5R Adult Learning Assignment 7: Experiential Learning

Synopsis/Reflection – Experiential Learning: Summary, Reflection and Praxis

Experiential learning has been the major hallmark of my formal higher education in many ways. From my experience in the 5th grade when I shadowed my sister during her music theory and application classes at Southwestern University to my undergraduate and first graduate degrees in Chemistry to my current experience finishing up my Statistics M.S. and continuing on my path to the Ph.D. in Learning Sciences, my college experience has been filled with learning experiences that require all of my energy, time, and thought for specific timeframes, much of which echo Lindeman’s (1926/1961, p. 7) assertion that “experience is the adult learner’s living textbook” (as read in Merriam & Bierema, 2014, p.106).

Merriam, Caffarella, & Baumgartner (2007) detail Fenwick’s (2003) four dimensions of experience that allow for (and perhaps even encourage) learning, which include: learning from direct experience, learning from simulated experience (or reliving a past experience), learning from experience through collaboration with others in a community (often called a community of practice), or learning through introspective experiences. Figure 1 below shows the definition, purpose, and composition of a community of practice.

Figure 1. On the left, we see the definition and purpose of a Community of Practice as defined by Jean Lové and Etienne Wenger. On the right, the figure shows the anatomy of a Community of Practice, which consists of a coordinator, a core group, an active group, and periphery participants. (Smith, 2019a)

Communities of practice can help us process and reflect upon any of the four dimensions of learning experience and encourage us to learn beyond the constraints of those dimensions, seeking out new learning experiences in new contexts. My experience with the communities of practice I have engaged with has been mostly as a peripheral participant, and I appreciate the ability to drop in as needed.

In addition to dimensions of experience, there are different theoretical conceptions of experiential learning. Fenwick’s (2003, pg. 38) five perspectives include: 1. reflecting on concrete experience through a constructivist perspective, which requires making meaning of those experiences; 2. a situated perspective of participating in a community of practice; 3. a psychoanalytic perspective that realizes and uses unconscious desires or fears to enhance learning; 4. a critical cultural perspective which resists dominant social norms of experience; and 5. an ecological perspective grounded in complexity theory that explores ecological relationships between cognition and environment (as read in Merriam et al., 2007). These five perspectives allow us to see learning through different lenses and to apply the best lens for specific learning contexts as needed.

There are also multiple models of experiential learning. John Dewey’s (1938) experiential learning model stated that the experience of learning must exhibit both continuity and interaction. “…Continuity of experience means that every experience both takes up something from those which have gone before and modifies in some way the quality of those which come after” (Dewey, 1938, p. 27). Interaction, for Dewey (1938, p. 41) says “an experience is always what it is because of a transaction taking place between individual and what, at the time, constitutes his environment.” (As read in Merriam et al., 2007, p. 162)

Kolb’s (1984) model states that learning from experience requires four different kinds of abilities:

1. An openness and willingness to involve oneself in new experiences (concrete experiences);

2. observational and reflective skills so these new experiences can be viewed from a variety of perspectives (reflective observation);

3. analytical abilities so integrative ideas and concepts can be created from their observations (abstract conceptualization);

4. decision-making and problem-solving skills so these new ideas and concepts can be used in actual practice (active experimentation).” (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 164)

Figure 2 shows the interconnection of these abilities in what is commonly called Kolb’s experiential learning cycle.

Figure 2 Kolb learning

Figure 2. Kolb’s experiential learning cycle shows the process of moving from one ability to another in experiential learning. (Smith, 2019a)

Many critiques exist of Kolb’s model, and most of those critiques center around Kolb’s lack of consideration of the individual learner’s context. Jarvis (2006) proposed an experiential learning model that reflects the fact that students bring their biography with them to each experiential learning event. Figure 3 shows Jarvis’s model of experiential learning from the perspective of the individual’s transformation.

Figure 3 Jarvis Model

Figure 3. Jarvis’s model (2006, p. 16) showing the transformation of the person through experience. (Merriam et al., 2007, p. 101)

Jarvis’s model highlights the role that emotion, and indeed the whole person as well as their social context, plays within learning experiences. While learning is an interactive phenomenon, thought and reflection play a core role within the model. Because the model begins with an experience that cannot immediately be accommodated or assimilated within the context of the learner’s biography and prior experience and ends with the accommodation or assimilation of said experience within a transformed framework, Jarvis’s model, if followed to its completion, really details transformative experiential learning.

Usher, Bryant, and Johnston (1997) also broke the mold of previous experiential learning models; they developed a map of experiential learning, as experiences are never stagnant and, even if they occurred in the past, are constantly changing. Figure 4 shows the map of experiential learning Usher et al. (2007) developed.

Figure 4 Usher et al map

Figure 4. Usher et al.’s (1997, p. 106) map of experiential learning in the social practices of modernity. As found in Merriam et al. (2007, pg. 167).

Usher, Bryant and Johnston’s (1997) model of experiential learning is structured around a horizontal and a vertical set of continua that intersect. The autonomy and adaption continuum refers to the “empowerment of individuals to act independently to being able to adapt one’s actions in relation to a context” (Merriam et al., 2007, p.167). The expression and application continuum refers to “being able to apply what one know in real-world contexts” (Merriam et al., p. 167). The continua then divide the model into four quadrants – critical, lifestyle, vocational, and confessional – and experiential learning occurs within and between the quadrants.

I wanted to learn more about how experiential learning is applied in individual learning contexts, whether in the classroom or elsewhere. My research questions this week speak to the application of experiential learning within an interdisciplinary information literacy intervention in an advanced biochemistry class, within a chemical engineering laboratory class where the activities where explicitly mapped to Kolb’s experiential learning cycle, and within an industrial workplace setting that analyzed transmission of experiential knowledge within ongoing learning experiences. My research questions are:

  1. How can we apply the experiential learning model within the chemistry and chemical engineering classrooms?
  2. How can we apply informal experiential learning within the chemistry workplace?


Research – How do we apply experiential learning in Chemistry?

Experiential learning is already prevalent within the chemistry curriculum in the form of hands-on laboratory classes, which are required throughout any chemistry or chemical engineering degree coursework. Experiential learning is also a vital component of chemical technician training as a fair amount of tacit learning is required to successfully navigate the work of a chemical technician. So, finding experiential learning articles within the chemistry and chemical engineering fields was rather easy. However, I was looking for some novel and interesting applications of experiential learning, and those articles are the ones detailed below.

Cowden & Santiago (2016) provided an excellent example of experiential learning as a single class session. This session included a collaborative interdisciplinary problem-based lesson on information literacy and, specifically, literature reviews within an advanced biochemistry course. The interesting thing about this lesson is that most of the students in the class had already taken a “Chemical Literature” course after their Freshman year and yet still could not write an adequate literature review. The single class event was held in the library and guided by both the chemistry instructor and a librarian at the institution who each participated in the session and throughout the entire course as co-teachers of the material. Because the experience centered on the students’ issues and experiential learning, the session was well liked and resulted in a dramatic increase in student proficiency in writing literature reviews.

Abdulwahed and Nagy (2009) developed a novel laboratory education model that mapped lab activities to Kolb’s experiential learning model (Figure 2). The reason why this model was developed was to overcome poor student preparation for lab activities within an undergraduate chemical engineering process control laboratory class, and the lab model includes both virtual and in-class components. Table 1 shows the mapping of the lab activities the authors developed to Kolb’s experiential learning model.

Table 1 Kolb and Lab

Table 1. The mapping of lab activities to Kolb’s experiential learning cycle. (Abdulwahed & Nagy, 2009, p. 291)

What was most fascinating here was the fact that the instruments – large experimental rigs controlled remotely with software that could be downloaded to individual computers – used in the lab class already lended themselves to virtual experiential learning lab activities. This pedagogical intervention was implemented an entire semester, and preliminary results showed a significant increase in pre-lab student preparation and understanding of the relevant concepts.

The classroom, of course, is not the only place experiential learning happens. Santos, Pereira, Silva, Cadilhe, and Cunha (2019) analyzed experiential learning within the chemical industry, especially in the context of the experiential transmission of knowledge, a work-based learning process in which training new technicians overlaps with industrial legacy planning. Transmission is, in part, concrete embodied experience where the technicians are trained on work activities in an ongoing real context through practice, and transmission is also, in part, a reflective experience in which mentors (seasoned workers) transmit to the mentee (new technicians) the why and how as well as the what to do when accomplishing the work activity task. The transmission of experiential knowledge (or tacit knowledge) while engaging in ongoing experiential learning opportunities was of particular interest to Santos et al. and they found that a training framework that combined both in-class training sessions and workplace mentoring accomplished this transmission of knowledge to new trainees.


Relate – How do we maximize the experience of learning for both our students and ourselves?

The question that remains is how to implement the models and framework of experiential learning so as to maximize the learning experience for our students and ourselves. As much as the theoretical models, frameworks, and specific examples help elucidate how experiential learning might be implemented most efficiently and effectively, unfortunately I believe the answer to this question lies in experience.

Smith (2015) explains his teaching transformation, borne out of experiential learning as a graduate T.A. and then as a professor, from perhaps a narrower world view where white privilege was prevalent to a wider world view where his students who were unlike him in race, culture, socio-economic status, etc. were the most essential players in his teaching and learning experience. I also feel like I learn the most from those who are the most unlike me in terms of demographics, culture, and experience. In championing their experience above my own, I learn not only about them but also about my prior knowledge and experience. As most of my students and peers have very little in common with me, they constantly provide an experiential learning opportunity for me to acknowledge and embrace – one that often transforms my world view. For that willingness to help me in my own experiential learning journey, I cherish and thank them.



Abdulwahed, M., & Nagy, Z. K. (2009). Applying Kolb’s Experiential Learning Cycle for Laboratory Education. Journal of Engineering Education, 98(3), 283–294. https://doi.org/10.1002/j.2168-9830.2009.tb01025.x

Cowden, C. D., & Santiago, M. F. (2016). Interdisciplinary Explorations: Promoting Critical Thinking via Problem-Based Learning in an Advanced Biochemistry Class. Journal of Chemical Education, 93(3), 464–469. https://doi.org/10.1021/acs.jchemed.5b00378

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

Fenwick, T. (2003). Learning through experience: Troubling orthodoxies and intersecting questions. Malabar, FL: Krieger.

Jarvis, P. (2006). Towards a comprehensive theory of human learning. London, UK: Routledge.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Lindeman, E. C. (1926/1961). The meaning of adult education in the United States. New York City, NY: Harvest House.

Merriam, S. B., & Bierema, L. L. (2014). Adult learning: Linking theory and practice. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood: A comprehensive guide (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Santos, M., Pereira, C., Silva, D., Cadilhe, M. A., & Cunha, L. (2019). Developing a mentoring programme in the chemical industry: From conceptual development to implementation follow-up. Journal of Workplace Learning, 31(1), 42–58. https://doi.org/10.1108/JWL-09-2017-0081

Smith, G. A. (2016). Transformed by the learners. In S. D. Longerbeam and A. F. Chávez (Eds.), Going inward: The role of cultural introspection in college teaching. New York City, NY: Peter Lang Publishing.

Smith, G. A. (2019a). Video Warm-Up: Experiential and Situated Learning. Retrieved from Bb Learn: https://learn.unm.edu/webapps/blackboard/execute/displayLearningUnit?course_id=_70958_1&content_id=_4216281_1

Smith, G. A. (2019b). Video Warm-Up: Transformational learning. Retrieved from Bb Learn: https://learn.unm.edu/webapps/blackboard/execute/displayLearningUnit?course_id=_70958_1&content_id=_4216282_1

Usher, R., Bryant, I., & Johnston, R. (1997). Adult education and the post-modern challenge: Learning beyond the limits. New York City, NY: Routledge.


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