Post-secondary institutions across North America are highlighting experiential learning to attract students, and improve their post-education employment prospects. It is widely evident in campus news reports, recruitment activities, and policy documents that higher education institutions, in both their teaching and research missions, are being compelled to draw on experiential practices to strengthen linkages between scholarly activity and the “real world.” But what is meant by “experiential learning,” and what are the implications for higher education instructors? For the ways in which courses and programs of study are designed?
To address these question I will at least for the moment feed into what can be unhelpful, dichotomous thinking by drawing a sharp distinction between two basic modes of thinking about learning: those grounded in transmission versus those grounded in constructivism. I want to make this distinction clear not to reinforce it, but to show that epistemology rather than the nature of the learning “activity” ought to guide our understanding of experiential learning.
Two Ways to think about Teaching and Learning
“Transmission” modes of teaching are premised, simply, on the understanding that the mission of a university is to pass along the cultural and intellectual capital of a society from its elders to its up-and-comers (Innes, 2004). Think, at the extreme end, of Allen Bloom here. At the department level the transmission paradigm is less incendiary than that evoked by the curmudgeonly Bloom – at least until course and program curricula are designed or reviewed! At this point, deeply held (but also often tacit or unexpressed) beliefs about knowledge bubble up, as faculty hash out what constitutes the “core of the discipline.”
Epistemologically, the “transmission” paradigm is grounded in idealism, such that knowledge is a “thing” that can be codified and abstracted from individual experience into objective forms (Innes, 2004; Liu & Matthews, 2005). This has implications for pedagogy. One-way teaching, from this perspective, is appropriate: disseminations of content via lecture, textbooks and readings, and, increasingly, multi-media (video, video tutorials, podcasts) are favoured. Program and lesson planning tend to focus on “covering content” (Weimer, 2013). Assessments are designed to give instructors assurance that students have “got the message;” exams and assignments confirm that students have more or less understood the knowledge that has been transmitted, and can reproduce it in appropriate ways.
The second and contrasting mode of pedagogy is constructivism, and here is where we get to experiential learning. Rooted in a (very) roughly materialist epistemology, experiential learning is premised on the basic idea that knowing comes through human encounters with all manner of things – encounters with the natural world, encounters with the social world – you name it. The gist here is that learning is a nuanced and individual experience, that it doesn’t really happen unless the individual forges his/her own unique connections such that the experience becomes meaningful. “Knowledge” then is not an abstract thing hanging out on its own in the ether; it is nothing at all until it is manifested in and through human experience. The term “constructivism,” then, comes out of the idea that we construct knowledge rather than receive transmissions. Constructivist pedagogy therefore places a high priority on learning activities that will push the student to recognize and order experiences in meaningful ways. The idea is that, over time, students develop both knowledge and metacognitive capacity, such that they become autonomous learners in the long run (Biggs & Tang, 2011; Innes, 2004).
The Nature of Experience
As just noted, there is a tendency to characterize transmission and constructivism as entirely separate animals. One consequence is that transmission is associated with student passivity, while constructivism is associated with highly visible activity. The dichotomy is reinforced by the association of experiential learning with co-ops, internships, study abroad programs, service learning, and student research opportunities – those activities that “share the core characteristic of students’ direct engagement in productive work outside the classroom” (Moore, 2010, p. 3).
The “in-class” and “out-of-class” distinction drawn by Moore (and many others) can be a useful heuristic for program planning, but it runs the risk of creating overly pronounced distinctions, in the minds of students and instructors alike, between the kind of learning that happens in the classroom, and the kind of learning that goes on “in the real world.” In fact, current emphases on experiential education may even deepen students’ complaints that classroom learning is “irrelevant.” Instructors may also be affected, coming to disregard experiential learning as something they “don’t do” because their classes or programs of study don’t include out-of-class learning.
In order to avoid this kind of “either or” thinking, I would argue that experiential learning should be understood according to its philosophical roots rather than its “features and benefits.” Biggs and Tang (2011) argue that the best teaching is that which is guided first and foremost by a careful focus on what students are doing. In other words, how do we diagnose, from students’ words, actions, questions, and performances – that is from their learning experiences – how the learning is going for them?
With this broader understanding of “experiential learning,” we avoid falling into the trap described by Kolb (2012) – and again perpetuated by the “in-class versus out-of-class” distinction – that thinking, talking to peers, presenting, questioning, preparing, listening, and practicing are somehow less valid forms of experience, and hence less worthy of our careful pedagogical attention. What makes for experiential learning is the extent to which a course or program creates opportunities for active learning, and ensures that students are developing reflective capacities around this learning.
Biggs, J., & Tang, C. (2011). Teaching for quality learning at university: What the student does (4th ed.). Maidenhead and New York: McGraw Hill.
Innes, R. (2004). Reconstructing undergraduate education. Mahwah N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Inc.
Kolb, D. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Upper Saddle River NJ: Pearson.
Liu, C. H., & Matthews, R. (2005). Vygotsky ’ s philosophy : Constructivism and its criticisms examined. International Education Journal, 6(3), 386–399.
Moore, D. T. (2010). Forms and Issues in Experiential Learning. New Directions in Teaching and Learning, 124, 3–14. doi:10.1002/tl
Weimer, M. (2013). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
 Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind. New York: Simon and Schuster. I want to emphasize “extreme” again here. Most folks fall somewhere on a continuum between absolutism and relativism in their beliefs about knowledge.
 With apologies especially to the philosophically-inclined among us who are noting that this is woefully over-simplified. I know, I know…
 I need to add another “it’s not that simple” caveat here. The definition and meaning of “experiential learning” has been contested because the very nature of experience itself is contested. cf. Kolb, D. (2014) Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall. For a quick overview of some of the theoretical territory covered here, read Kolb’s introduction here. In particular, favouring the acquisition of knowledge by experience doesn’t address further questions around the objective versus subjective nature of knowledge itself. A common critique of experiential learning, then, is that idiosyncratic understandings may not constitute “knowledge” at all. Practically, this is manifested in the quality of learning outcomes – a central consideration for professionally-oriented programs.
 This might seem a little… well… “duh,” but consider the alternatives: sexy technology (Best ppt slide ever; they’ll love this.); fear (Are they laughing because I have spinach in my teeth?); the instructor as edutainor (They like me! They really like me!) a need to cover content that somehow takes on a life of its own. There are many things to focus on during class besides formative probes into students’ learning experiences.