Theories of Experiential Education

Machining ApprenticeshipsAs Fenwick (2001), Stirling et. al. (2014) and Sattler (2011) note in their reviews of literature connected to experiential learning, Kolb’s Theory of experiential learning is foundational to our understanding of how students translate experience into lasting understanding, skills development, and the development of habits of mind and values. However, Kolb’s work was influenced by the work others and there are distinctive, but complementary theories of experiential learning that can also aid educators in developing a deeper awareness of the processes and factors that support effective learning by doing.

Theories of experiential learning can be roughly considered with reference to three major philosophies of education: behaviourist, cognitive and constructivist. This video provides a brief overview of these major philosophies.

Behaviorists tend to see learners as passively taking in and responding to stimuli in their environment. Learning is a stimulus-response operation that can be directed through the use of negative and positive stimuli in the environment and can be observed through the behaviours of individuals in response to stimuli.

Cognitive theorists conceive of learning as the physiological activities of learners’ brains as they make meaning through the construction of mental models of the world around them. Cognitivists are interested in studying the mental processes that move receipt of input from the environment, organize that input meaningfully, and place it first into short term and then into long term memory, often following repeated practice.


Constructivists argue that learning happens when individuals actively engage with the world around them and purposefully and systematically construct lasting meaning through their experiences. Rather than just passively receiving input and responding to it instinctively or automatically, constructivist theory posits that learners actively build meaning and understanding through willful and intentional engagement with, and reflection on, experiences.

The contributing theorists that we will consider in this session largely align with one of these three philosophies of education, but you will note that they do not always cleanly belong to one school of thought or another, and that several of these thinkers contribute theory that focuses on a particular aspects of experiential learning, whether that focus is on the dynamics of social interaction in learning by doing, the important influences of the site of learning, the consequence of active rather than passive engagement in learning, and the requirements for learning, and nuanced processes of learning that contribute to the effectiveness of experiential education.

Fenwick, T. (2001). Experiential Learning: A theoretical critique from five perspectives. Retrieved September 14, 2017, from

Sattler, P. (2011). Work-integrated Learning in Ontario’s Postsecondary Sector. Retrieved September 14, 2017, from

Stirling, A., Kerr, G., Banwell, J., MacPherson, E., & Heron, A. (2016). A Practical Guide to Work-Integrated Learning. Retrieved September 14, 2017, from


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Learning by Doing: Postsecondary Experiential Education Copyright © 2018 by Mary Wilson and Kyle Mackie is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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