Definition & Elements

Defining Experiential Education

The field of experiential education is well developed and researched, so we’ve adopted this definition from one of the prominent contributors to the field.

Experiential education is 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 engage in the world.

Definition adapted from the Association for Experiential Education.

Core Elements

The following core elements play key roles in making a course, assignment, or learning opportunity a robust example of experiential education.

Authentic Context:

Experiences are intentionally designed to connect to learning outcomes and course content, and directly connect with or take place in an applied context.


Quality reflection, critical analysis, and synthesis are necessary for experiences to be educative. Reflection is dynamic, examining critically the self, experience, and context in multiple forms, and iterative – happening before, during, and after the experience. Reflection is aimed toward personal and academic growth, as well as a deeper understanding of the social and political context for the experience. It is intentional, focused, and facilitated.

Active Participation:

Students are active agents, co-creators of the learning experience and producers of knowledge. They take initiative, make decisions, and are held accountable for the results. Students engage intellectually, creatively, emotionally, socially, or physically.

Instructors are content experts, but take on a role of learning facilitator rather than lecturer. They design the experience to include the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes, and successes. Instructors may set learning goals, but students must be active participants in meaning-making.

Community members are not just recipients or passive observers, but partners who actively engage with students as teachers and co-learners, contributing to the experience out of their own self-interest and goals.

Consider Your Impact

Experiential education does not take place in a vacuum, and thus impacts people and places beyond one’s class. Experiential education practitioners take into account and anticipate possible community impacts of the experience, and work with those involved to ensure that any impact is neutral or positive. This consideration is especially important in public work intentionally designed for community impact, but is also relevant to the design of research, field trips, etc.

For literature that informed this definition and core elements, see the resources on the “Further Reading” page.