What is experiential learning?

Experiential learning is more than just learning by doing but learning by reflecting on that doing.

Defining experiential learning

According to Ithaca College’s Experiential Learning Alliance,  experiential learning is defined as follows:

Experiential learning means learning from experience or learning by doing. Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking. Experiential learning contains all the following elements: 

  1. Reflection, critical analysis, and synthesis 
  2. Opportunities for students to take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for the results 
  3. Opportunities for students to engage intellectually, creatively, emotionally, socially, or physically 
  4. A designed learning experience that includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes, and successes

There are two goals in the experiential learning process. One is to learn the specifics of a particular subject, and the other is to learn about one’s own learning process.

David A. Kolb

Why is experiential learning important?

From the Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University (1998) to a survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (2016), studies have shown that participatory learning experiences can transform students from passive to active learners and provide students with desirable skills of appeal to prospective employers.

Integrating active learning experiences in courses is a win-win proposition for all concerned. Students gain practical experience while acquiring valuable skills to learn how to undertake specific projects and solve problems. Organizations, whether on or off campus, nonprofits, or companies, also receive assistance and insightful perspectives. Students develop critical-thinking and collaborative skills in an active learning environment, while the faculty’s role is as a facilitator and “a coach” (Bean, p. 121).

Another benefit for students is resume-building work that is appealing for employers of interns and entry-level positions in any field.

Types of experiential learning

Whether throughout the entire semester or part of it, experiential learning experiences are varied based upon the type of course and desired objectives. Here are examples:

Clinical education – For example, students in Physical Therapy are required to gain hands-on experience, whether with faculty on campus or at 1,000 clinical sites, such as hospitals and rehabilitation centers across the U.S., being supervised by licensed physical therapists.

Field work—Students in Health Care Management, Health Sciences, and Public & Community Health, for example, gain firsthand experience for credits at pre-approved sites off campus.

Practicums—The Technical Theatre Practicum course in Theatre, for example, provides student with practical applications of theater production activity.

Student teaching—The Music School, for examples, offers its students in Music Education opportunities to teach at a variety of locations, including such local sites as The Board of Cooperative Educational Services-Tompkins-Seneca-Toga (BOCES), the Montessori School, Project Headstart (a collaboration between the Ithaca College Music Education Department and the Tompkins Community Action Headstart Program to teach children with special needs), and Strings Off and Running project (string instrument instruction at St. Mary's Elementary School students in nearby Cortland).

Civic learning—The Center for Civic Engagement delivers free fresh foods and other groceries to the Mobile Food Pantry to on-campus locations for all members of the IC community, as well as undertakes other initiatives to encourage students to become engaged citizens.  

Creative services—Courses in the Park School, in particular, give students many opportunities to gain experience in a creative service agency setup where they represent real-world businesses and nonprofits as “clients” in classes. Most are part of capstone courses in which seniors undertake projects that draws from their knowledge gained from previous classes.

Student research—Students in the biological disciples at IC, for example, can participle in numerous research projects—whether elective, required, honors, or summer research. Students have presented papers at regional and national conferences and co-authored published articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Faculty-led field trips—Faculty-led study abroad trips (most are short term and held during winter and summer breaks) have brought students to many areas around the globe from China and South Korea to Malawi and Ireland. An Environmental Studies faculty-led course trip to Belize, for example, gave students firsthand experience to study ruins, reefs, and rainforests.

Study abroad or off-campus—IC students have opportunities to take a semester at IC’s off-campus programs or with other international study programs offered by IC’s Office of International Programs.  

Internships—Every school at IC offers internships for students, whether for credit or paid.


Bean, J. C. (2001). Engaging ideas: The professor’s guide to integrating writing, critical thinking, and active learning in the classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass. 

Boyer Commission on Educating Undergraduates in the Research University. (1998). Reinventing undergraduate education: A blueprint for America’s research institutions

National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2016). Job Outlook 2016.