By: Edna Tehranzadeh, Health: Science, Technology and Policy, Faculty of Science

Traditionally, learning in the classroom has taken a passive approach. If one were to picture a classroom setting, an image of an instructor standing at the front of the room would come to mind. The professor delivers the course content while students are trying to absorb and take note of as much information as they can. The class is then over within the hour, and the next group of students are already starting to settle in during the question period at the end.  Although this may be the standard teaching approach, it might not be the most effective for engaging today’s students.

This article will explore experiential learning as an active approach to learning, and provide teaching assistants with ways to introduce this form of learning within their classrooms.

Theories of experiential learning (EL) date back to the 1900s. Kolb (1984) defines EL theory as “the process whereby knowledge is created through the transformation of an experience [where] knowledge comes from the combination of transforming and grasping experience” (p.41). EL focuses on building interactive methods of instruction to develop new skills and ways of thinking.

EL can be divided into two major categories (Schwartz, 2012). The first being field-based learning, which includes programs offered to students like internships, practicums and co –operative education programs. The second, which is more relevant to our position, is classroom-based experiential learning. This approach can take on many forms, including case studies, simulations, presentations and different types of group work (Schwartz, 2012).

As Teaching Assistants, we have a variety of roles, including teaching and presenting. Whether this is within courses as a guest lecturer or in tutorials and workshops, each role engages students to teach or review concepts. Incorporating EL will create a more dynamic and active classroom environment, with a goal of engaging more students in discussions around course concepts.

Moon (2004) outlines a series of teaching techniques that can enhance EL in the classroom. These methods include increasing wait-times between ideas when lecturing to give students the opportunity to reflect on the material presented. Another technique is requiring students to explain and apply concepts to something else to demonstrate their ability to grasp the material, strengthening their critical thinking skills. Questioning can also encourage EL in the classroom. Adopting an open question format with leading questions or presenting questions set as problems to be discussed and reflected upon, is a key component of EL.

Reflecting on my own studies up until this point, I can think of several occasions where EL has enhanced my learning. Coming from a science background, memorization of facts was critical – especially in courses such as cell biology and immunology where we are often needed to understand mechanisms and specific processes. In courses where there was a lab component or some type of activity, I could see the difference in my learning where I could apply what I learned in lecture to the task at hand. For example, one of my upper year biology classes had a problem-based learning approach in tutorial, where we applied concepts learned in class to solve a presented real-world issue. This allowed me to demonstrate our understanding of concepts and to question where I had difficulty.

As Teaching Assistants, we have the opportunity to bring new ideas and methods of teaching into the classroom. Although not the traditional approach of a classroom setting, EL encourages a more active approach to learning to promote a deeper understanding of concepts and improve the quality of learning for our students.


Kolb, D.A. (1984) Experiential Learning: Experience as the Source of Learning and Development. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall

Moon, J.A. (2004). A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning: Theory and Practice. New York:RoutledgeFalmer.

Schwartz, M. (2012). Best Practices in Experiential Learning. Ryerson University Learning & Teaching Office. Retrieved from