August 22, 2017

Can you do experiential learning online? Assessing design models for experiential learning

Loyalist College's virtual border crossing

Loyalist College’s virtual border crossing

One of the frustrating things about writing a book (Teaching in a Digital World) is that just when you think you’ve finished a chapter, you realise you have missed out something really important. I thought I’d covered the main learning design models when I became aware that I hadn’t covered experiential learning.

Nevertheless, I still remember at one of my presentations to faculty on online learning, a faculty member saying that you can’t do experiential learning online. I felt at the time that this was so mistaken a view, that I need to address it in my book. Indeed, experiential learning is like most design models: it is independent of the mode of delivery. What matters is how well it is done.

Now while I have had some experience of doing project-based learning in an elementary school in England many years ago, I don’t consider myself a specialist in experiential learning, especially at a post-secondary level, but I do have a bias towards embedding teaching and learning within real world contexts, where appropriate, while recognising that academic learning is about thinking in abstractions and generalisations. However, these need to be empirically based, and students need to move easily from the concrete to the abstract and back again, and done well, experiential learning should assist that process.

So here’s my stab at describing the various design models for experiential learning.

What is experiential learning?


Simon Fraser University defines experiential learning as:

the strategic, active engagement of students in opportunities to learn through doing, and reflection on those activities, which empowers them to apply their theoretical knowledge to practical endeavours in a multitude of settings inside and outside of the classroom.” 

There is a wide range of design models that aim to embed learning within real world contexts, including:

  • problem-based learning
  • case-based learning
  • project-based learning
  • inquiry-based learning
  • cooperative (work- or community-based) learning
  • apprenticeship.

I will be focusing on the first four of these design models (for a discussion of the apprenticeship model, and lab or studio work, see Chapter 4, Section 4.) The focus here is on some of the main ways in which experiential learning can be designed and delivered, with particular respect to the use of technology, and in ways that help develop the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age. (For a more detailed analysis of experiential learning, see Moon, 2004).

Core design principles

Experiential learning is a major form of teaching at the University of Waterloo. Its web site lists the conditions needed to ensure that experiential learning is effective, as identified by the Association for Experiential Education:

  • Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.
  • Experiences are structured to require the student to take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
  • Throughout the experiential learning process, the student is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative and constructing meaning.
  • Students are engaged intellectually, emotionally, socially, soulfully and/or physically. This involvement produces a perception that the learning task is authentic.
  • The results of the learning are personal and form the basis for future experience and learning.
  • Relationships are developed and nurtured: student to self, student to others and student to the world at large.
  • The instructor and student may experience success, failure, adventure, risk-taking and uncertainty, because the outcomes of the experience cannot totally be predicted.
  • Opportunities are nurtured for students and instructors to explore and examine their own values.
  • The instructor’s primary roles include setting suitable experiences, posing problems, setting boundaries, supporting students, insuring physical and emotional safety, and facilitating the learning process.
  • The instructor recognizes and encourages spontaneous opportunities for learning.
  • Instructors strive to be aware of their biases, judgments and pre-conceptions, and how these influence the student.
  • The design of the learning experience includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes and successes.

Ryerson University in Toronto is another institution with extensive use of experiential learning, and also has an extensive web site on the topic, also directed at instructors. The next section examines different ways in which these principles have been applied.

Experiential design models

There are many different design models for experiential learning, but they also have many features in common.

Problem-based learning

The earliest form of systematised problem-based learning (PBL) was developed in 1969 by Howard Barrows and colleagues in the School of Medicine at McMaster University in Canada, from where it has spread to many other universities, colleges and schools. This approach is increasingly used in subject domains where the knowledge base is rapidly expanding and where it is impossible for students to master all the knowledge in the domain within a limited period of study. Working in groups, students identify what they already know, what they need to know, and how and where to access new information that may lead to resolution of the problem. The role of the instructor (usually called a tutor in classic PBL) is critical in facilitating and guiding the learning process.

Usually PBL follows a strongly systematised approach to solving problems, although the detailed steps and sequence tend to vary to some extent, depending on the subject domain. The following is a typical example

Figure 6. The Maastricht Seven-Jump PBL Tutorial Process (Gijeselaers, 1995)

Figure 6.10  (derived from Gijeselaers, 1995)

Traditionally, the first five steps would be done in a small face-to-face class tutorial of 20-25 students, with the sixth step requiring either individual or small group (four or five students) private study, with a the seventh step being accomplished in a full group meeting with the tutor. However, this approach also lends itself to blended learning in particular, where the research solution is done mainly online, although some instructors have managed the whole process online, using a combination of synchronous web conferencing and asynchronous online discussion.

