Experiential Learning

Experiential Learning involves either experiencing or doing something, followed by reflection on this activity and coming to a new understanding as a result. It encompasses both the “experience” and the subsequent analysis and integration of this new knowledge. The learning is unique to each learner, as each individual experiences activities differently. As illustrated by the image below, traditional lecture style teaching allows minimal retention of knowledge, but participating and learning by doing are significantly more effective methods. Experiential learning can occur in the classroom through hands-on activities, role-playing, games, group work, etc.. It can also occur in the field through practicums, apprenticeships, volunteer work and field trips.

Taken from Wikipedia’s “Experiential Learning”

When discussing experiential learning, many refer to Kolb (1984) who described the Experiential Learning Cycle. In this theory, learning is thought to progress through four stages: concrete experience (new learning experience), reflective observation (reflection on new experience related to current understanding), abstract conceptualization (new ideas of understanding occur) and active experimentation (applying and testing new knowledge).  Each of these stages builds from the others and is necessary for real learning to occur.

learning cycle
From  http://www.simply psychology.org/learning-kolb.html

What are the implications for my teaching?

In my own field, much of the learning is experiential as nursing is by nature very practical and hands-on. Students in a nursing program use simulations and hands-on activities to practice skills, like wound care and catheterization. Students rotate through many practicums on various floors of the hospital and have several apprenticeships where they are paired with a registered nurse. As a clinical nursing instructor, the experiences are already presented to the learners, so it is my job to support the reflection, conceptualization and testing processes associated with them.

The article Best Practices in Experiential Learning describes the instructor as a resource, cheerleader and facilitator in these situations. This article outlines experiential learning methods in depth, but some highlights include:

  • creating a safe space free of judgement and establishing rapport with students
  • encouraging the bigger perspective
  • getting students to examine their own values
  • encouraging reflection
  • allowing students to safely step outside their comfort zones
  • matching students with meaningful and useful experiences
  • providing clear expectations
  • linking various concepts together
  • encouraging sharing with peers

Some examples in my own work as an instructor would be debriefing in post-conference to discuss issues encountered during the day, encouraging deeper journaling and posing questions to encourage analysis of what was experienced.



Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development (Vol. 1). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Merriam, L. and Bierema, S. (2013). Adult learning: linking theory and practice. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Memory and Learning

Memory is an important consideration in teaching and learning. I enjoyed reading this summary of the book Make It Stick by Brown, Roediger and McDaniel, which explores scientific evidence for deeper learning related to memory. It seems many of the generally used methods to study and remember concepts are ineffective. Often students will try to use rote memory techniques or highlighting text, which do not lead to long-term retention. Some of the concepts gleaned from the summary include:

  • Deeper learning requires an effort to make it stick, so keep learning active
  • Interleaving concepts is helpful, i.e. meshing concept A with B, then C with A and B with C
  • Just when ideas are becoming understood switch topics to keep things varied
  • Frequently return to previous topics
  • Use reflective learning
  • Explain how learning works and model its process for learners
  • Help learners practice figuring out what they don’t know

In my own teaching practice, I would like to include all of the above. Of high importance would be modelling the learning process, as nurses are expected to be responsible for their own learning. It is impossible to know everything in healthcare, so when I myself don’t know the answer to a question I could walk them through the resources I use.

Another consideration for instructors is exploring how memory changes as people age. An article by the American Psychology Association says that the brain does change as people get older and so does memory. Noticeable memory decline often begins when people are in their 40s, as there are less neuron connections and blood flow to the brain. However, though people start to have trouble remembering what they ate for breakfast or specific episodes, other types of memory, such as words and concepts or procedures, remain intact. The article explains that research shows people can compensate for memory difficulties. In fact, memory training classes can measurably enhance memory retention throughout the lifespan.

As an instructor, it is important not to discount people as they age. It is also very helpful to explicitly explain how memory and learning works, as these skills can boost learning at any age. Older learners can also bring more knowledge and experience than younger counterparts.