Experiential Learning: The what, why, and how


Experiential learning is learning through gaining a firsthand perspective on the subject.

Experiential learning lets any kind of student make deeper connections, so that the learner can hone in on an intuitive understanding of a subject or a skill.

An experience lets a student grasp the why that drives the how, the why that makes the what— the fact, or the skill– important and relevant in the first place.

Experiential learning improves a student’s retention of the knowledge or skill they’ve learned. More importantly, though, experiential learning fuels the drive, the curiosity, that pushes the student to pursue further knowledge, to gain more fundamental skills.

Experiential learning is defined as trying to gain knowledge or skills, by first exploring or engaging with a place, tool, toy, group of people, or anything else a student could possibly learn from. Then, the student is encouraged to try different things: to experiment with their hands, or words, or other methods of interaction they’re already familiar with that are appropriate. Finally, experiential learning requires reflection after the experience. The student needs time to ask themselves questions, and try to analyze and draw conclusions in order to make concrete connections between their experience and a set of facts, or a skill.

Experiential learning isn’t running around playing thoughtlessly or without intention. Goofing off with the football isn’t experiential learning if people don’t make the connections or observe what’s going on. Likewise, experiential learning isn’t a student trying an experiment for ten minutes, then having the teacher explain what they’re supposed to get from it in a lecture.


When you understand that experiential learning is:

  • the most effective way for a student to remember the facts and skills they’ve acquired in the long term
  • the most efficient way to make sure a student can apply a skill, or lean on a fact in a variety of contexts, and
  • the best way to boost curiosity (the drive that compels people to keep learning increasingly challenging things)

Then, you begin to see how to use it to help yourself, your students, and even your own children or dogs. Experiential learning applies in every context where they could potentially discover useful skills and knowledge — which is almost everywhere.

The ability to engage in a place intentionally, and then step back and reflect on that engagement in an effort to think about it objectively, will help you succeed in relationships, at the workplace, at school, and in your personal pursuits.

Misunderstanding or dismissing experiential learning — thinking it’s ”too hard”, or “too complicated”, or even, in our rigid school culture, not “educational” enough — can leave you and your students missing a crucial developmental tool.

Other teaching methods are just less effective when it comes to empowering a student to apply a skill, or use knowledge in a context that’s in any way different from the context that they learned the skill or fact originally.

More dangerously, teaching methods that are wholly observational, or rely on a student listening to facts and repeating them later, discourage curiosity. For a young student especially – but even for an adult – a lecture can only go so long before it becomes boring and the learner tunes out. If a student thinks lectures are the only way to learn, then they’ll begin to think learning is boring. That destroys their curiosity.

This happens to many people. Maybe it already happened to you! Maybe you are struggling to learn the new skills you need to get a promotion at your workplace — new software skills, design skills, or landscaping skills, depending on the nature of your job. And, you keep procrastinating and hitting a wall because deep down you believe that learning is boring. You’ve been taught that learning is boring. To get yourself out of that mindset, and to keep your kids from getting into that mindset, you can embrace experiential learning today.


Explore opportunities in your own community that use experiential learning to teach.


  • the Makerspace movement for adults
  • the Montessori school for kids
  • and, A Barefoot Village for kids (at Doglando — images above)

Think about how experiential learning can be applied to dogs and cats. How do dogs and cats experience the world? What are they learning? How can you help them make the cause-and-effect connections you want? If you’re training a dog or cat, seek out experts who use experiential learning methods connected to the animal’s psychology.

Start using the experiential learning steps in your everyday life.

When you go to a new place, encounter a new object, or meet new people, begin your experience with questions, seeking to learn new things.

Your question could be anything:

  • What is the purpose of this object / place?
  • Does it have multiple purposes?
  • How does it work, how does it try to fulfill it’s purpose?
  • Why did people create this — what did they want?
  • What were they afraid of?

Then, experience intentionally and observe.
See, listen to, feel, or even smell what happens when you try to do different things.

After your experience, reflect on it.
What conclusions can you draw based on your observation?
How are they different from your original guesses or assumptions?


Share your experience in the Comments below, or ask a question!