Experiential Learning in Post-Secondary Institutions


By Ann Singh

Many industry professionals have found that there is a growing gap between the skills desired by employers and those obtained by students through colleges and universities (National Post, 2016; OECD, 2017; Rushowy, 2017). This suggests that greater effort is required by post-secondary institutions to equip students with the skills needed to succeed in an increasingly demanding labour market. This issue goes back to the fundamental question of what do we need to teach and how do we teach it? Students require the skills demanded by industries, but they also require the theoretical foundations of their profession and the ability to think conceptually and critically.

Industries, governments, and educators have supported integration of various forms of experiential learning in the classroom (COU, 2014). Brock University was among the first Ontario post-secondary institutions to include an explicit mandate on experiential education (Ministry of Advanced Skills Development, 2017). Educators at Brock are encouraged to provide opportunities for students to apply their learning to real life experiences (S. Howe, personal communication, October 2, 2017). Understanding how we can better integrate experiential learning in the classroom is important because these forms of learning help students develop a range of transferrable skills such as problem solving, communication, and leadership (Baldwin & Rosier, 2016; Ivey-Dewey, 2008; COU, 2014). More importantly, experiential learning helps to equip students with the skills needed to succeed in a professional environment (COU, 2014; OECD, 2017; Roland, 2017).

In this blog I explore the concept of experiential learning, including key benefits and limitations. I will also use Brock University as a case study for identifying general principles that should be considered when integrating experiential learning into the classroom.

What is Experiential Learning?

Experiential learning is a purposeful process of engaged and active learning whereby students construct knowledge, skills, and values from direct experiences involving real-world contexts (Baldwin & Rosier, 2016; Ives-Dewey, 2008). Students apply their learning using hands-on, task-oriented activities, and then relate these experiences to their previous knowledge to generate new knowledge, skills and values (Baldwin & Rosier, 2016; Dewey, 1938; Ives-Dewey, 2008; Jose, Patrick, & Moseley, 2017; Kolb, 1984). Experiential learning can occur both inside the classroom (e.g., through simulations, case-based learning in small groups, and guest-speakers) and outside of the classroom (e.g., through internships, practicums, and fieldtrips) (Baldwin & Rosier, 2016; Jose et al., 2017; Slade, et al., 2015).

Although the origins of experiential learning can be traced back to John Dewey (1938), who believed that students thrive in an environment where they can experience and interact with the curriculum, David Kolb (1984) significantly contributed to this discourse as a teaching approach. Kolb (1984) described four key elements to this student-centred approach as depicted in Figure 1. It is important that these steps are an iterative process that students continually experience as part of their learning.


Figure 1: Kolb’s Model of Experiential Learning (adapted from Chan, 2012)

Benefits of Experiential Learning

There are several benefits to experiential learning. Educators suggest that experiential learning helps to increase students’ readiness for the workplace (OECD, 2017; S. Howe personal communication, October 2, 2017). Employers also support the notion as it helps in acquiring and developing transferrable skills that they find attractive, such as problem solving, communication, and leadership (Baldwin & Rosier, 2016; Chiose, 2015; COU, 2014; Ivey-Dewey, 2008). Students also develop greater self-esteem and confidence in their abilities because they are able to apply their knowledge to practical situations (Gilbert, Banks, Houser, Rhodes and Lees, 2014).

Experiential learning also helps students to comprehend concepts better and critically engage in their learning (Roland, 2017; Wright, 2000). Experiential learning requires that students actively take control over their learning, and shifts the focus from being passive recipients of knowledge. By doing so, students are encouraged to make connections to course material in ways that cannot be achieved through conventional teaching methods (Wright, 2000). Students reflect on their learning and translate their understanding of concepts into practical knowledge.

Limitations of Experiential Learning

There are also limitations to experiential learning. Educators must invest substantial amounts of time in developing and integrating experiential learning activities into courses both inside and outside of the classroom. This can include identifying appropriate case studies for students, making connections with industries, and a willingness to actively engage students (Wright, 2000). Educators also need to be knowledgeable of experiential learning as a teaching approach, which is sometimes not the case (S. Howe personal communication, October 2, 2017).

