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Learning from experience: What the student does

By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third, by experience, which is the bitterest. (Confucius)

Today the focus has moved from what the teacher does in the learning context to what the student does and the relationship between learning and experience. This is based on extensive research into student learning in higher education.

Experiential learning

Experiential learning is as an ongoing process where experience is generated through our ongoing engagement with the world (Kolb,1984). Learning and experience can not be separated. Experiences shape and reshape our ideas as we progress through four stages:

  1. Concrete experience
  2. Reflective observation
  3. Abstract conceptualisation
  4. Active experimentation

See The University of Leicester information on David Kolb for further information.

As students learn from experience they may engage in a process of trying to resolve the conflict between contradictory ideas. This is ‘cognitive conflict’ (Piaget, 1930) and ‘cognitive dissonance’ (Festinger, 1957). Learning may therefore also involve the ‘unlearning of old habits and ways of thinking (Cochran-Smith, 2003, McWilliam, 2008).

Not all students learn as effectively as each other from experience but as teachers we can create the conditions to make it more likely they will (Boud, Cohen & Walker, 1993). We can support learners to challenge their assumptions and ideas and through this process develop new knowledge based on this exploration.

How does experiential learning relate to good learning and teaching?

Experiential learning is one of the foundations of Work-Integrated Learning (WIL) programs (also known as internships, practicum, collaborative learning, service learning, career development learning and experience based learning). WIL is also the foundation of the FULT MOOCS where participants are expected to relate what they learning to their workplace context.

Work-integrated learning is generally described as an intentional integration of theory and practical knowledge through a teaching and learning program (Orrell, 2011).

Talking point

How do you learn best? Through theory, observation or experience? Post your response.


Boud, D., Cohen, R., & Walker, D. (Eds) (1993). Using experience for learning. Buckingham: SRHE and Open University Press

Cochran-Smith, M. (2003). Learning and unlearning: the education of teacher educators. Teaching and Teacher Education, 19, 5–28.

Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Kolb, D. A. (2014). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. FT press.

McWilliam, E. (2008). Unlearning how to teach. Innovations in Education and Teaching International, 45(3), 263-269.

Orrell, J. (2011). Good Practice Report: Work-integrated learning. Sydney: The Australian Learning and Teaching Council.

Piaget, J. (1930). The child’s conception of physical causality. London: Routledge.

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This article is from the free online course:

Introduction to Learning and Teaching in Higher Education

UNSW Sydney