Experiential Learning: The Secret to a Successful Classroom

Experiential learning is a term that people outside the field of career and technical education (CTE) may have heard, but not given much consideration to. What is experiential learning, where did it come from and why are so many CTE educators successfully adopting its ideas?

Let’s begin by stating what experiential learning is not. It is not a middle school class memorizing slides about vegetation stages. It is not a high school architecture team watching a movie about bridge construction. It is not a group of child care career students reading a textbook about parenting. It is not sitting on the sidelines and watching.

Experiential learning is getting your hands dirty and engaging with a subject, becoming active and creating meaning from an experience. It is a middle school class growing a garden, a high school architecture team building a bridge out of Popsicle sticks or an early childhood education class interacting with infant simulators to learn parenting and child care career skills.Albert_Einsteinwquote

For a deeper understanding of experiential learning, let’s start at the beginning. The idea originated from American educational theorist David Kolb. With influence from theorists John Dewey, Kurt Lewin, and Jean Piaget, David published in 1984 a fundamental presentation of holistic learning that accounted for how perception, emotions and environment affected a learner. Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory consisted of four stages that can occur once or repeatedly, but are always followed in order:

  • Concrete Experience, where the learner actively experiences a lesson.
  • Reflective Observation, where the learner looks back on that experience.
  • Abstract Hypotheses, where the learner considers the concepts they just observed.
  • Active Testing, where the learner tests their observations.

This experiential learning theory suggests that because learning is a personal act to fulfil one’s potential, the learner must take an active part in their experience. Learning is student-centered and personalized.

Research shows that a more personalized learning experience helps students turn everyday lessons into memorable experiences. In fact, the National Training Laboratories reports that we retain 75 percent of what we learn by doing and only five percent when just listening.

This concept is successfully being used in CTE classrooms, where rigorous academics are combined with hands-on career experience.The average high school graduation rate for CTE students, as reported by the Association for Career and Technical Education, is 90.18 percent, compared to an average national graduation rate of 74.9 percent. The idea and structure of experiential learning first seamlessly into these hands-on classrooms, where teachers are preparing youth for future careers.


Could experiential learning be the link to this higher graduation? If so, how can we implement it more fully into our classrooms? Share your thoughts in the comments below!