Developing a complete problem-based learning curriculum is challenging, as problems must be carefully chosen, increasing in complexity and difficulty over the course of study, and problems must be chosen so as to cover all the required components of the curriculum. Students often find the problem-based learning approach challenging, particularly in the early stages, where their foundational knowledge base may not be sufficient to solve some of the problems. (The term ‘cognitive overload’ has been used to describe this situation.) Others argue that lectures provide a quicker and more condensed way to cover the same topics. Assessment also has to be carefully designed, especially if a final exam carries heavy weight in grading, to ensure that problem-solving skills as well as content coverage are measured.

However, research (see for instance, Strobel and van Barneveld, 2009) has found that problem-based learning is better for long-term retention of material and developing ‘replicable’ skills, as well as for improving students’ attitudes towards learning. There are now many variations on the ‘pure’ PBL approach, with problems being set after initial content has been covered in more traditional ways, such as lectures or prior reading, for instance.

Case-based learning

With case-based teaching, students develop skills in analytical thinking and reflective judgment by reading and discussing complex, real-life scenarios.

University of Michigan Centre for Research on Teaching and Learning,

Case-based learning is sometimes considered a variation of PBL, while others see it as a design model in its own right. As with PBL, case-based learning uses a guided inquiry method, but usually requires the students to have a degree of prior knowledge that can assist in analysing the case. There is usually more flexibility in the approach to case-based learning compared to PBL. Case-based learning is particularly popular in business education, law schools and clinical practice in medicine, but can be used in many other subject domains.

Herreid (2004) provides eleven basic rules for case-based learning.

  1. Tells a story.
  2. Focuses on an interest-arousing issue.
  3. Set in the past five years
  4. Creates empathy with the central characters.
  5. Includes direct quotations from the characters.
  6. Relevant to the reader.
  7. Must have pedagogic utility.
  8. Conflict provoking.
  9. Decision forcing.
  10. Has generality.
  11. Is short.

Using examples from clinical practice in medicine, Irby (1994) recommends five steps in case-based learning:

  • Anchor teaching in a (carefully chosen) case
  • Actively involve learners in discussing, analysing and making recommendations regarding the case
  • Model professional thinking and action as an instructor when discussing the case with learners
  • Provide direction and feedback to learners in their discussions
  • Create a collaborative learning environment where all views are respected

Case-based learning can be particularly valuable for dealing with complex, interdisciplinary topics or issues which have no obvious ‘right or wrong’ solutions, or where learners need to evaluate and decide on competing, alternative explanations. Case-based learning can also work well in both blended and fully online environments. Marcus, Taylor and Ellis (2004) used the following design model for a case-based blended learning project in veterinary science:

Figure 6.  Blended learning sequence involving online learning resources , Marcus, Taylor and Ellis, 2004

Figure 6.11 Blended learning sequence involving online learning resources, Marcus, Taylor and Ellis, 2004

Other configurations are of course also possible, depending on the requirements of the subject.

Project-based learning

Project-based learning is similar to case-based learning, but tends to be longer and broader in scope, and with even more student autonomy/responsibility in the sense of choosing sub-topics, organising their work, and deciding on what methods to use to conduct the project. Projects are usually based around real world problems, which give students a sense of responsibility and ownership in their learning activities.

Once again, there are several best practices or guidelines for successful project work. For instance, Larmer and Mergendoller (2010) argue that every good project should meet two criteria:

  • students must perceive the work as personally meaningful, as a task that matters and that they want to do well.
  • a meaningful project fulfills an educational purpose.

They then list seven essential elements of ‘meaningful’ projects:

  • need to know: provide students with a compelling ‘event’ (a video, news item, picture, guest lecturer) that they are asked to engage with
  • a driving question: ‘a good driving question captures the heart of the project in clear, compelling language, which gives students a sense of purpose and challenge. The question should be provocative, open-ended, complex, and linked to the core of what you want students to learn.
  • student voice and choice: students should be engaged in initial ‘brainstorming’ about the driving question, and have some choice in how they approach answering this question, both in terms of methods of inquiry, and in how the results of their study will be presented. Different sub-groups in the class then may operate in different ways.
  • 21st century skills: encourage the development of skills, particularly collaboration, team-building, role differentiation, oral, written and multimedia communication and reflection through journals or e-portfolios. Both instructor and students should be involved with assessment, which should include measurement of these skills.
  • inquiry and innovation: in order to tackle the driving question, students refine their own questions and line of inquiry, then seek out the information they need to answer their questions, then test their own ideas through discussion and further research. This may well lead to innovative suggestions for dealing with the issue under research.
  • feedback and revision: students should be encouraged to share their work with other students and be willing to give feedback and help each other. The instructor should structure more formal feedback so students are receiving help and guidance throughout the project, and encourage external forms of feedback from outside the institutional context, such as responses from relevant businesses or government agencies.
  • a publicly presented product: ideally the end product from the class should be presented to an external audience that has a major stake or interest in the issue under study, and should as far as possible offer constructive suggestions or conclusions.

