Aristotle Quote

A Look into Experiential Learning

As Aristotle touts it from the ancient times, “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.” Today, this is what we call learning by experience, or experiential learning.

What is experiential learning? The word “experiential” is derived from the word “experience”. We all have life experiences, be it positive or negative. To name one out of many, I had experienced getting caught in a thunderstorm while hiking up a mountain in Stong, Malaysia. Then, how is learning derived through my experience?

It is only when I reflect on the experience itself, that any thoughts around the experience could provide possible insights – valuable insights which then translates to a learning point or learning outcome. To illustrate what I mean, here are just some thoughts I have around this experience of getting caught in a thunderstorm midway through my hike and caving expedition.

  1. The planning committee could have checked the weather forecast beforehand, to further prevent such incidents from occurring.
  2. I was fortunate that I knew how to swim, as only those who knew how to swim could swim through the cave (which had been flooded entirely) and complete the hike and caving expedition as such. Those who could not swim had to turn back, unfortunately.
  3. I really loved this unique experience. It happened such a long time ago, but the sense of accomplishment and exhilaration from overcoming such situational challenges in this outdoor adventure still lingers fresh in my mind today.

With these thoughts about my personal experience, I gain new insights through reflection – the need to check the weather forecast while planning for a hiking trip, and the usefulness of having the skill to swim even if it was just an expedition on land. Not every reflection will lead to learning outcomes. It depends on the type and depth of learning that we are looking at as well, when we say experiential learning.

The above was a simple example of experiential learning, specifically defined as “learning through reflection on doing”.

Experiential learning can be further explained through David A. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Model (ELM).

Kolb's EL Model

The example shared earlier is exemplified through Kolb’s model as well. The experience of hiking in the thunderstorm itself is the concrete experience. This concrete experience then forms the basis for my 3 observations and reflections listed above, allowing for me (the learner) to consider what is working or failing.

After which, the new insights I gained through observation and reflection are the third step in Kolb’s model, abstract conceptualisation – to think about ways to improve on the next attempt made at hiking. Finally, all these prepares the learner for the next attempt at hiking, informed by a cyclical pattern of previous experience, thought, and reflection – active experimentation.

It’s noteworthy that experiential learning provides for more efficient learning as compared to passive learning such as reading or listening. Well, here comes the real deal – can e-learning simulate a realistic experience for experiential learning to occur? If yes, by what means?

With computer simulations, realistic scenarios are virtually created in 2D or 3D interfaces. These e-learning scenarios could be animated examples presented or interactive scenarios which learners could directly participate in. The higher the interactivity level of an e-learning scenario, the more actively involved the learner is in the experience. This allows for greater depth and breadth of reflective observation, leading to a deeper analysis and immersion in conceptualising the virtually simulated experience.

The instructional design of e-learning scenarios will determine how close the virtual scenario is to the real-life context, and the level and ways of interactivity. Depending on the learning objectives, the type of scenarios used will also differ. Through these virtual scenarios, experiential learning is facilitated using technology instead of by a teacher or lecturer. Nonetheless, the presence of a teacher or facilitator is not definitive of experiential learning, and it can occur naturally without a teacher or facilitator, in the form of a genuine learning experience. According to Kolb, experiential learning relates solely to the meaning-making process of the individual’s direct experience.