Principles of Experiential Education

Student distillingBefore we explore the key principles of experiential education, it is useful to understand some of the reasons why experiential learning opportunities are so highly valued as a form of educational delivery.  Higher education is designed to develop knowledge, skills and habits of mind in specific academic disciplines or vocational fields, but also to cultivate transversal skills relevant to each of us regardless of what path we take in life.  Literacy, numeracy, research, critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, intercultural knowledge, presentation skills, morality, ethical conduct, empathy, creativity, innovation, aesthetic appreciation, an orientation to lifelong learning and citizenship are all among the aspirations that we hold for the outcomes of advanced education regardless of the program of study.  Higher education aims to help individuals  become well-rounded and ready for a rich, rewarding and responsible life filled with meaning and contribution.  It also aims to prepare people for the workforce — to ensure that they are effectively prepared to enter the world of work upon graduation and contribute to economic growth and prosperity.  In Ontario, there is a recognition that career-readiness is a critically important contribution of postsecondary education and provincial sense of urgency to better the career prospects for new postsecondary graduates and smooth their transition to the world of work through increasing the time spent in work-integrated learning opportunities for students.

This provincial call to action comes with significant competitive Career Ready funding to be granted primarily between 2016 and 2018. The focus and funding is galvanizing the efforts of Ontario colleges and universities to expand and strengthen experiential education offerings and to compete for students and jockey for employer/community partnerships by promoting unique approaches to experiential education. Colleges and universities are casting different forms of experiential education in particular lights that serve to tie experiential learning opportunities more closely to the unique mission or focus of the university or college.  The Council of Ontario Universities has compiled a report outlining some of the forms of experiential education that are flourishing in Ontario universities in their 2014 experiential education report entitled Bringing Life to Learning at Ontario Universities.

Interestingly, some colleges and universities are augmenting off-campus and abroad experiential learning opportunities for students with more on-campus learning opportunities that benefit both the students and the institution itself.  For example, Niagara College has invested in a variety of learning enterprises — real on-campuses businesses that provide students with authentic experiences in what it means to operate for-profit businesses. The University of Guelph is well known for its Peer Helper program in which students contribute to the delivery of university programs and services and gain employment skills and McMaster University has established a robust Students as Partners program, engaging undergraduate and graduate students as partners in pedagogical research and development through the MacPherson Institute for Teaching and Learning. Such efforts can really aid colleges and universities in attracting students and forging strong collaborations with industry and community partners, creating better connections between students, programs of study and employment options.

Although not Ontario examples, consider what Bennington College in Vermont has done to place their Field Work Term ( at the very heart of the student experience at the college and how this defining feature of education at Bennington sets it apart from its peers for the ways in which the college structures and encourages experiences that foster entrepreneurialism. Or, as another example, consider how Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts has positioned its unique Community Fellows and Course Mentors ( paid internship model as an important, common experiential education method for cultivating citizenship, advocacy and career skills among its students. Both Bennington and Mount Holyoke have branded forms of experiential education, in these cases field work and internship respectively, to promote a distinctive undergraduate experience at their institutions. Similar examples of featured or branded forms of experiential education exist in colleges and universities elsewhere, and as current or future postsecondary educators, it is important to consider how experiential education functions within different postsecondary contexts to achieve institutional strategic priorities.

It can be most helpful to think of experiential education as a philosophical approach to education that is still evolving, and one that encapsulates a variety of associated typologies or forms, as well as an assortment of aligned methodologies for designing and delivering teaching approaches, learning activities and assessments of student learning.

Food TechnologyThinking of experiential education in this way certainly makes it seem more amorphous or nebulous and can complicate our thinking as educators about how best to select, structure and use experiential education in postsecondary education, but it is also a more accurate conceptualization of experiential education as evolving and emergent, and one which permits thoughtful innovation and creativity in its application. Experiential education has some familiar and common forms, but it does not feature a neat and tidy set of terms, or fixed and formulaic operations for curriculum, teaching and learning, so it does not make sense to try to force a universal definition of precisely what it is and is not. However, experiential education does have a relatively common set of principles that inform its use and help us to distinguish it from other forms of postsecondary pedagogy.

Consider the principles of experiential education woven throughout these three resources:

  1. National Society for Experiential Education. (n.d.). NSEE 8 Principles of Good Practice for all Experiential Learning Activities. Retrieved September 14, 2017, from
  2. What is EE. (n.d.). Retrieved December 5, 2017, from
  3. Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development. (n.d.). MAESD Guiding Principles for Experiential Education. Retrieved December 5, 2017, from

Understanding the core principles that undergird experiential education can be useful in distilling the pertinent components that set it apart from forms of didactic education, which include active and engaged pedagogies such as problem-based or enquiry-based learning, as well as what are typically (not always!) more passive forms of didactic learning such as what occurs when students just sit and listen in lectures, or follow formulaic labs, participate in step-by-step procedural learning, undertake highly structured independent study, or other commonly employed approaches used by colleges and universities.

Some of features that characterize the different types of experiential education are dramatic and clearly distinguish the forms, making it easier for educators to determine which type to integrate into curriculum to suit requirements, but some of the features are more subtle or similar and can complicate decision-making. For this reason, having a clear understanding of the principles of experiential education, the common and institutionally relevant definitions for the various forms of experiential education, and having access to a comprehensive, comparative typology can be very useful for teachers who wish to, or are tasked with responsibility to, incorporate experiential education, or its subset work-integrated learning, into curriculum.

How do you define the key principles of experiential learning?  Take a moment to document the key terms that you associate with the principles of this form of education:


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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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