Simply stated, experiential learning is learning something by doing, or experiencing, it. According to some educational theorists, learning is more valuable to the learner, and more likely to be retained, if the learner participates in an active, hands-on manner as opposed to just being passive. The typical model of this form of learning includes at least three key steps: experience, reflection, and generalization. Experiential learning has several applications in a variety of educational settings.
Many educational theorists believe that experience is the best way to retain new information in a meaningful way. There is an old saying attributed to Confucius, "Tell me, and I will forget. Show me, and I may remember. Involve me, and I will understand." Another related old saying is "experience is the best teacher." Although it can be utilized for all age groups, experiential learning is believed to be especially effective for adult learners who often need to apply new on-the-job skills.
When the goal of education is simply to transfer information, then requiring the learner to read, listen, or watch may suffice. When the learner is going to be required to apply knowledge in real-world situations, however, learning using these methods often isn't enough. Experiential learning is a process that can help the learner bridge the gap between information and truly understanding how to apply it in a useful way.
In the experiential learning cycle, the student can absorb knowledge through hands-on experiences instead of just being told what he or she should do. After the learning experience comes a period of reflection or analysis, where the learner will think about the experience in order to make sense of it; this step can often involve sharing with instructors or peers in order to gain the insight of others as well. Then the learner generalizes the information learned by putting it all together in a way that makes sense to him or her, and considering future applications of the new knowledge. This often leads to experimentation and further experiences, thereby continuing the cycle.
As noted, experiential learning methods are particularly useful with adult students and career-oriented learning. Some examples include the internships, cooperative learning experiences, or field work, that are required training for many professions. Student teaching or medical residencies are some examples. Service learning projects such as volunteer work can help learners hone valuable skills that they can apply in future endeavors. These hands-on experiences can provide invaluable training for professionals who often find that real world work can differ significantly from classroom or textbook learning.