As Aristotle once said, men become builders by building. Experiential education, at its simplest, is about learning by doing, where students apply academic theories to real-world experiences.

But the concept of experiential education goes a step beyond ‘doing.’ During the process, students are actively engaged, whether asking questions, making decisions or solving problems. Afterwards, they reflect on the practical experience, and analyze the outcome.

Experiential education is a teaching philosophy where “educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities,” according to the Association for Experiential Education (AEE).

While traditional student learning activities are teacher-centric, experiential learning activities focus on the student, with outcomes that are more flexible. In other words, traditional learning attempts to explain knowledge through information. Experiential learning theory aims to develop knowledge through experience, experiment and engagement.

The role of mistakes, and uncertainty, in experiential education

A key element of experiential education is that students can, and will, make mistakes — that’s part of the student learning process. According to the AEE, students may encounter success, failure and uncertainty in their learning experience, because the outcome cannot necessarily be predicted.

This concept isn’t exactly new, although it’s being applied in new ways. Workplace co-ops and internships — which have been around for decades — are one form of experiential learning. Indeed, The University of Tennessee Knoxville points out 12 types of experiential learning styles, including apprenticeships, clinical experiences, field work, practicums and undergraduate research.

While often associated with learning outside of the classroom, experiential education can also take place inside the classroom through techniques such as role-playing, simulations and collaborative group work. Rather than reading a case study, for example, students embrace a ‘role’ as part of a fictitious simulation, where different behaviors result in different possible outcomes.

Courses in medicine, healthcare and social work are well suited to this pedagogy. Human simulations, for example, could involve bringing actors into the classroom to pose as patients or clients. Students can practice newly learned skills by interviewing the ‘patient’ and making a diagnosis through observation. This process is fluid and dynamic; students don’t know how the patient will react or what the outcome will be. Afterward, the class can discuss what worked and what didn’t.

At Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, experiential education allows students to practice a range of clinical scenarios through participation in simulated encounters with ‘patients.’ Often, the skill sets required to effectively diagnose and treat patients are learned on-the-fly by residents, with little time for practice or feedback. With simulations, students can practice those skills before they’re ever in front of a real patient, and integrate these experiences into their knowledge of patient care.

As the university points out, lessons taught in a realistic manner “translate into lasting retention due to the required active learning and focused concentration, the experience’s emotional investment, and the direct association with the real world.”

Simulations and experiential education

Cutting-edge technologies are also providing new opportunities at universities for experiential learning, such as augmented or virtual reality. Simulated training for medical students isn’t new. Previously, students used mannequins, but that way there was only one outcome and no room for error. A VR simulation, however, allows students to make choices — and make mistakes. They can learn why a certain decision might not have been the best one, so they can apply those learnings next time they’re in a similar scenario.

While games are part of active learning, simulations are often more involved. In a world politics course at the University of Waterloo, Dr. Veronica Kitchen, an associate professor with the Department of Political Science, has used simulations in the classroom where students each take on a role — representing politicians at various levels of government — to deal with a fictitious terrorist attack.

Since it’s not possible for students to ‘intern’ during a real-life crisis situation, simulated experiences are the next best thing. Students are given a fictitious scenario, each with their own role to play, and must make group decisions while the clock is ticking — without ever knowing what the outcome will be. This can provoke an emotional response and provide opportunities for spontaneous learning.

Experiential education, however, isn’t just about ‘doing.’ People often repeat the same behavior over and over again, without ever learning from it. The key to making this work in the classroom is reflection, analysis and preparing to try again, so students understand what worked, what didn’t and what they’d do differently next time around.

The AEE finds that experiential learning occurs “when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.” And in a book on experiential learning, educator and author Donna Qualters says that “without a careful curriculum involving structured, reflective skill building, students may never learn what we hope they will outside the four walls of the classroom.”

Experiential education isn’t about a right or wrong answer. It allows the learner to gain knowledge from their successes and failures, and to be accountable for results. Educators are there to facilitate the process, provide boundaries and, ultimately, help students understand the impact of their decisions as they learn about their future profession.

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Vawn Himmelsbach

Vawn Himmelsbach

Vawn Himmelsbach is a journalist based in Toronto.