The main danger with project-based learning is that the project can take a life of its own, with not only students but the instructor losing focus on the key, essential learning objectives, or important content areas may not get covered. Thus project-based learning needs careful design and monitoring by the instructor.

Inquiry-based learning

Inquiry-based learning (IBL) is similar to project-based learning, but the role of the teacher/instructor is somewhat different. In project-based learning, the instructor decides the ‘driving question’ and plays a more active role in guiding the students through the process. In inquiry-based learning, the learner explores a theme and chooses a topic for research, develops a plan of research and comes to conclusions, although an instructor is usually available to provide help and guidance when needed.

Banchi and Bell (2008) suggest that there are different levels of inquiry, and students need to begin at the first level and work through the other levels to get to ‘true’ or ‘open’ inquiry as follows:

Figure 6.x from Banchi and Bell (2008)

Figure 6.x from Banchi and Bell (2008)

It can be seen that the fourth level of inquiry describes the graduate thesis process, although proponents of inquiry-based learning have advocated its value at all levels of education.

Experiential learning in online learning environments

Advocates of experiential learning are often highly critical of online learning, because, they argue, it is impossible to embed online learning in real world examples. By its nature, online learning is not ‘real world.’ However, this is an oversimplification, and there are contexts in which online learning can be used very effectively to support or develop experiential learning, in all its variations:

  • blended or flipped learning: although group sessions to start off the process, and to bring a problem or project to a conclusion, are usually done in a classroom or lab setting, students can increasingly conduct the research and information gathering by accessing resources online, by using online multimedia resources to create reports or presentations, and by collaborating online through group project work or through critique and evaluation of each other’s work
  • fully online: increasingly, instructors are finding that experiential learning can be applied fully online, through a combination of synchronous tools such as a web conference, asynchronous tools such as discussion forums and/or social media for group work, and e-portfolios and multimedia for reporting.

Indeed, there are circumstances where it is impractical, too dangerous, or too expensive to use real world experiential learning. Online learning can be used to simulate real conditions and to reduce the time to master a skill. Flight simulators have long been used to train commercial pilots, enabling trainee pilots to spend less time mastering fundamentals on real aircraft. Commercial flight simulators are still extremely expensive to build and operate, but in recent years the costs of creating realistic simulations has dropped dramatically.

For instance, instructors at Loyalist College have created a ‘virtual’ fully functioning border crossing and a virtual car in Second Life to train Canadian Border Services Agents. Each student takes on the role of an agent, with his/her avatar interviewing the avatars of the travellers wishing to enter Canada. All communication is done by voice communications in Second Life, with the people playing the travellers in a separate room from the students. Each student interviews three or four travellers and the entire class observes the interactions and discusses the situations and the responses. A secondary site for auto searches features a virtual car that can be completely dismantled so students learn all possible places where contraband may be concealed. This learning is then reinforced with a visit to the auto shop at Loyalist College and the search of an actual car. The students in the customs and immigration track are assessed on their interviewing techniques as part of their final grades. Students participating in the first year of the Second Life border simulation achieved a grade standing that was 28 per cent higher than the previous class who did not utilize a virtual world. The next class, using Second Life, scored a further 9 per cent higher. More details can be found here.

Staff in the Emergency Management Division at the Justice Institute of British Columbia have developed a simulation tool called ExPod that helps to bring critical incidents to life by introducing real-world simulations into training and exercise programs. Because participants can access ExPod via the web, it provides the flexibility to deliver immersive, interactive and scenario-based training exercises anytime, anywhere. A typical emergency might be a major fire in a warehouse containing dangerous chemicals. ‘Trainee’ first responders, who will include fire, police and paramedical personnel, as well as city engineers and local government officials, are ‘alerted’ on their mobile phones or tablets, and have to respond in real time to a fast developing scenario, ‘managed’ by a skilled facilitator, following procedures previously taught and also available on their mobile equipment. The whole process is recorded and followed later by a face-to-face debriefing session.

Once again, design models are not in most cases dependent on any particular medium. The pedagogy transfers easily across different delivery methods.

Strengths and weaknesses of experiential learning models

How one evaluates experiential learning designs depends partly on one’s epistemological position. Constructivists strongly support experiential learning models, whereas those with a strong objectivist position are usually highly sceptical of the effectiveness of this approach. Nevertheless, problem-based learning in particular has proved to be very popular in many institutions teaching science or medicine, and project-based learning is used across many subject domains and levels of education. There is evidence that experiential learning, when properly designed, is highly engaging for students and leads to better long-term memory. Proponents also claim that it leads to deeper understanding, and develops ’21st century’ skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking, improved communications skills, and knowledge management. In particular, it enables learners to manage better highly complex situations that cross disciplinary boundaries, and subject domains where the boundaries of knowledge are difficult to manage.

