“Learn by doing.”
This phrase has gained traction in the education world in the past few decades. One example, project-based learning, is becoming more widely used in classrooms throughout the country. However, not all educators are on board.
Some traditionalists argue that “doing” is not helpful to students who do not have a concrete base of knowledge first. They say that students must know what they are doing before they do it.
“You wouldn’t give a student a quadratic equation and ask him to solve it without an explanation first, would you?”
Proponents of student-centered learning look for strategies to deliver information to students without a traditional lecture.
“How could we spark their curiosity and still give them the skills they need to cover our curriculum?”
Experiential learning is one answer to these questions. It takes students out of a traditional lecture or textbook-based learning scenario and challenges them to find information for themselves.
Four Stages of Experiential Learning
The process through which students develop knowledge, skills, and values from direct experiences is based on a model composed of four stages:
- Concrete Experience - In this stage, the students engage in an activity. They visit a museum or perform an experiment. They might visit the Museum of American History to view an exhibit about migration patterns across the United States. They would use the first person narratives and artifacts to develop a picture of what a journey across the country by train might be like. Another activity might be to measure the time it takes objects of different weights to reach the floor from the top of the school building.
- Reflective Observation - In this stage, the learner reflects either personally or via written assignment on their experience. They might record their observations, or take note of the statistics related to the experiment. In this stage, the task for the learner is to understand any differences observed between their past knowledge and their current experience.
- Abstract Conceptualization - In this stage, the student creates the “rules.” They may form a thesis statement for a history paper or a hypothesis for a science experiment. Either way, they are creating something new from their experience.
- Active Experimentation - In the last stage, the student goes out and tests whether their theory is correct or whether it can be applied to a new situation. A history student might research another culture or another era. A science student might perform an original experiment.
Why Experiential Learning Works
Traditionalists are quick to point out that experiential learning removes control of learning from the teacher, but this is one of the reasons that it works. Directing your own learning is one way to increase motivation in the learning process. And a hands-on approach to learning also increases student engagement and the ability of students to retain information.
Many students develop the maturity necessary to engage fully in their education through this kind of learning experiences. They gain a deeper understanding of the world around them, a desire to be a member and contributor to their communities, and independent, confident learners. When used to enhance a curriculum, experiential learning enriches and strengthens the learning experience.