1. Types of experiential learning
    1. Applied research project
    2. Campus entrepreneurship/incubators 
    3. Case studies
    4. Co-op
    5. Field experience
    6. Industry/community research projects
    7. Interactive simulations
    8. Internships
    9. Labs
    10. Performance-based learning
    11. Practica or placements (including clinical placements)
    12. Service learning
  2. Benefits
  3. Theory of experiential learning
    1. Kolb’s model of experiential learning

In addition to the high-level information below, you can learn more about experiential learning on the Teaching and Learning Council’s Experiential Education website.

Experiential learning is the application of theory and academic content to real-world experiences, either within the classroom, the community, or the workplace, which advances program or course-based learning outcomes that are specifically focused on employability skills. It may be undertaken independently or in teams. It advances learning outcomes and encourages reflection and application of skills and knowledge in contexts that prepare students for the workplace and civil society.

Experiential education:

  • Combines direct experience with focused reflection;
  • Builds on past knowledge and experiences;
  • Requires active involvement in meaning construction;
  • Encourages collaboration and exchange of ideas and perspectives;
  • Can take place in the classroom, in the community, or in the workplace

General Guidelines

The conditions needed to ensure that experiential learning is effective have been identified by the Association for Experiential Education:

  • Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.
  • Experiences are structured to require the learner to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
  • Throughout the experiential learning process, the learner is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative and constructing meaning.
  • Learners are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully and/or physically. This involvement produces a perception that the learning task is authentic.
  • The results of the learning are personal and form the basis for future experience and learning.
  • Relationships are developed and nurtured: learner to self, learner to others and learner to the world at large.
  • The educator and learner may experience success, failure, adventure, risk-taking and uncertainty, because the outcomes of experience cannot totally be predicted.
  • Opportunities are nurtured for learners and educators to explore and examine their own values.
  • The educator’s primary roles include setting suitable experiences, posing problems, setting boundaries, supporting learners, insuring physical and emotional safety, and facilitating the learning process.
  • The educator recognizes and encourages spontaneous opportunities for learning.
  • Educators strive to be aware of their biases, judgments and pre-conceptions, and how these influence the learner.
  • The design of the learning experience includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes and successes.

Ontario Guidelines

In September 2017, the Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development (MAESD) issued its Guiding Principles for Experiential Learning (EL).

Types of experiential learning

Carleton has created a list of definitions that reflect the different ways that you can implement experiential learning in courses and/or programs. These definitions have been informed by the Guiding Principles for Experiential Learning issued by the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities in September 2017.

Experiential learning can take a wide variety of forms, and your learning environment may reflect a variation or combination of the definitions listed below. Note that capstone courses are categorized according to the dominant type of experiential learning. Learn more about experiential learning at Carleton.

Applied research project

Involves, as a major course component, a process of substantial discovery, synthesis and/or application of information to solving a particular problem in an original way. The research process can be undertaken independently or in teams.

Campus entrepreneurship/incubators 

Students cultivate, organize and/or manage a business, social enterprise or creative idea from development through implementation.

Case studies

Provides an opportunity for students to apply their learning to real-life scenarios by working through complex, ambiguous real-world problems.  Learner are encouraged to work out their own approach to defining, analyzing and solving the challenge.

Example: Jan Schroeder and Barbara Leckie, Department of English: A case study of Henry Mayhew’s London labour and the London poor (1850-1862)


Co-operative education links an academic program with progressive discipline-related work experience and brings substantial, unique benefits to students, employers and the university. Students obtain valuable paid work experience during their course of study that directly relates their classroom learning to relevant employer needs and practices.

Field experience

Field experiences may be directed or mediated by the instructor and include a range of time-intensive endeavours that require varying levels of student interaction. For example, field experiences include short-term field trips, fieldwork and observational activities, such as classroom observations or attending a performance. Field experiences may or may not involve student interaction with members of the external community. Field experiences account for work-integrated educational experiences not encompassed by other forms, such as co-op, clinical placements, practicum and internships.