Another limitation relates to developing adequate methods of student assessments. Traditional forms of assessment, such as essays and exams, may not accurately reveal the learning experienced by students (Slade et al., 2007). Experiential learning requires innovative methods of assessments that educators may be unfamiliar with. It may be challenging to convince educators to integrate new methods of assessments into their courses (S. Howe, personal communication, October 2, 2017).

Baldwin and Rosier (2017) also argued that experiential learning is not a universally accepted teaching approach. Rather, it is used to support traditional modes of teaching. The authors suggest that a focus on experiential learning could devalue student learning because the focus of teaching is on generating knowledge specific to the workforce.

Principles for Integrating Experiential Learning

Baldwin and Rosier (2017) identify several strategies for integrating experiential learning into the classroom. They argue that for experiential learning to be successful, educators need to have a clear and shared purpose regarding the experiential activity; activities must be student-centred; evaluation needs to be an essential component; students need to be exposed to real world contexts; and students should be provided opportunities for reflection.

These principles are echoed in Brock University’s experiential education initiative (Brock University, 2017). Although the university’s mandate was formalized in 2013, service learning opportunities have always been a core focus of the institution in helping students to translate their classroom knowledge to employability. The formal shift from service learning to experiential education came from alignment with their strategic mandate in 2013 (Brock University, 2017; S. Howe, personal communication, October 2, 2017). This initiative started with engagement sessions with the various stakeholders to establish a common definition of experiential learning (Brock University, 2017). These sessions also allowed for discussion beyond definitions where key themes could emerge. For example, what qualifies as experiential learning? The sessions allowed for alignment from stakeholders that the activity must be a significant learning experience for the student and there must be a reflective component (S. Howe, personal communication, October 2, 2017). These components are essential to successful integration of experiential learning.


Baldwin, C., & Rosier, J. (2016). Growing future planners: A framework for integrating experiential learning into tertiary planning programs. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 37(1), 43-55.

Brock University. (2017). Building Brock University’s experiential education definitions.
Retrieved from https://brocku.ca/teaching-learning/experiential-education/

Chan, C. K. Y. (2012). Exploring an experiential learning project through Kolb’s learning theory using a qualitative research method. European Journal of Engineering Education, 37(4), 405-415.

Chiose, S. (2015). Ontario universities defend focus on research in wake of report. The Globe and Mail. Retrieved from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/ontario-universities-defend-focus-on-research-in-wake-of-report/article27705064/?arc404=true

Council of Ontario Universities [COU]. (2014). Bringing life to learning at Ontario Universities. Retrieved from http://cou.on.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/COU-Experiential-Learning-Report-2014.pdf

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York, NY: Collier Books.

Gilbert, B. L., Banks, J., Houser, J. H. W., Rhodes, S. J. Lees, N. D. (2014). Student development in an experiential learning program. Journal of College Student Development, 55(7), 707-713.

Ives-Dewey, D. (2008). Teaching experiential learning in geography: Lessons from planning. Journal of Geography, 107, 167-174.

Jose, S., Patrick, P.G., Moseley, C. (2017). Experiential learning theory: The importance of outdoor classrooms in environmental education. International Journal of Science Education Part B, 7(3), 269-284.

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development [OECD]. (2017). Education at a glance 2017: OECD Indicators. OECD Publishing. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1787/eag-2017-en

Ministry of Advanced Skills Development. (2017). 2014-17 Strategic Mandate Agreement: Brock University. Retrieved from https://www.ontario.ca/page/2014-17-strategic-mandate-agreement-brock-university

National Post. (2016, June 26). Ontario considers mandatory work experience programs for all students. National Post. Retrieved from http://nationalpost.com/news/canada/ontario-considers-mandatory-work-experience-programs-for-all-students

Roland, K. (2017). Experiential learning: Learning through reflective practice. International Journal of Cross-Disciplinary Subjects in Education, 8(1), 2982-2989.

Rushowy, K. (2017, Sept 12). Popular post-secondary degrees aren’t where the jobs are, says OECD. Toronto Star. Retrieved from https://www.thestar.com/news/queenspark/2017/09/12/popular-post-secondary-degrees-arent-where-the-jobs-are-says-oecd.html

Slade, C., Harwood, A., Baldwin, C., & Rosier, J. (2015). Baseline survey of current experiential learning practice in Australian and New Zealand planning schools. Australian Planner, 52(2), 103-113.

