Experiential Learning in Online Courses

Experiential learning is an educational approach that focuses on the real-life application of concepts learned in the classroom. The goal is to require students to integrate their knowledge by solving problems or completing tasks outside of traditional academic settings. Naturally, this type of learning encourages students to gain first-hand experience, which enhances their overall understanding of key topics.

Additionally, teaching students how to apply course content to their daily life allows them to grasp lessons better than they would through more common teaching methods. Experiential learning helps students develop important skills like problem-solving, teamwork, and critical thinking.

Experiential Learning Theory

The American philosopher and psychologist John Dewey is often regarded as one of the main proponents of experiential education. Dewey’s experiential learning theory derives from the notion that humans learn best by actively engaging in their environment. He believed that the process of taking in information and then applying it to real-world situations was more beneficial than simply being taught academic concepts in a classroom setting.

Since Dewey’s original theory, experiential learning has been widely studied by researchers in many fields. This method of learning has been shown to improve memory retention, increase student motivation, and enhance overall learning satisfaction. According to a study published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), experiential learners tend to engage more in the classroom and are more motivated to learn.

Why Is Experiential Learning Important?

Although conventional teaching methods can be effective for many people, some require a different approach to fully comprehend important information. In addition, some individuals learn more effectively when they are placed in situations that are similar to what they will face after completing education or training programs. Since experiential learning occurs outside the classroom, instructors must carefully choose activities based on how well they anticipate each student will respond. The following are some reasons why experiential learning is essential for today’s learners.

1. It Teaches Real-World Skills

Experiential learning allows students to gain skills that will aid them in navigating through life outside of the academic realm. People who have taken classes that employ this teaching method report having better problem-solving abilities, enhanced teamwork skills, and increased confidence compared to their peers who did not learn using this technique.

Classes that involve experiential learning help students develop useful real-world skills instead of focusing on theoretical concepts they will not encounter after completing the program.

2. It Encourages Active Learning

In traditional educational settings, students are often passive recipients of knowledge who listen to a lecture and then complete an assignment that is based on the lecture’s content. This type of learning fails to encourage critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity. On the other hand, experiential learning encourages active participation from students by requiring them to use their knowledge and skills to complete tasks or projects. This helps students develop important skills that they will actually be able to use later in life.

3. It Promotes Engagement and Motivation

In order for students to learn, they must be engaged in the learning process. When students are not motivated, they are likely to lose focus and become bored. Experiential learning is an engaging teaching method that helps students remain interested in the material being covered.

Additionally, when students are motivated, they tend to take risks and challenge themselves more. This leads to better problem-solving and critical thinking skills.

4. It Helps Students Connect with Course Content

Many students struggle to see how the content covered in their courses is relevant to their lives. Experiential learning provides a way for students to make connections between the material being studied and the real world. This is especially beneficial for learners who may not enjoy traditional learning methods and struggle with retaining information. Additionally, experiential learning is a creative way to present material to students and help them understand concepts in an innovative manner.

5. It Teaches Teamwork and Cooperation

In order to complete many experiential learning activities, students must engage with other people in a team. This helps them develop important teamwork skills that can be applied in both academic and professional settings. When students work together, they must communicate effectively, share ideas, and collaborate to reach a common goal. This allows students to work efficiently in groups and learn how to resolve conflict within a group setting.

6. It Provides Opportunities for Reflection

Experiential learning activities provide an opportunity for students to reflect on what they have learned. Students tend to retain more information when activities are hands-on rather than a written assignment. This can lead to increased confidence and better academic performance. After participating in an experiential learning activity, students tend to have a greater understanding of the material covered and they are able to apply this knowledge more readily when presented with new concepts later in their studies.

7. It Builds Self Confidence

As students complete activities that require using or applying course concepts, they tend to feel more confident about their abilities, leading to increased motivation. The confidence boost helps students stay focused on actually completing the activity instead of feeling overwhelmed by it. Additionally, experiential learning pushes students out of their comfort zone, which helps them learn how to handle challenging experiences while staying motivated.

8. It Develops Effective Communication Skills

Experiential learning activities often require students to communicate with one another to complete a task. This allows students to develop important communication skills that can be applied in both academic and professional settings. When students are required to communicate effectively, they must listen attentively, ask questions, and paraphrase information to understand the other person’s point of view. This helps students learn how to communicate effectively with various types of people.

Examples of Experiential Learning Activities

There are many different types of experiential learning activities. They can vary greatly depending on the learning goal. However, there are some activities that appear frequently across different areas of learning. Here is a list of the most common experiential learning activities:

  • Hands-on activities
  • Role-playing
  • Outdoor education
  • Vocational courses
  • Service training programs
  • On-the-job training
  • Internships
  • Practicum
  • Environmental education
  • Field trips
  • Field work
  • Student exchange programs

Experiential Learning in an Online Environment

As most of the world suddenly transitioned into online modes of learning, experiential learning became a popular way to help people learn. Students are shown to learn more through hands-on learning, and experiential learning can still provide them with an engaging arena to explore concepts and build knowledge in a variety of disciplines — even in a virtual setting.

