What Is Experiential Learning?

Experiential Learning Explained

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Experiential learning is the process of acquiring and applying knowledge in a real-world setting. Experiential learning programs emphasize hands-on approaches to honing skills and expertise. These programs might include co-ops, internships, externships, returnships, postgraduate programs, service-learning programs, volunteering, and more.

Learn how experiential education can expand your skill set and help make you a more competitive candidate in the job market.  

Definitions and Examples of Experiential Learning

Experiential learning is a teaching method in which students learn by doing. Instead of learning the principles of new skills solely in a classroom setting, students develop new expertise by practicing in concrete scenarios. 

  • Alternate name: Experiential education

For example, high school chemistry students might head into the lab to make hard candy on their Bunsen burners. An experiment like this teaches how to calculate mass, moles, and formula weights. 

To use an example from the working world, electricians must participate in an apprenticeship that lasts four to five years. This apprenticeship teaches real-world applications of essential skills for the job—skills that would be difficult if not impossible to learn simply by reading about them.

How Do Experiential Learning Programs Work?

Experiential learning programs help students learn skills by applying them in the real world (or a controlled facsimile). Depending on the program, this might mean working as an apprentice alongside a master tradesman or craftsperson, completing an internship under the mentorship of experienced professionals, or performing research under the guidance of a tenured academic. 

According to the Boston University Center for Teaching and Learning, experiential learning should contain four components:

  • Analysis and synthesis
  • Autonomy and independence to make decisions and be accountable for the results
  • Engagement with other students 
  • The chance to learn from mistakes and successes

When we talk about experiential education, we’re most often referring to formal programs such as co-ops, apprenticeships, and internships.

It’s also possible to learn skills outside the classroom in a less structured environment. 

For example, when you ask to shadow an experienced professional or when you engage in an informational interview with someone in your field, you are also engaging in experiential learning. 

Types of Experiential Learning Programs

There are many types of formal experiential learning programs, including: 

  • Apprenticeships: An apprenticeship offers you the chance to learn an occupation from a skilled professional. You can find apprenticeships in jobs ranging from skilled trades to information technology and health care. 
  • Campus employment: Campus jobs provide students with resume-building work experience and skills.
  • Co-ops: A cooperative education experience generally lasts for more than a few months and allows you to get academic credit for work experience at a company in your field.  
  • Internships: An internship is typically of shorter duration than a co-op, lasting perhaps a semester or a season. It also allows you to gain work experience, often for college credit and/or pay. You might also participate in a postgraduate internship, which can sometimes turn into a job.
  • Externships: An externship is similar to job shadowing in that it allows you to see firsthand how things work in your future field. Externships may serve as a first professional experience in a new occupation. They are often set up by colleges and universities.
  • Fellowships: A fellowship is a short-term professional development opportunity, often for a graduate student or recent grad. Typically, fellowships last for a few months to a year and pay a stipend. 
  • Field experience: Field experience is any hands-on experience gained outside of a classroom. This may include student teaching but can also refer to other types of practical learning, such as assisting in research. 
  • Informational interviews: An informational interview offers a chance to get the inside scoop on a job, career, company, or program from someone on the inside. However, it is not a job interview, although you may gain insight and connections from an informational interview that will later lead to a job. 
  • Job shadowing: Job shadowing can help you learn more about a particular career. By following a professional in their job for a few hours or days, you can get a better sense of what it’s like to do that job.  
  • Practicums: A practicum is similar to an internship and offers hands-on experience in a given field. Practicums are common in professions like teaching.
  • Returnships: A returnship offers a road back to employment for professionals who have taken a break. It’s similar to an internship but geared toward workers who have completed their training and education. 
  • Service-learning programs: These programs incorporate some elements of community service into their experiential learning approach. 
  • Student teaching: Student teaching gives prospective teachers the chance to learn classroom skills in a school setting while being mentored by an experienced teacher.
  • Study abroad: These programs allow students to study at an institution in another country, typically for a semester. 
  • Volunteering: Volunteering may be part of an experiential learning program or an informal process. Either way, as a volunteer you will give your time and energy to a worthy cause. In exchange, you will gain experience, perspective, and new relationships.

How To Find a Program

There are a variety of ways to find an experiential learning program including making use of the following:

  • High school guidance office: If you’re a high school student, your guidance office will be able to connect you with work opportunities and experiential learning programs. 
  • College career services: Students and alumni can use their career services office to find internships, fellowships, service-learning programs, and more. Career services can also help you connect with other alumni to arrange informational interviews and job shadowing. 
  • Company programs: Many employers have internships and apprenticeship programs for future employees. For example, Google offers a variety of programs for students who want to gain experience in tech. 
  • CareerOneStop: No matter where you are in your career, the U.S. Department of Labor’s CareerOneStop can help you learn more about apprenticeships, training programs, and other experiential learning opportunities. 

Key Takeaways

  • Experiential learning is the process of acquiring and applying knowledge in a real-world setting.
  • Experiential education programs include co-ops, internships, externships, returnships, postgraduate programs, service-learning programs, volunteering, and more.
  • These programs should allow students to synthesize new information, work independently, engage with other students, and learn from their mistakes. 
  • Find experiential learning programs through your guidance office, college career services, employer websites, or CareerOneStop.