Experiential education: Defining features for curriculum and pedagogy

exp ed photo feature
Credit: Simon Beames

In this post, Dr Simon Beames, senior lecturer in Outdoor Learning at Moray House School of Education, provides a research-based overview of what comprises ‘experiential learning’…

In the field of outdoor learning it is not uncommon to hear people wax lyrical about how ‘experiential’ the content of a given course is or was.  The trouble is that most folk have their own ideas of what a course that has experiential elements comprises.  If we strive to make our programmes more experiential, we need to have a precise and shared definition of what experiential education is.  Here are three popular definitions, in varied lengths!

  • Short: Learning by doing combined with reflection (Priest & Gass, 2017, p. 45).
  • Medium: Challenge and experience followed by reflection leading to learning and growth (Association for Experiential Education, n.d.).
  • Long: …a philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities (Association for Experiential Education, n.d.).

Even armed with these definitions, it still difficult to know if our current teaching approaches are experiential or how we might make them more experiential.  To that end, four colleagues and myself[i]constructed a theoretical framework of experiential education that is centred around six defining features.

  1. Continuity: The context needs to be connected to previous experiences, knowledge and skills and lead to further growth and learning (Dewey, 1938). How does the content in the last session relate to today’s (and next week’s?)
  2. Authenticity: The tasks need to serve a real-world need and be a ‘process of living’ rather than a ‘preparation for future living’ (Beames & Brown, 2016; Dewey, 1938). Students should consider the ethical implications of their practice for the people with whom they are engaged. To what degree are the course activities focused on concrete, local phenomena or tackling pressing community issues?
  3. Agency: Participants need to have the power to follow their curiosity and drive, and negotiate what is being learned and how it is being learned (Beames & Brown, 2016; Deci & Ryan, 1987; Mercer, 2011).  How much choice do students have to shape their own learning and assessment?
  4. Emotional engagement: Students are emotionally invested in the project and will experience the joys and frustrations associated with developing higher levels of knowledge and skills (Moon, 2004; Boud & Miller, 1996).  What activities have you incorporated into your teaching that will elicit rich emotional engagement with the learning material?
  5. Support: The learning environment needs to be a safe one, in which participants can experiment and fail without excessive social and/or physical consequences (Chapman, McPhee & Proudman, 1995). ‘Autonomy support’ will also come from educators who are able to give just enough guidance for students to experience success as they work relatively independently (Stefanou et al., 2004).  How does your teaching space lend itself to students working creatively and collaboratively, but as autonomously as possible from you (the educator)?
  6. Reflection: Participants need to critically reflect on what is going/went well and what is / did not (and their role in this), and deeply consider how this will inform what they do next (Boud et al., 1993; Schon, 1983).  Crucially, reflection is not something that happens at the end of a course, but should be sprinkled-in throughout.  What activities have you put in place for students to reflect on what they have learned and how this can be applied after your course finishes?

As you’ll have noticed, each of the defining features has a question that educators can ask of themselves.  Of course, one doesn’t have to ‘score’ highly in each of these areas to be an effective teacher, but I would challenge teaching staff to think about how they might try to tweak their course delivery in one or two of the above domains, thus making their teaching more experiential!

[i]Dr. Andy Cross is leading a PTAS project assessing the nature of experiential education in the internships and placements on four different degree programmes.  A report on the project is forthcoming!


Association for Experiential Education. (n.d). What is experiential education? Retrieved from https://www.aee.org/what-is-ee

Beames, S. & Brown, M. (2016). Adventurous learning. New York: Routledge.

Boud, D., & Miller, N. (1996). Working with experience: Animating learning. London: Routledge.

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

Chapman, S., McPhee, P., & Proudman, B. (1995). What is experiential education? In Warren,K. (Ed.), The theory of experiential education (pp. 235-248). Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt.

Deci, E. & Ryan, R. (1987). The support of autonomy and the control of behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53(6), 1024-1037.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and education. New York: Collier Books.

Mercer, S. (2011) Understanding learner agency as a complex dynamic system. System, 39, 427-436.

Moon, J. (2004). A handbook of reflective and experiential learning: Theory and practice. New York: RoutledgeFalmer.

Priest, S., & Gass, M. (2017). Effective leadership in adventure programming. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Schön, D. (1983). The reflective practitioner. How professionals think in action. London: Temple Smith.

Stefanou, C., Perencevich, K., DiCintio, M., & Turner, J. (2004). Supporting autonomy in the classroom: Ways teachers encourage student decision making and ownership. Educational Psychologist, 39(2), 97-110.

Simon Beames

Simon Beames is a senior lecturer in the Outdoor Education Section of the Moray House School of Education. For nearly 25 years, Simon has taught outdoors in North America, Asia, and Europe. He is former co-editor of the Journal of Experiential Education and former Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Simon developed the Outdoor Journeys programme – a cross-curricular, local outdoor learning initiative.

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