Critics though such as Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) argue that instruction in experiential learning is often ‘unguided’, and pointed to several ‘meta-analyses’ of the effectiveness of problem-based learning that indicated no difference in problem-solving abilities, lower basic science exam scores,  longer study hours for PBL students, and that PBL is more costly. They conclude:

In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners. Even with students with considerable prior knowledge, strong guidance when learning is most often found to be equally effective as unguided approaches.

Certainly, experiential learning approaches require considerable re-structuring of teaching and a great deal of detailed planning if the curriculum is to be fully covered. It usually means extensive re-training of faculty, and careful orientation and preparation of students. I would also agree with Kirschner et al. that just giving students tasks to do in real world situations without guidance and support is likely to be ineffective.

However, many forms of experiential learning can and do have strong guidance from instructors, and one has to be very careful when comparing matched groups that the tests of knowledge include measurement of the skills that are claimed to be developed by experiential learning, and are not just based on the same assessments as for traditional methods, which often have a heavy bias towards memorisation and comprehension.

On balance then, I would support the use of experiential learning for developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age, but as always, it needs to be done well, following best practices associated with the design models.


Banchi, H., and Bell, R. (2008). The Many Levels of Inquiry Science and Children, Vol. 46, No. 2

Gijselaers, W., (1995) ‘Perspectives on problem-based learning’ in Gijselaers, W, Tempelaar, D, Keizer, P, Blommaert, J, Bernard, E & Kapser, H (eds) Educational Innovation in Economics and Business Administration: The Case of Problem-Based Learning. Dordrecht, Kluwer.

Herreid, C. F. (2007). Start with a story: The case study method of teaching college science. Arlington VA: NSTA Press.

Irby, D. (1994) Three exemplary models of case-based teaching Academic Medicine, Vol. 69, No. 12

Kirshner, P., Sweller, J. amd Clark, R. (2006) Why Minimal Guidance During Instruction Does Not Work: An Analysis of the Failure of Constructivist, Discovery, Problem-Based, Experiential, and Inquiry-Based Teaching Educational Psychologist, Vo. 41, No.2

Larmer, J. and Mergendoller, J. (2010) Seven essentials for project-based learning Educational Leadership, Vol. 68, No. 1

Marcus, G. Taylor, R. and Ellis, R. (2004) Implications for the design of online case-based learning activities based on the student blended learning experience: Perth, Australia: Proceedings of the ACSCILITE conference, 2004

Moon, J.A. (2004). A Handbook of Reflective and Experiential Learning: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge Falmer.

Strobel, J. , & van Barneveld, A. (2009). When is PBL More Effective? A Meta-synthesis of Meta-analyses Comparing PBL to Conventional Classrooms. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, Vol. 3, No. 1

Comments, please

I’m really hoping to get some input from specialists in experiential learning. In particular:

1. Is what I’ve written an accurate description of the main models of experiential learning design?

2. Have I missed anything significant (given that this section is already too long)?

3. Do you agree that experiential learning can be done just as well online as in classrooms or in the field?

4. If you have had either really good or really bad experiences with experiential learning, what worked well and what didn’t?


I have a final, wrap-up section on design models for learning, where I compare the different models’ strengths and weaknesses. Then the first draft of the chapter on design models will be complete and will be published.


  1. Tony, the best definition of Experiential Learning that I have seen is from the Association for Experiential Education: “Challenge and Experience followed by Reflection leading to Learning and Growth” [].

    In part, they are concerned to counter the mistaken view that Experiential Learning is any context-dependent activity that happens outside the classroom. As you note in your post, we need to focus on the nature of the student activity, not the location.

    Here are key requirements about the nature of the student activity that we have used in addressing Experiential Learning (in workshops at Kwantlen Polytechnic University):

    – the activity integrates knowing, doing and reflecting

    – students are Invested in the Task outcomes and impacts (not just the mark). This goes beyond “student engagement”

    – both the tasks and the assessments for the activity are Authentic: “learning knowledge and skills in contexts that reflect the way they will be valuable and meaningful to us in life beyond school” []

    – student Reflection includes how the activity has affected their doing and being (not just knowing)

  2. Hi Tony,

    As always, a helpful post for me. I would add scenario-based learning to this list, which in our institution is different from case-based learning. In our version of scenario-based learning, students are active participants in responding to a live, unfolding scenario that has been constructed to lead students towards demonstrating learning around specific outcomes. In their simplest form, they are called ‘role plays’ and in their more complex form they are called live simulations. You gave a nice shout out to our live sim tool (which we renamed from ExPod to Praxis - ) which allows us to do this type of scenario-based learning, but of course can also be used for PBL or case based learning as well.


Speak Your Mind