The concepts of learning experiences and experiential learning are often confused for being one and the same. The reality is that the similarities between these concepts are few and far between. In this article, I will discuss learning experiences and experiential learning and the differences between them.
What are learning experiences?
A learning experience can be defined as any experience, be it planned or unplanned, that transforms learners’ insights, builds knowledge and skills, and supports emotional growth. Learning experiences can take place across a number of settings and contexts. They also usually include the pedagogical practices that are part of an ecosystem governed by new technology and artificial intelligence. Learning experiences typically include two parts: learning and teaching.
Here are some of the core concepts that define learning experiences:
- Freedom of learning
- A goal-oriented approach to learning
As the world progresses technologically, learning experiences will also need to adapt to this new way of doing things. Traditional learning experiences that required the involvement of instructors and tutors are slowly turning into a thing of the past. The new, adapted learning experience model now takes on a diversified approach where students have the flexibility to learn digitally with the use of pre-recorded videos in their own time and at their own pace.
Elements of an effective learning experience
What is the value of a learning experience? An increase in retention rates and job performance is a key factor that indicates the value of a learning experience. On the other hand, a learning experience that isn’t effective will leave a learner stuck when it’s time to apply their newfound knowledge. How would one differentiate between an effective learning experience and one that results in no improvement?
Here are some of the main elements of learning experiences that work:
1. Encourages social learning
Social learning creates engagement between peers and learning material. Engagement leads to the sharing and repetition of information, which, in turn, increases retention and memorability.
2. Daily practice
Have you ever heard the saying “Practice makes perfect”? Skill is developed through learning, application and practice over time. Mastery is earned through growth, therefore, opportunities to put the knowledge you have learned from your learning experience into practice are essential for effective learning experiences.
3. Chunking learning material
Imagine being handed a learner guide that has heavy text and little to no headings, images or sectioning. Learners will most likely feel overwhelmed at the thought of having to assimilate content designed and structured in that way, as compared to a learner guide that’s chunked into sections that makes it easy to comprehend and retain the content.
What is experiential learning?
Experiential learning refers to an engaged learning process that allows students to learn by doing and by reflecting on the experience. Experiential learning activities can include hands-on laboratory experiments, internships, practicals, field exercises, undergraduate research and studio performances. David Kolb’s theory of experiential learning enlightens us to consider a holistic view of this concept that takes into account one’s own learning process in addition to the learning material at hand. This theory is based on a powerful foundational approach to learning, development and change.
“There are two goals in the experiential learning process. One is to learn the specifics of a particular subject, and the other is to learn about one’s own learning process.” - David Kolb
The cycle of experiential learning can essentially be broken down into four stages:
It is important to note that these stages are often repeated several times in every interaction and experience. The subtle, organic and almost effortless flow of these stages is such that learners engage with it without truly realising that they are assimilating information through this process.
Here is a diagram that expands on the four stages of experiential learning:
Experiential learning is typically made up of the following components:
- Reflection, which involves critical analysis and synthesis.
- Opportunities for students to take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for the results.
- Intellectual, creative, emotional, social and physical engagement opportunities for students.
- Learning experiences that make use of natural consequences, mistakes, and successes.
Often described as an “ideal” form of learning, experiential learning merges cognition, perception and behaviour through experience. This, in turn, allows for growth across the different learning domains.
Effective experiential learning
Effective experiential learning is meaningful, engaging, and transferable to the real world. They should ultimately help learners form a connection between newly learnt information and their past experiences that are relevant to the situations they currently face. Increased awareness of one’s strengths and weaknesses, emotional intelligence and the ability to react and adapt to their environment is also a characteristic of effective experiential learning. By placing emphasis on not just the learning material, but also on the learner themselves, effective experiential learning encourages learners to become more invested in achieving their goals and pursuing relevant learning opportunities.
What’s the difference between learning experiences and experiential learning?
As you can see from the above dissection of learning experiences and experiential learning, these similar-sounding concepts are different in many ways. A striking contrast between the two is that experiential learning puts the learner in the driver’s seat of their learning journey by encouraging them to apply their knowledge, while a learning experience is focused on learners retaining the information they need to develop a skill. While these concepts are based on varying approaches, it is important to note that learning experiences and experiential learning may be interconnected in that a learning experience could form part of one’s experiential learning.
Learning experiences are viewed as part of the traditional approach to learning, but experiential learning appears to be gaining traction among the learners of today. Will experiential learning soon become the norm while learning experiences take a back seat? A high possibility indeed. Either way, the future of learning looks bright as we evolve to shift focus on the learners themselves in addition to the learning.