May 07, 2013

The Experiential Learning Cycle: Tools for Success in Experiential Education

Experience doesn’t necessarily equal learning. In the wise words of Beard & Wilson, authors of Experiential Learning, “Experience may underpin all learning but it doesn’t always result in learning. We have to engage with the experience and reflect on what happened, how it happened, and why.”

At times, this fact can be such a bummer. How wonderful would it be to float from experience to experience, absorbing all the useful lessons just by virtue of being present? Alas, learning by experience actually takes work, so today’s post on fundamentals of the experiential learning cycle will help you organize it for maximum value.

Although there are several variations of the experiential learning cycle, which vary by theorist, they share four common phases:

1. Experiencing

Data is gathered through first-hand experience. This could be a day in the life of an internship, exposure to a new career path, taking on a new challenge for the first time, etc. Experiencing is the easiest part of the cycle, and this is as far as some people go.

2. Reflecting

Stopping the inundation of information that’s gathered through experiencing allows you to reflect on that experience, organizing the most important elements to identify patterns and meaning. Reflecting can happen in many ways: Journaling, sharing your experience with a friend or mentor, discussing your experience with others to identify multiple perspectives, or keeping a blog about lessons learned. Reflection focuses attention on a valuable lesson or essence of the experience, like highlighting a main sentence to remember from a chapter of a book. To ensure reflection actually happens, plan it into your day or week.

3. Generalizing

An experience is valuable to the degree that the lessons learned from it transfer into other settings, becoming part of your knowledge base. To generalize the lessons from your experience, draw connections between the singular experience and your life in general. Asking “So what?” can help you identify the implications of the lessons you reflected on, and how you can apply them to other situations.

4. Applying

Finally, practice applying the generalized lessons in a new environment. Practice solidifies the learning so it’s available for long-term use, and allows you to demonstrate what you learned from the experience.

This cycle is what turns an experience into experiential learning. Organizing your experience around these phases will help you learn the most from it, and apply those lessons for years to come.

By Laurah Hagen

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