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Career Development

Experiential Learning Theory

"We don't receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us." - Marcel Proust

Experiential Learning


Experiential learning is an approach to education that has grown in popularity over the past twenty years. This type of learning occurs when students participate in some activity, reflect upon the activity, use their analytical skills to derive some useful insight from the experience, and then incorporate their new understanding(s) into their daily lives. What experiential learning does best is capture the interest and involvement of the participants, but most importantly it contributes significantly to the transfer of learning.

The CTE Intro program, utilizes experiential learning activities on a daily basis. Therefore, an understanding of the basic principles of experiential learning theory is essential if teachers are to help students maximize their experience in CTE Intro . Although experiential learning models vary from theorist to theorist, it is generally agreed that there are four important phases that comprise the experiential learning cycle (see figure 1).

1. Experiencing (See Figure 1)

Our CTE Intro classes are made up of hundreds of experiences. Once specific learning objectives goals here are identified, many different types of activities can be utilized to accomplish them. What is most important though is not just the quantity and quality of these structured experiences, but what students learn from each experience. If the experiential learning process stops after this stage, all learning is left to chance, and teachers have not fulfilled their responsibility for facilitating meaningful learning.


"The belief that all genuine education comes about through experience does not mean that all experiences are genuinely or equally educative."
-John Dewey

2. Reflecting

Since experience alone is insufficient to ensure that learning takes place, a need exists to integrate the new experience with past experiences. This reflective process is what transforms an experience into experiential learning. During the reflecting stage, students who have experienced an activity must take time to look back and examine what they saw, felt, and thought about during the activity. Effective reflection enhances the richness of the experience, so it stands out and apart, like lines on a page underlined with a yellow highlighter.

"Everything that happens to you is your teacher. The secret is to learn to sit at the feet of your own life and be taught by it." 
-Polly B. Berends

3. Generalizing

The meaningful question in this phase of experiential learning is "So what?" The primary task is for students to identify patterns which will help them make inferences from a specific experience to everyday life. Since the human brain does not input facts into memory in the same manner as is done by a computer, emotions, thoughts, behaviors, and observations must all be taken into account. Learning takes place when the brain is allowed to sort out patterns and construct meaning based on experiences. Brain researchers have concluded that this type of learning results in the opening of new or enlarged neural pathways in the brain.

"The more powerful, significant, or varied the experience or stimuli which initiated the learning, the stronger and more numerous are the synaptic connections, resulting in better understanding." 
-R. W. Dozier Jr.

4. Applying

The key question of this stage is "Now What?" Effective use of this questions allows teachers to assist their students in planning ways to put into action the generalizations they have learned in the previous stages. This process of focusing attention from the structured experience to the outside world is what makes experiential learning practical and meaningful. When this step is overlooked or neglected, the learning is likely to be shallow and short-term. Conversely, when the applying stage if skillfully carried out, individuals are able to grow significantly. As a result they develop increased ability to make wise choices concerning future experiences they will engage in as the experiential learning cycle continues throughout life.

The Role of Processing (See Figure 2)

Processing is designed to encourage individuals to plan, describe, reflect upon, analyze, and
communicate about their experiences. As shown in figure 2, processing can be viewed as the driving force behind the experiential learning cycle, much like the sun's energy drives the weather cycle of the earth. Processing can occur prior to, during, and after the experience. Those teachers who become skilled processors of experiential learning activities provide their students with avenues to bring their thoughts feelings, insights, metaphors, and behavior patterns from the unconscious level to the surface.


Tips for Maximizing Student Learning in CTE Intro

Now What? Applying the Learning

Maximizing the Experience
Utilize CTE Intro curriculum standards to continue providing quality and comprehensive content.
Plan time in all lessons for the processing of the experience.
Review and evaluate the orientation days curriculum:

  • Is it laying a good foundation of understanding of the CTE Intro experience?
  • Does it overwhelm or confuse the process?

Maximizing the Reflection
Provide reflection time in each lesson through:

  • Personal think time
  • Introspection through writing
  • Group discussions

Utilize better the built-in tools outlined in the CTE Intro curriculum:

  • Record Book
  • Questions built into the lessons
  • Visuals such as the Learning Styles Poster and videos

Simple thought questions:

  • Did you like today's activity? Why or Why Not?
  • How did you feel as you completed your project?

Maximizing the Generalization
Look for and point out to students patterns such as:

  • Their general likes and dislikes of activities, projects, assignments
  • What activities were easier for them to complete and why?
  • What rotation of CTE Intro did you like the best and why?
  • What general information from UtahFutures seems to consistently describe
  • the student?
  • Does your learning style fit certain career areas better than others?
  • And another hundred questions you can think of related to the CTE Intro process

Maximizing the Application
Make good use of the Home Link Activities to help students bridge the learning
gap from the structured classroom activities to actual life situations

Ask questions that indicate student understanding as it applies to real life
such as:

  • What has been the student's personal experience with the subject at hand?
  • How do you see this learning affecting your life?
  • How do you plan to use this new knowledge or understanding?

Tips for Maximizing the Whole Program

Utilize better team planning time

Try to avoid scheduling Career Development Lessons on short day schedules

Organize and display class occupation lists using the Career Cluster Areas

Take time to explore and become familiar with the Utah Futures


Taken from Processing the Experience by John L. Luckner and Reldon S. Nadler. Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1997, used by permission.