Making a Case for Experiential Learning in Higher Education

Historical image of college classroom circa early 1900s

Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.” – Albert Einstein

Experiential learning is more than a popular buzzword in pedagogy – it’s a way for students to make the most of their education. But what exactly is experiential learning?

My personal definition for experiential learning is learning by doing. In the literature, experiential learning is based on a number of fundamental ideas (Kolb & Kolb, 2005), which I’ll summarize here.

  1. Learning is a lifelong journey.
  2. New learning is integrated with your previous knowledge and experiences.
  3. Learning is a holistic endeavour that involves thinking, feeling, reflecting, acting, and more.
  4. Learning is the process of creating knowledge, not absorbing it.

Think back to when you were young. How did you learn to tie your shoelaces? To ride a bike? If I had to take a guess, I would imagine that you didn’t learn how to do these tasks solely by listening to instructions. (I didn’t.) You had to do them for yourself.

In the process, you took ownership for your learning; you took risks and failed; you reflected and learned from your mistakes; and maybe you even incorporated some creativity. To me, early childhood experiences such as tying your shoelaces and riding a bike encapsulate experiential learning at its finest. I strongly believe that this iterative, holistic process is how we were born to learn.

It may be unfortunate, then, that higher education institutions have historically placed emphasis on didactic, lecture-based learning. In this model, students assume the role of passive recipients of information that is “transmitted” to them (Kolb & Kolb, 2005). No doing. No risks. No feeling. No reflecting.

While co-operative education (co-op) is only one form of experiential learning, the number of co-op programs in the United States decreased by half between the mid-1980s and early 21st century (Greenhaus & Callanan, 2006) – an indication of overall decline in experiential learning. Fortunately, experiential learning is a rapidly growing trend in many parts of the world, and it is making a comeback in higher education institutions across North America. For example, at Northeastern University in Boston, there are approximately 8,000 students every year who participate in the school’s co-op program, which entails a six-month period of full-time employment (Ambrose & Poklop, 2015).

Experiential learning is not only prevalent – it’s effective. Faculty members from Northeastern conducted a qualitative study that asked 104 seniors from six universities and colleges about their experiences with co-op (Ambrose & Poklop, 2015). The responses were largely positive. The consensus from students was that co-op helped them build upon and integrate the in-classroom knowledge that they had gained. Many students noted increased motivation, which promotes lifelong learning. Co-op also provided students with rewarding opportunities to practice and receive feedback –– important aspects of learning that are sometimes neglected in school. Specifically, 93% of students applied previous knowledge and skills to their co-op placement; 98% of students obtained new knowledge and skills during co-op; and 96% of students reflected upon their learning afterwards (Ambrose & Poklop, 2015).

Support for experiential learning doesn’t stop there. A separate systematic review pooled exam score and failure rate data from 225 studies of undergraduate science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) students, who were either taught using traditional lecturing or active (experiential) learning (Freeman, Eddy, McDonough, et al, 2014). The results were surprising: average exam scores were 6% higher in the experiential learning group. More importantly, students in the lecture-based learning group were 1.5 times more likely to fail (Freeman, Eddy, McDonough, et al, 2014).

In my own educational pursuits, I have benefited greatly from experiential education. Being a long-time sufferer of allergies and asthma, I wanted to explore my interest in these diseases. I was grateful to receive a summer research studentship from Dr. Malcolm Sears and the Allergy, Genes, and Environment Network (AllerGen) to work on the Canadian Healthy Infant Longitudinal Development (CHILD) Study, based in Hamilton, Canada.

Conducting research within the CHILD Study has been an incredible learning experience. There have been a lot of “a-ha” moments where I was able to successfully integrate knowledge from my epidemiology, biostatistics, and cell biology courses. Putting it all together – that’s the best feeling that you can have as a learner. Of course, I’ve also made countless blunders along the way. Each time, I gained valuable insight from the experience that I have carried forward with me. It helps to have the support of others, including Dr. Sears, Dr. Diana Lefebvre, David Dai, and the AllerGen team, who all provide me with great feedback and encouragement.

Experiential learning has changed my life, and evidence suggests that I’m not the only one. Experiential learning has many advantages that should make it attractive for students to pursue – and for higher education institutions to offer.

Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below about your experiences with experiential learning (pun intended)!



Kolb A.Y., & Kolb D.A. (2005). Learning styles and learning spaces: enhancing experiential learning in higher education. Academy of Learning Management & Education 4(2), 193-212.

Greenhaus, J. H., & Callanan, G. A. (Eds.). (2006). Encyclopedia of career development. Sage Publications.

Ambrose S. A., & Poklop, L. (2015). Do students really learn from experience? Change: the magazine of higher learning 47(1),54-61.

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt H., et al. (2014). Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111(23), 8410-8415.


About the Author
Maxwell Tran

Maxwell Tran

Maxwell (Max) Tran is a third year Health Sciences student at McMaster University. He is a research assistant for diverse projects in the fields of allergy and immunology, mental health, and global health. An avid writer, Max also founded a nonprofit, Ink Movement, in order to provide youth with opportunities for artistic expression. Ink Movement has hosted poetry slams, arts cafes, and experiential workshops/conferences across Canada. The organization’s signature initiative includes four published books featuring the stories of young people. Max currently aspires to be as a clinician-scientist, which would allow him to merge his interests in human stories, research, and education.