three Stages of Development:


There are a wealth of other theories on how students learn through experience.

This section includes a brief reference to other popular learning theories commonly applied to student’s higher education learning experiences, including:

Situated Learning Theory

Situated learning theory emphasizes the role that environment and context play in conditioning learning and knowledge.

(Stein, 1998)

Service Learning Theory

The intent of service learning and community-engaged learning is to ensure equal focus on both the community-identified need being addressed and the learning that is occurring.

(Furco, 1996)

Workplace Pedagogy

Workplace pedagogy defines the quality of learning in the workplace as based on participation in workplace activities, guidance by others at work, and the intentional guidance of workplace learning for transfer.

The Three Planes of Workplace Pedagogic Practice:

(Billet, 2002)

Other Learning Theories

There are many other pedagogical approaches that can be used to facilitate students’ learning through experience. See the image below for a snapshot into some of these approaches.

(Stirling, Kerr, Banwell, MacPherson, & Heron, 2016)



Enhancing the Educational Quality of Student Experience

The quality criteria by which you assess an experience depends on the theoretical grounding applied to how student learning is most effectively facilitated through experience and the broader purpose of the experience itself.

Based on the collective literature on student learning and experience, the following general recommendations have been proposed for enhancing the educational quality of student experience:

  • Set learning outcomes and a plan to achieve them.
  • Engage students in authentic hands-on activity.
  • Take time to reflect.
  • Connect the practice with previous [classroom] learning.
  • Encourage students to experiment and try new things.
  • Build in opportunities for feedback and evaluation.
  • Consider the accessibility and inclusivity of the learning environment.

(Stirling & Kerr, 2016)


Kolb’s experiential learning theory suggests the following four learning modes must be addressed in order for learning to be most effective:

      1. Hands on experience
      2. Reflection
      3. Connection to previous learning
      4. Experimentation/trying new things

There are many other learning theories that can be applied to facilitate students’ learning through experience.

Experience is not automatically educational. Deliberate focus must be paid to enhancing quality.



Billett, S. (2002). Toward a workplace pedagogy: Guidance, participation, and engagement. Adult Education Quarterly, 53(3), 27-43. DOI: 10.1177/074171302237202.

Evans, N. J., Forney, D. S., Guido, F. M., Patton, L. D., & Renn, K. A. (2010). Student development in college: theory, research, and practice. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley & Sons.​

Furco, A. (1996). Service Learning: A Balanced Approach to Experiential Education. In Campus Contact’s Introduction to Service Learning Toolkit. Providence, RI: Campus Contact.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Rogers, R. R. (2001). Reflection in higher education: A concept analysis. Innovative Higher Education, 26, 37 – 57.z

Stein, D. (1998). Situated Learning in Adult Education. ERIC Digest No. 195. Retrieved from: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED418250.pdf

Stirling, A., & Kerr, G. (2016). Getting coffee versus getting a high-quality work integrated learning experience: Do’s and don’ts for student success. Educated Solutions Magazine (Issue 10, pg. 8-11), Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance.

Stirling, A., Kerr, G., Banwell, J., MacPherson, E., & Heron, A. (2016). A Practical Guide for Work-integrated Learning. Toronto: Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. Retrieved from http://www.heqco.ca/SiteCollectionDocuments/HEQCO_WIL_Guide_ENG_ACC.pdf.


These modules are grounded in A Practical Guide for Work-integrated Learning, funded by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO).

Contact the author:

Dr. Ashley Stirling
University of Toronto
Email: ashley.stirling@utoronto.ca


A Powerpoint version of the content provided in each resource section is available for individuals wishing to use this material for local professional development programming.

The resource is licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License” using the following citation:

Stirling, A. (2019). Experiential Learning 101. Presented at the Experiential Learning Hub. Retrieved from https://experientiallearning.utoronto.ca/faculty-staff/learn/course-and-program-resources/experiential-learning-101/