Faculty Focus


Creating Experiential Learning Opportunities in Any Course

Students encounter experiential learning through hands-on experience

The terms rigor and relevance have rocketed to the forefront of K-12 education initiatives over the past 10 years, and with good reason. Research has shown that students, when allowed to apply the cognitive information they learn through meaningful experiences, connect deeper with the material and enjoy the classroom experience more (Munge, Thomas, and Heck, 2018; Helmefalk and Eklund, 2018). When we take a deeper look at when experiential learning opportunities are used, they are typically reserved for higher level classes that include service learning and internships that lead to a high impact experience. However, when we look at the definition of experiential learning, the concept is not as difficult to integrate in all experiences.

Integrating Experiential Learning

Experiential learning can be “defined in terms of an instructional model, which begins with the learning engaging in direct ‘experience’ followed by reflection, discussion, analysis and evaluation of the experience” (Chavan, 2011, quoted in Borzak, 1981, pg. 9). Based largely on the work of David Kolb (1984), experiences outside the classroom give students opportunities to apply their knowledge, but also increase motivation of students by showing their relevance to real-life situations through reflective process (Young, 2018).

Seven years ago, I transitioned to the college classroom from my work in K-12 education. I observed many professionals very rooted to the tradition of teaching using lecture and other direct instructional methods as the only pedagogical approach to classroom learning. I wanted to challenge myself to have students involved in experiential learning, and have that be the crux of all my courses. Now, I have identified a sequence based on Kolb’s Learning Cycle that will incorporate experiential learning in my classes and help embed the objectives of a course by creating contacts in the community.

Figure 1. Kolb’s Learning Cycle (www.pugetsound.edu, 2020)

The Seven Sequence Process

The first part in this process is to identify learning objectives that you believe to be at the heart of your course. These are the higher order objectives that build upon the lower level knowledge that students have already received in the course. These typically fall in Bloom’s Taxonomy of applying, analyzing, evaluating, and creating. Within my courses, I tend to look for learning targets I know to be essential in students’ careers, and something they can create and use in the future, if possible.

Utilizing the Backward Design Model (Bowen, 2017), I then create an assessment that focuses on the Active Experimentation phase for students, which allows them to practice the skills they have witnessed and reflected upon in a meaningful way. This could be through teaching a community-based lesson, launching a marketing campaign or business model, field research projects, or teaching a lesson through community partners, such as a local preschool or Special Olympics.

The third step is to arm students with the fundamental knowledge necessary to understand the experience they are about to observe. These objectives typically consist of the lower level of Bloom’s Taxonomy objectives, and relate to what I want students to experience. This step may take a class period or more, depending on the amount of baseline information necessary.

The fourth step involves the first stage of Kolb’s learning cycle (Figure 1), which includes a concrete, observable experience. This process involves allowing students to see what the concept is in practice and provides them with an opportunity to frame—in their own minds—what a desired result looks like.

The fifth step asks the students, within 24 hours after their observation, to reflect on the experience. Last year, I moved away from a written reflection because of the work I saw being done in my daughters’ school, which utilized the Seesaw app. With this app, follow up questions and/or rubrics can be embedded utilizing the app and video, or by using voice-over reflections. I found that my students really enjoyed having the opportunity to reflect via video.

The sixth step requires students to create a 30-second elevator speech on how the observational experience helped them understand the objective more clearly. In this process, they must take what they observed and compare it to their background knowledge of the concept to create their own abstract understanding. I find in this phase that students will commonly say things like, “Well they were able to do this, but I didn’t see this concept at all. I wonder why.” It is in these moments that they realize what happens in real life is not as easily scripted as it is in the classroom or other closed environments. Discussions then occur within groups of four where they share their 30-second speech, and compare and contrast their findings.

The seventh step involves my favorite part of the process, which is to have them plan out their own experiential plan. What would they do that was similar? What would they do differently in that situation? It is in this designing/creating stage that students gain the confidence to attack a real-life situation with confidence from the experiences and reflections they have encountered. It is in this planning phase that students enjoy discussing big ideas with one another and creating new ways to solve issues, and also begin to develop confidence in their abilities. In some cases, this can be the final step of the process, where the planning experience is the final assessment of their learning. However, when I can, I reach back out to the community contact and see if there is a way in which the student can put their plan into action. More often than not, this is possible. Additionally, if I can, we go through the cycle again, but with the student as the leader.

The conversations that are created during these opportunities and the feedback from students after the experience has prompted me to find experiential learning in all courses, no matter the level. In a time where human interactions are decreasing and virtual experiences increasing, experiential learning can help students build confidence and the reflective skills necessary in today’s workforce.

Bio: Timothy Hanrahan, PhD, teaches physical and health education courses as well as masters and specialist courses in curriculum and instruction at William Woods University. He is an associate professor of education and also serves as the associate dean of faculty, providing opportunities for internal professional development. Dr. Hanrahan has also served as the director of the School of Education. Dr. Hanrahan’s passion is to help increase instructional pedagogy knowledge so that instructors can provide the best research based education possible.


Bowen, Ryan S., (2017). Understanding by Design. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved December 20th, 2019 from https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/understanding-by-design/

Chavan, M. meena. chavan@mq. edu. a. (2011). Higher Education Students’ Attitudes Towards Experiential Learning in International Business. Journal of Teaching in International Business, 22(2), 126–143.

Helmefalk, M. miralem. helmefalk@lnu. s., & Eklund, A. A. andreas. eklund@lnu. s. (2018). Fun and Function? The Impact of Experiential Learning Styles on Hedonic and Utilitarian Values in Classrooms. Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies in Education, 7(1), 1–18.

Munge, B. bmunge@usc. edu. a., Thomas, G., & Heck, D. (2018). Outdoor Fieldwork in Higher Education: Learning From Multidisciplinary Experience. Journal of Experiential Education, 41(1), 39–53.

Young, M. R. (2018). Reflection Fosters Deep Learning: The “Reflection Page & Relevant to You” Intervention. Journal of Instructional Pedagogies, 20. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=EJ1178730&site=eds-live