Exploring and refining the value of ‘experiential’ learning in higher education

Photo credit: © Mihaela Bodlovic 2019 Festival of Creative Learning

In this extra post, Dr. Jule Hildmann, a Senior Research Fellow in Outdoor Environmental Education at Moray House School of Education and Sport, and Dr Andy Cross, Impact Coordinator for the School of GeoSciences, discuss the outcomes of a PTAS-funded project, which explores how an experiential learning framework can be used for designing and evaluating more ‘experiential’ courses…


Experiential Learning (EL) has become a bit of a buzzword in education. However, the broad nature of EL has meant that it is only captured in limited frameworks, with the result that EL techniques and advantages are employed only marginally in higher education. What exactly makes a course ‘experiential’ though? How relevant are these factors for students’ learning and growth? These questions were pursued by a recent PTAS project across three schools at The University of Edinburgh, where an EL framework was tested that could be used for designing and evaluating more ‘experiential’ courses.

The study

A theoretical framework – outlined previously in Simon Beames’ blog – of six defining factors (Continuity, Authenticity, Agency, Emotional Engagement, Support and Reflection) was tested on four courses selected as having strong elements of EL. These courses were in: Geosciences, Community Education, Law, and Outdoor Environmental Education.

Online surveys were conducted with past and current students eliciting their key learning and challenges, and views on specific course aspects. Data were analysed quantitatively and qualitatively and triangulated with responses from semi-structured group interviews of all cohorts, indicating which of the framework’s factors students found relevant for their learning and socio-emotional growth.

Insights gained

Across the courses, all six factors were shown to be beneficial to students’ learning and growth. Some factors proved more relevant than others however, and some exhibited internal connections that help us understand and implement EL as a pedagogical approach. For example:

The factor with the strongest impact on student growth was when courses had a ‘real life’ connection (Authenticity). Students reported this made the course more meaningful in the present, and helped them see more value and purpose for their future life – both professionally and personally (Continuity).

The factors Agency and Support showed an important inter-relation: Students want some ownership (Agency) over what is covered, where and how the learning takes place, and what their individual role and contributions are. However, without guidance (Support) on what is possible and how it can be achieved, many feel overburdened and lost. If on the other hand students feel that too much is predetermined for them (i.e. too much Support), then they feel disempowered and demotivated.

In order to find the sweet spot of Support and Agency, it is crucial to recognise that the amount and kind of support desired/required by students is highly individual. We therefore need to enable good communication regarding what would be ideal for each cohort or student – a flexibility that can be taxing on staff workload. Interestingly though, many students did not actually make use of the support offered. It was merely crucial (as a safety net) to know that support was available if needed! Maybe this could be an indicator towards a manageable path for many programmes.

Surprisingly for us, Emotional Involvement came up as least relevant for learning. In fact, it was the only factor that received any negative scores, implying that some students experienced stress that hindered their development. Text responses revealed that this came mostly from conflicts which timetabling and workload pressure caused between studies and other life commitments – particularly for part-time students. Again, some more Agency and flexibility might remedy this.

And finally, students who were given tools and space for Reflection reported more growth. Responses suggest that this is also why past students overall scored their course experiences more positively than current ones: They had more time and occasion to reflect on their experience, and have seen more of that future application value (Continuity) come to fruition. Reflection activities guided towards future professional practice were seen to increase motivation and contextual anchoring.

The factors of the Experiential Learning framework inter-relate to enhance learning and growth.


Our EL framework holds across widely different courses and disciplines. The insights gained into how certain factors interact, suggest tangible measures to optimise the learning and socio-emotional growth students can gain from a course. This can serve as guidance for designing and facilitating more ‘experiential’ courses in higher education.

More detailed findings and statistical data are in preparation for publication in an academic journal later this year.

Find out more about Experiential Learning on the Centre for Experiential Learning website.

This PTAS project was conducted by Andy Cross (Lead / project coordinator), Simon Beames, Margaret Petrie, Rebecca Samaras, and Jule Hildmann.

Jule Hildmann

Jule is member of the Outdoor Environmental Education Unit of Moray House School of Education and Sports. Her teaching and research focuses on personal and social development, and educational leadership. Jule is certified as school teacher, and her PhD explored teaching and learning of the curriculum in experiential ways. She has been an active (indoor and outdoor) practitioner for experiential learning for 15 years, and train-the-trainer at the Centre for Experiential Education (CEP, Germany) for over 10 years, with a range of publications and training courses delivered in Europe and abroad.

Andy Cross

Dr Andy Cross is the Impact Coordinator for the School of GeoSciences, and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He leads the GeoSciences Outreach course, is a tutor on the SLICCs course, and is interested in the broader uptake and promotion of experiential learning. Andy is currently leading another PTAS project exploring the wider societal impacts of student community projects.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *