What Does Experiential Education Mean?

Nov 12, 2014 8:14:12 AM / by Dr. Michael Woolf

Thoughts on Education Abroad” is a monthly column written by CAPA International Education's Deputy President and Chief Academic Officer Dr. Michael Woolf.

This month, Dr. Woolf takes a look at experiential education, how we define it and an example of learning outside of the traditional classroom setting is integrated into CAPA study abroad programs.

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There is an intrinsic recognition of the value of experiential education in study abroad. An embedded assumption in our core philosophy is that there is value in what we might encounter outside of the classroom: student learning is enhanced outside of the national classroom walls through analysis and exploration of, and engagement with, a world elsewhere. We learn, we assume, by leaving home and tottering uneasily into the relatively unfamiliar.

The problem is, however, that all experience (good, bad, damaging, enlivening, embarrassing, painful or otherwise) is to some degree educational -- perhaps not death, but who knows? Hamlet, who was a study abroad student suffering real re-entry problems, contemplated: “The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn No Traveler returns”.

Photo: CAPA Dublin students on a MyEducation excursion to Belfast

It is probably unproductive to worry too much about what we may learn post-mortem but pre-death we know, for sure, that all experience teaches us some kind of a lesson. Dogs and rats are really good at learning through experience. It follows that as educators (not dog handlers) we need to distinguish theoretically and practically between “learning through experience” (sit, fetch, don’t do that Rover!) and “experiential education” (the agenda through which we try and teach our students). If all experience is in one way or another educational, the challenge is to create experiences that translate into, and interrelate with, credible academic objectives.

Obviously, experience alone is not enough: it needs to be integrated into formal learning intentionally and systematically so that there are clear ways in which academic study is enhanced. There needs to be a necessary transaction between formal and informal learning.

We also need a more coherent description of the benefit of experiential education abroad. At the core of the idea is that experiential education makes connections between academic content and the world beyond the classroom. Such connections are a key component, implicitly or explicitly, in education abroad and are frequently the distinguishing factor between education on campus and education overseas. They enact the Chinese proverb: “To know and not to do is to not yet know,” or, more precisely, John Dewey’s dictum (1938) that “there is an intimate and necessary relation between the process of actual experience and education.”

The crucial concept is that of connection. In that way we answer the question – why study abroad? It is commendable to study urbanization in the rural wastes of New Mexico, for example, but it is profound, powerful and formative to combine that knowledge with observation and participation in one of the world’s great cities.


At CAPA we endeavor to make those connections real through the following mechanisms: Our programs are located in major urban conurbations. The challenge of negotiating those environments is substantial for our students (many of whom come from suburban or rural locations). In the program we call “MyEducation” we select relevant opportunities thematically around our key learning objectives: globalization, urbanization and social dynamics, for example. Students are given a structured means of engagement with the host society in an intentional and strategic manner. The themes are “intellectual maps” within which students may explore and analyze their environment: imaginative constructs, pathways through the global cities in which we are located.

Photo: CAPA London students on a MyEducation tour of the BBC Broadcasting House

We aim to create a transaction between formal and informal learning and to make the division between different modes of learning porous. The thematic organization of events is crucial: it creates structure and meaning around the myriad of activities open to students. In this way, we translate learning through experience into experiential education.

Experiential education is usually, broadly, defined in two ways (though the two dimensions are not, and should not, be discreet). Formal dimensions are embodied in field research visits, internships and service learning. Informal learning is an enhancement and extension to the overall experience. It recognizes that learning outside of the classroom and beyond conventional academic structure is a significant part of what students may gain. It is an area in which students are empowered to take personal responsibility for what they choose to learn.

“MyEducation” operates at the intersection of formal and informal experiential education. Parts of the program can be adapted and adopted, integrated into the formal curriculum as either a recommendation or a requirement. In this manner there is a direct transaction between all forms of learning: an attempt to enrich and extend the student experience. Students are empowered to choose those pathways that are of most interest and relevance. It is, therefore, a crucial and concrete mechanism for the individualization of education abroad.

The objectives are to create intentionally defined pathways through which students may explore their urban environment; to enable students to choose themes that are relevant to their studies or relate to a field of interest; to make specific connections between theory and practice through observation and participation. The key to standards in experiential education is precisely the capacity to make these connections explicit in the learning objectives.


There is a skepticism among some colleagues in academia and beyond about the validity of our endeavors. While our colleagues may or may not recognize the personal value of education abroad, they do not inevitably accept that what is learned is worthy of academic parity. Education abroad may be discouraged or seen as a mere frippery.

Photo: A MyEducation event in Sydney - an Abroiginal culture cruise

None of this is exclusively driven by commitment to experiential education but it is intensified in that context because the promotion of experiential education has tended to focus on the where (location) not the what (a missed opportunity to demonstrate the value of connecting doing with thinking). In consequence, conservative academics have been given evidence with which to beat us over our innovative heads. Furthermore, the real educational value of our endeavors has been undermined by our own inflated rhetoric and enthusiastic imprecision. We have tended to discuss the benefits of education abroad in terms of values (such as tolerance) and “inter/cross-cultural” foci rather than measurable learning benefits. Thus, we have conspired in undermining our own credibility.


The interaction between formal and informal learning and the creation of credible connections between the two is an essential prerequisite for enriching the learning experience of students studying abroad. Those connections are the core to our credibility and the rationale for a genuine understanding of the immense value of experiential education. In E. M. Forster’s Howard’s End (1910) one of the central figures exhorts us as follows: “Only connect! Only connect the prose and the passion…Live in fragments no longer.” That is why we believe in what we do and why we want our students to do more than simply reside abroad. Our ambition is to create intentional strategies by which analysis is inextricably interwoven with exploration so that the city itself is not just a place of residence but becomes transformed into a landscape of enlightenment.

Thanks Mike!

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Topics: International Education