Signature Experiences: Get Real with Experiential Learning

For years students at both the high school and post-secondary level have been subjected to preverbal phrases like “Pay attention! In the real world you are going to need to know this.”  While these types of phrases may have provided some motivation to those of years past, it no longer resonates with learners who are universally connected and results driven.  They have observed from parents and peers that “in times of change, learners inherit the earth while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” (Hoffer E. cited in MacGilchrist, Mortimore, Savage, & Deresford, 1995) The modern learner grows frustrated when they are unable to see or touch the application – and by extension, results – of their educational pursuits.  This is also becoming evident outside of the college classroom in areas like self-development where students want to see or feel the transition happening. 

Consider for a moment how easy it is to look across campus and see examples of students labouring on projects, case studies, and scenarios which will never be implemented or shared.  How much of your attention would you give to a project or task if you knew it would never be used? 

Experiential learning is the piece of the engagement scaffold that ensures persistence. It connects learners to the ever evolving and fleeting world around them.  In fact long after the first 40 days of term students exposed to this type of learning will have a clearer understanding of their field of study and its importance to society. 

That type of motivation or persistence can be achieved. Through the use of a stepped structure you can infuse a program or academic area of study with thoughtful experiential learning that supports student engagement and long-term retention. 

Step 1: Determine the Type of Experiential Learning Needed

Christian M. Itin’s (1999) idea that experiential learning happens when a student is able to create meaning from direct experiences sets the foundation for and the purpose of this type of learning perfectly.   From this point of understanding, it is important to carefully select the type of experiential learning that best supports your learning outcomes and the realities of your environment. 

While there are various types of experiential learning, one of the most comprehensive lists is housed by Purdue University.  The Boilermaker list identifies the following types of experiential learning:

  1. Cooperative Education
  2. Cultural Immersion
  3. Design Projects
  4. Internship
  5. Practicum
  6. Service Learning
  7. Undergraduate Research

The website goes into more detail on each type of learning; many of the definitions are detailed enough that the execution of each is evident. 

Consider all of your available resources – human, financial and time, to ensure that the experience will be as enriched as possible.  For it is through a thoughtful, well mapped out selection that you will be able to bring all of your engagement efforts to task.     

Step 2: Fulfilling the WIFM Proposition

WIFM or What’s in It For Me is the value proposition that the generation uses to decide if they will give energy and attention to something.  While it may seem selfish to make decisions based on first-person impact rather than the collective, it does have an advantage for this group.  When a student is able to psychologically connect with an experience there is a correlated increase in engagement.  This type of connection is also likely to yield a word-of-mouth validation within their peer grouping.  

There are a number of ways to successfully fulfill the WIFM proposition.  Some methods are simple and great for small groups where a blended model is being used like recognition.  It was once said that students will work for three things: grades, money and recognition.  In this situation you would use recognition to highlight the team whose work has been picked by a panel to be implemented by a local organization or business.  Or perhaps top projects are made available to future students as study aids.  Fulfilling the proposition is also possible in larger theoretical courses although it relies on ‘Step 3: Connecting Everything Together’ being well mapped out.  The WIFM in this situation might be a competitive advantage in an application class.   Do top research papers mean first choice of lab times or equipment? 

Scale and offer need to remain in context if the overall impact of the experience is going to work.  That is to say, not every single student needs to receive something but rather have the equal opportunity to achieve it.  Consider this situation as an example: teams of horticulture students are designing landscaping plans for a community park.  You have established the winning team will be selected by a group of stakeholders and their design constructed.  While not every team can win, each team has now created a design that has been reviewed and critiqued by a panel.  This is an excellent portfolio piece that can we used for future employment opportunities.  This process, while longer to execute, provides exposure for students and introduces them to the process of bidding on projects and how to learn from a set-back. 

Step 3: Connecting Everything Together

Although this generation of learners are the most technologically connected cohort they are perhaps, in my opinion, the least holistic.  These students struggle to find the connections between all of the points of the experience to understand the long-term or ‘big-picture’ benefits of engaging. In fact thought observation students are willing to invest themselves in traditional lecture style learning if an experiential application is identified somewhere within the term of study.  This provides a significant benefit to courses and programs which do not have experiential learning but whose theory supports the student’s ability to achieve success with application in another area of their college experience.  This connecting or mapping is paramount if a student is to understand the relevance of investing in what feels like a disconnected course or program.

Even with the advent of technology, mapping has been something that requires a significant amount of upfront time to facilitate.  However since 500 BC we have known that, “learning without thought is labor lost.” (Confucius)  So if you want to get the most out of your students, consider mapping out those connections.  You might use visuals like an info-graphic or a timeline.  You might even create a linking system between courses where the foundation is taught and where the experiential learning takes place.  It is important to find a system that works for you, your colleagues and the type of experience you want to share-in with the learners.

One particular challenge here can be getting your whole team on board with the project.  If there are gaps between what students are expecting from the experience and what is delivered it can be difficult to regain their engagement in later attempts.      

Step 4: Implement and Recognize

Up until this point much of the work in steps 1 – 3 has been your responsibility and for good reason.  Those early steps of planning establish the purpose, function and outcome of the experience you and your colleagues want for your learners.  However, the learner has a responsibility to play as well. American educational theorist, David A Kolb suggested that there are four abilities (left graphic) that students must demonstrate if they are to gain any genuine knowledge from the experience.   

It is throughout this final step that your role shifts from organizer and developer to facilitator and champion.  There should be an emphasis on introducing the established experience to the learners along with the expected learning outcomes.  From here the work in steps 2 & 3 come into play.  Clearly explain how the experience will be evaluated – including self-evaluation – and the type of recognition being provided. 

There is only one major risk at this point in facilitating an experiential learning opportunity and that is to not follow through on any one component.  It is true what they say; the devil is in the details.  These modern learners can tell when something has not been thought through or is not genuine.  It is for this reason that I highly recommend ensuring that whatever form of recognition is being used, that you know 100% that you can provide it to your learners.  Finishing with an authentic piece of recognition can make up for a few minor bumps along the way. Also, let your learners know if this is your first time piloting this type of learning experience.  This is after all experiential learning for you as well!  

Final Thoughts:

Today’s learners are universally connected and result driven.  Embedding experiential learning into every aspect of the post-secondary experience works in connecting learners to the results of their academic / personal efforts.  Establishing this curiosity based education is paramount if graduates are to feel connected to the concept of life-long learning.  It is a thoughtful educator or programmer who chooses to strengthen the scaffolding of student retention with the benefits of experiential learning. 

Sustaining retention rates beyond the first 40 days of term is possible if the next time you are reviewing the learning outcomes for your program or service, consider how you could take advantage of this four step approach. It’s as easy as:

  • Determine the Type of Experiential Learning Needed
  • Fulfilling the WIFM Proposition
  • Connecting Everything Together
  • Implement and Recognize


Itin, C. M. (1999). Reasserting the Philosophy of Experiential Education as a Vehicle for Change in the 21st Century. The Journal of Experiential Education, 22(2), 91-98.

MacGilchrist, B., Mortimore, P., Savage, J., & Deresford, C. (1995). Planning Matters: the impact of development planning in primary schools. London: Paul Chapman.

Purdue University (n.d.). Types of Experiential Learning. Experiential Learning. Retrieved August 7, 2012, from