While experiential learning is often associated with face-to-face courses, many new technologies and tools are available that make experiential learning accessible in a virtual classroom.

Additionally, experiential learning can also be used in online courses with the same effects and benefits as when used in a physical setup. In fact, there are many advantages to using experiential learning in online courses.

1. It Keeps Online Classrooms Interactive

Since online courses are done virtually, active communication between instructor and student is needed to maintain student engagement throughout the duration of the class. Attention spans are generally short online and are also heavily dependent on the instructor’s charisma and teaching method, making experiential learning a perfect way to keep the learning environment interactive and interesting.

Experiential learning can help create an interactive classroom by encouraging students to share their experiences, ask questions, give feedback, work together, and more. This helps create a sense of community in the online classroom, which is beneficial for all students.

2. It Encourages Student-Centered Learning

Experiential learning activities encourage student-centered learning, where students are responsible for their own learning and not relying on their instructor to spoon-feed them information. In online courses, this can be accomplished by having students complete activities that allow them to explore concepts on their own, reflect on their findings, and then share with the class. This helps promote an active learning environment where students are taking charge of their own learning.


3. It Can Help Students Build Connections Outside the Classroom

It can be difficult to make new friends and connections when studying online. However, experiential learning can help break down the barriers of the virtual classroom and encourage students to connect with one another.

Since experiential learning activities often involve hands-on work, team projects, and engagement with local communities or organizations, they help students establish connections outside of the online classroom. These connections can be helpful when it comes to finding an internship or a job after graduation. In addition to having a stronger community in place outside of class, students feel more integrated with their online course and part of a greater community.

How to Effectively Implement Experiential Learning in a Virtual Classroom

Virtual experiential learning is done in much the same way as experiential learning in a traditional classroom. The instructor sets up an activity or encourages students to complete tasks outside of class that will help them build knowledge about the subject at hand. Now that the benefits of experiential learning in online courses have been discussed, it is important to know how to implement experiential learning in a virtual classroom effectively. Here are a few tips:

1. Use VR Technology and 360° Experiences

VR technology is just one of the many highly effective e-learning tools that can be used to facilitate experiential learning in online courses. 360° experiences can immerse students in a virtual environment that allows them to experience what it is like to be in a different place or situation. This helps make the experiential learning activity more engaging and realistic and give students first-hand experiences.


2. Utilize Interactive Tools

Tools such as discussion forums, wikis, blogs, and social media platforms can help encourage interactive learning between instructor and student. These tools also promote student-centered and experiential learning by having students explore the subject matter on their own and discuss it with one another.

3. Create Active Experiences Instead of Passive Learning

Passive learning is not very effective at facilitating experiential learning, which is why it is important to avoid using videos or other forms of passive experiential learning activities. This means no slide presentations (especially if there are no visuals with audio), audio lectures, and reading assignments that do not encourage any form of active engagement. Interactive tools like discussion boards, blogs, social media platforms, etc., help promote experiential learning through interactive listening or thought-provoking questions that require more than just a “yes” or “no” answer.

4. Use a Variety of Experiential Learning Models

There is a variety of experiential learning models designed with their own purposes and benefits. The experiential learning cycle is one such model that helps instructors design activities that promote experiential learning. Other models include problem-based learning, experiential education, and situated cognition. When designing experiential learning activities, it is important to consider the model you are using and what type of experiential learning it encourages.

5. Assess Student Learning Outcomes

It is important to assess student learning outcomes to ensure that experiential learning activities effectively promote the desired learning outcomes and experience. Assessment can take many forms, such as essay questions, reflection papers, interviews, and focus groups. Instructors should also consider ways to assess how well students were able to apply their knowledge and skills to new situations.


Examples of Experiential Learning Design Models

When it comes to experiential learning in online courses, a few popular design models can be used. Each model has its own set of benefits and drawbacks.

  • Problem-Based Learning – Problem-based learning is experiential learning that focuses on the acquisition of knowledge through solving problems. This experiential learning method encourages students to explore new concepts through guided inquiry-based scenarios from real-life situations. It also helps teach students how to apply learned knowledge and skills in new situations by teaching them to solve problems using different methods.
  • Case-Based Learning – Case-based learning is experiential learning that uses real-life scenarios to help students learn. In this type of learning, students are given a case (a problem or situation) and asked to identify the problem, analyze the information, and develop a solution. This type of experiential learning helps promote critical thinking skills, as well as analytical and problem-solving skills.
  • Project-Based Learning – Project-based learning is experiential learning that focuses on the completion of a project. In this type of learning, students are given a project to work on that requires the use of skills and knowledge they have learned. This type of experiential learning helps students learn how to apply what they have learned in a real-world setting and promotes teamwork and collaboration.
  • Inquiry-Based Learning – Inquiry-based experiential learning focuses on promoting experiential learning by asking students questions. In this type of experiential learning, instructors ask guiding questions to encourage students to explore different concepts and determine for themselves how those concepts work. This allows students to discover new knowledge for themselves rather than being told the answer.

Final Thoughts

Experiential learning is a great way to engage students in online courses and increase their level of retention. It also helps foster a deeper connection between instructor and student, creating an environment where learning is interesting and rewarding.

Author: Mario Buljan

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