Example: Kanina Holmes, School of Journalism and Communication: Stories North: Stories of Reconciliation

Industry/community research projects

Students work on a project that has been developed through collaboration with a community partner or organization to identify and analyze issues or opportunities and develop solutions. This can take place in the community or the classroom. Not only must the collaboration satisfy the student learning outcomes of the course but it must also satisfy the needs of the partner.

Example: Susan Birkwood, Department of English: Teaching innovation and community engagement

Interactive simulations

Students engage with academic content through content-specific activities such as simulations, demonstrations, archival or design work and/or role-plays. Activities are designed to simulate “real-life” situations.

Example: Kenta Asakura, School of Social Work: Human Simulation


Internships refer to work assignments that are part of academic programs and allow students to apply and expand their knowledge and skills in a work-related, professional environment. Internships can be part-time or full-time jobs, for which the student may receive reimbursement. Students may submit a final work report. Students’ work is evaluated based on predetermined learning goals set by all stakeholders involved.

Example: Melissa Haussman, Department of Political Science: Student Internships


Provides hands-on application of course concepts in a controlled environment, including activities such as observing, measuring, testing and experimenting. Labs may be scientific or technological in nature, however, other types of labs may also qualify, such as language labs.

Example: Claudia Buttera, Department of Biology: Experiential Learning in Undergraduate Biology Labs

Performance-based learning

Involves an individual or team-produced dramatic, artistic or musical performance, exhibit or display that is prepared for an audience. This activity constitutes an integral component of the course.

Practica or placements (including clinical placements)

Placements and practica provide the opportunity for students to apply theories and concepts they have learned to a supervised practice-related environment and provide relevant reflections of such work. Usually these are linked to professional programs. Students are generally not paid for their work, but they receive credit and are evaluated. Placements/practica often include ongoing classroom instruction. This includes clinical placements

Service learning

Integrates unpaid community service that addresses community needs into a credit-bearing course with an explicit educational framework that includes student reflection on the experience.

Example: Liam O’Brien, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering: Assessing Real Life Environmental Characteristics, Designing Sustainable Neighbourhoods, and cuPortfolio

*These definitions have been informed by the work of colleagues at Brock University, Northern Illinois University, Ryerson University, University of Victoria, and York University.


Research shows that experiential learning contributes to student engagement, deeper learning, improved academic outcomes and enhanced work and life skills. Specifically, it:

  • Makes learning relatable to students: Students build on what they already know and are provided with opportunities to make connections between new concepts and existing ones.
  • Increases the effectiveness of learning: Students engage in critical thinking, acquire problem solving skills and engage in decision making.
  • Links theory to practice: Students have the chance to engage in the experience and practice what they have learned, see the application of the theoretical concepts in practice, process that application and make generalizations.
  • Increases students’ engagement, by encouraging collaboration and scaffolding between learners.
  • Assists in memory retention, by building strong relationships between feelings and thinking processes. Students have the capacity to learn successfully when the information is associated with values and feelings.
  • Leads to development of skills for lifelong learning, by assisting in the acquisition of essential skills and encouraging students to reflect, conceptualize and plan for next steps.

Theory of experiential learning

Kolb’s model of experiential learning

The theoretical model of experiential learning is grounded in the humanistic and constructivist perspective, proposing that we are naturally capable to learn, and that experience plays a critical role in knowledge construction and acquisition. In other words, learning occurs when someone creates knowledge though experiential transformations (Kolb, 1984).

According to Kolb’s model of experiential learning, effective learning occurs in four stages:

  1. Concrete experience: The learner encounters a new experience or engages in a reinterpretation process of an existing experience.
  2. Reflective observation: The learner reviews and reflects on the new experience and identifies any inconsistencies between experience and understanding.
  3. Abstract conceptualization: Through the reflective process, the learner creates a new idea/concept or modifies an existing abstract concept – analyzing the concepts and forming conclusions and generalizations.
  4. Active experimentation: The learner plans and tries out what was learned and is able to apply the new knowledge to other situations – conclusions and generalizations are used to tests hypothesis and thus the learner engages in new experiences.

It is possible for the learner to enter at any of these four stages and follow them through their sequence to acquire new knowledge. For effective learning to occur, the learner should complete all four stages of the model and no one stage can stand alone as a learning procedure. Learn more about experiential learning theory and scholarship.

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