Experiential learning is the process of acquiring knowledge and skills outside the traditional academic setting. It embraces the idea that students learn better by doing - by experiencing - and reflecting upon those experiences, as opposed to being lectured to. Internships, applied learning projects and a variety of creative and professional work experiences are all examples of experiential learning.

Why is experiential learning important? Because it works. Not only does it prepare students to be successful members of the workforce, it also helps career colleges by increasing their students' post-graduation job performance, crucial for compliance with recent Gainful Employment regulations. For both these reasons, career colleges should take steps to integrate experiential learning into their curricula.

The Elements of Experiential Learning

According to the Experiential Learning Center at the University of Colorado Denver,1 experiential learning contains the following components:

  • Reflection, critical analysis and synthesis
  • Opportunities for students to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for the results
  • Opportunities for students to engage intellectually, creatively, emotionally, socially or physically
  • A designed learning experience that includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes and successes

Experiential learning may best be defined by this quote from Albert Einstein: "Learning is experience. Everything else is just information."

Familiar examples of experiential learning in the career college setting can be found in programs such as culinary, allied health and cosmetology, where students actually make food, work on patients, and practice hair cutting and make-up applications on real people. Science lab experiments are another common illustration. Other methods of incorporating experiential learning into education include workshops, field trips and mock office environments.

Employers Want Candidates With Hands-on Training

According to a USA Today analysis of data from Economic Modeling Specialists, Intl. and CareerBuilder, almost 600 occupations are expected to see 5 percent or more job growth by 2017. This economy demands a better-educated workforce, and employers want candidates with hands-on, real-world career training. In fact, 87 percent of employers are more likely to consider hiring a candidate whose educational resume includes an applied learning project, according to Hart Research Associates.2

Working with Employers to Offer Experiential Opportunities

When preparing students for the job market, experiential activities conducted in partnership with employers are particularly valuable - especially in light of the fact that employees learn 70 percent of their skills on the job, according to the Center for Creative Leadership.3

Medical and legal internships are great examples of how schools and employers can work together to transfer experiential workplace knowledge. Students get an opportunity to work in a live workplace environment where they can learn soft skills such as professionalism, work ethic, teamwork, and customer service. Roleplay that simulates situations such as delivering a sales presentation or handling a customer complaint is another tool both employers and schools can use to impart experiential learning.

Teaching Experience Online

For career colleges, it is particularly important to be able to convey experiential learning online. A variety of tools can assist with this process. Video tutorials can guide students through step-by-step procedures. Tools such as screen capture and online tests can help educators verify that students are accurately following along. Texting, voice chat and audio chat enable communication that simulates the face-to-face atmosphere of a workplace environment, including situations a student may encounter on the job such as handling online customer service.


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Resources: Photo Credit (1) Experiential Learning Center: What is Experiential Learning? (2) SUU hosts inaugural Experiential Learning Leadership Institute (3) The 70-20-10 Rule