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Experiential learning cycle

This learning cycle can be applied to all activities where students learn through doing. Students need to process content material in order to derive meaning from it and to construct knowledge associated with it. A common approach used to facilitate this is the experiential learning cycle, which "begins with activity, moves through reflection, then to generalizing and abstracting and finally to transfer" (Henton, 1996, page 39).

When designing activities, it is important to remember that the purpose is to create situations where students get to work with the relevant content. Teachers do not require students to provide correct answers to preconceived questions; rather, students are invited to delve into the topic, asking their own questions and gaining an insight into the process of constructing knowledge and understanding. Teachers observe their students closely during each session and identify the gaps in their knowledge base or skills in order to adjust the activity and their own teaching accordingly. (This description is adapted from Henton, 1996.)

Experiential learning is described as a four-phase cycle (Henton, 1996).

  • Teachers select one or more activities (experiences) in order to demonstrate a concept or raise questions. The experience should enable students to engage with the topic in as many ways as possible.
  • In the reflection phase, students query and review what they have done. The focus is on facts, so students should ask questions that begin with "what". As they examine different answers, they develop skills for critical thinking.
  • In the generalising and abstracting phase, students are able to examine the experience at a deeper level. They think about the meaning of the factual information they gathered from the questions they used in the reflecting phase. Students are encouraged to examine abstract concepts and make connections between ideas and their actual experience. They also look at what they have learned and hypothesise about where to go to next. Learners ask 'how', 'what if', and 'so what' questions.
  • The transfer phase is when students begin to apply the knowledge they have gained to the next activity or to their daily lives. They should use questions that begin with 'now what'. At this stage, students may go on to take critical action.

Teachers' note:Experiential learning cycle example

For an example of using the experiential learning cycle in a physical education context, refer to Attitudes and Values: Olympic Ideals in Physical Education (pages 17 and 18) in The Curriculum in Action series.

The experiential learning cycle process encourages learners to think more deeply, develop critical-thinking skills, and transfer their learning into action through successive phases of the cycle. The learning cycle may develop into a spiral. The phases are revisited, and students' conceptual understandings and strategies for change are developed further each time. They discover more about both the practical limits and the wider applications of their new knowledge as they begin to take what they learned in one situation and use it in another, demonstrating what they have learned.

This approach has the following advantages:

  • Students develop their critical-thinking skills as they move through and repeat the phases (rather than being expected to have and use these skills at an advanced level in the first few activities).
  • It allows teachers time to develop the generalising and abstracting phase, and the transfer phase, as well as encouraging students to reflect on what they have done.
  • Building on experience in this way can lead students to a greater understanding of the socio-ecological and health promotion concepts. Both teachers and students ask increasingly sophisticated questions, and their understanding becomes deeper as they gain expertise.

Through this cycle, then, teachers can encourage their students to develop their critical-thinking skills (for example, analysing, synthesising, and evaluating). When they repeat the cycle of experiential learning, students can increasingly engage in higher level thinking and take action based on such thinking.

The experiential learning cycle

The experiential learning cycle encourages new ways of knowing constructed from multiple experiences.

How experiential learning relates to other experiences

Explanation of diagram

The conscious attention to processing learning develops in an upward or outwardly expanding spiral, so that with each new experience, the student not only develops greater ability to generalize, abstract and transfer learning, but also recognizes how each level is linked and interconnected to the other. Henton, 1996, page 46