Wright, M.C. (2000). Getting more out of less: The benefits of short-term experiential learning in undergraduate sociology courses. American Sociological Association, 28(2), 116-126.




2 thoughts on “Experiential Learning in Post-Secondary Institutions

  1. Hi Ann,
    What a great outline of the experiential learning topic! When I taught students at the college level, I received feedback that many of them greatly enjoyed the assignments that involved an experience in the field and submitting a reflection paper.

    As I was reading your piece, I thought of the possibility of institutions working more closely with industry to provide the most beneficial experiences as well as learning that is needed for employment. Are there better ways to find out what industry feels is lacking from students?
    It may also be very beneficial to current students to hear from graduates after they have been employed in the field for varying numbers of years: 2, 5, 10 etc to address some of the skills that may or may not have been learned.

    But I also ponder something else: Industry says there is a skills gap in graduates, but is this something that higher education can “fix”? As you say, what is the purpose of higher education and should institutions cater to industry’s complaints? I came across this talk by Fred D’Agostino “Higher education is not about getting a job” at some point in this Masters program and your blog reminded me of it:

    Another thought I had was about the division that used to be more prominent between colleges and universities: colleges used to be seen as the institutions teaching “how to do” (more experiential, hands-on learning) and universities were seen as teaching “how to think”. Now the lines are more blurred as we have discussed online in class. If both types of institutions are providing experiential learning for employment, does this help or harm the system?

    You also discuss the importance of faculty educators in the integration of experiential learning opportunities in their courses. This is an interesting read about the importance of this and how experiential learning opportunities may not always turn out to be best for learning:

    Moore, D. T. (2013). For Interns, Experience Isn’t Always the Best Teacher. The Chronicle Of Higher Education, (12).

    I really enjoyed reading your blog, great job!

  2. Ann:

    I believe this is an important topic to address regarding higher-education and you have seemingly discussed a variety of components of your major paper throughout this blog. Various participants are continuously striving for postsecondary education to explicitly prepare students for the workforce, due to this, experiential learning must be an important aspect of higher-education moving forward. While I was reading your blog, I could not help but think you were beginning to outline the creation of a new model of experiential learning, since Kolb’s (1984) model is over 30-years old.

    The method in which you discussed the benefits appeared to be considerations for your model; employer involvement to discern necessary transferable skills, active student participation for enhanced development, and in-depth student self-reflection to build confidence in practical situations. Similarly, the limitations section of your blog seemingly provided areas to address in your new model of experiential learning; investment of the educator’s time and resources, the assessment of the involved students, and the focus of teaching toward ‘specific’ workplace knowledge. From just this aspect of your blog, I believe you have outlined a strong foundation for a new model of experiential learning.

    If you are attempting to develop a new model of experiential learning, I would begin with a critique of Kolb’s (1984) model. Although I am not familiar with Kolb’s model, the graphic you displayed could be elaborated upon for applicability to the 21st-century. Afterwards, the research you conduct on successful experiential learning techniques could be incorporated into an all-encompassing model, a model suitable for students in this technological age.

    I have provided several articles to help you in the pursuit of a new model for experiential learning. I am hoping the articles will provide new insights on experiential learning and offer suggestions for the construction of a new model. I apologize if I am off-base in this assumption, but the articles should still provide more information for your paper.

    Gomez-Lanier, L. (2017). The experiential learning impact of international and domestic study tours: Class excursions that are more than field trips. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 29(1), 129-144.

    May, D. R. (2017). Student perceived value of intensive experiential learning. International Journal for Service Learning in Engineering, Humanitarian Engineering, and Social Entrepreneurship, 12(1), 1-12.

    Stirling, A., Kerr, G., MacPherson, E., Banwell, J., Bandealy, A., & Battaglia, A. (2017). Do postsecondary internships address the four learning modes of experiential learning theory? An exploration through document analysis. Canadian Journal of Higher Education, 47(1), 27-48.

    Truman, K., Mason, R. B., Venter, P. (2017). A model to operate an on-campus retail store for workplace experiential learning. Asia-Pacific Journal of Cooperative Education, 18(1), 43-57.

    Wilkinson, D. J., & Jones, T. (2017). An exploration of ‘scaffolded’ and ‘experiential’ learning environment’s impact upon students’ experiences of a challenging level 6 topic in forensic psychology: MAPPA. Psychology Teaching Review, 23(1), 41-48.

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