Experiential learning describes the process of learning that results from gathering and processing information through direct engagement with the world. In contrast to behavioral approaches to learning, which describe learning as behavioral changes that result from the influence of external factors such as rewards and punishments, learning from experience places the learner at the center of the learning process. Experiential learning has conceptual roots in John Dewey’s pragmatism. One of the most influential approaches to experiential learning in management and management education is David Kolb’s experiential learning theory (ELT) and the learning cycle that describes learning as a four-phase process of direct experience, reflection, abstract thinking, and experimentation.
Experiential learning has been influential in management education as well as adult education because it addresses a number of concerns with traditional education and emphasizes the role of the learner in the learning process. It has been adopted by over 30 disciplines across higher education and has been extensively applied to management, organizations, and leadership development. The popularity of the experiential learning approach is due to many factors, including the growing discontent with traditional education, the desire to create more inclusive and active learning environments, and a recognition of the role that individual differences plays in learning. A renewed interest in experiential learning has brought about new and expanded conceptualizations of what it means to learn from experience. Variations on experiential learning include critical approaches to learning, brain science, and dual-processing approaches.
While the term “experiential learning” is used by scholars to describe a specific philosophy or theory of learning, it often refers to many management education activities, including the use of experiences outside the classroom such as study abroad, internships, and service learning. Experiential learning also includes educational “experiential” learning activities inside the classroom. Within organizations, experiential learning provides an underlying conceptual framework for popular learning and leadership development programs such as emotional intelligence, strengths-based approaches, and appreciative inquiry.
There is a growing recognition that experiential learning is the basis for many management practices such as strategy creation, research and development, and decision-making. Applications of experiential learning and education in management include simulations and exercises, learning style and educator roles, learning as a source of resilience, learning attitudes and other learning-based experiences, learning flexibility, cross-cultural factors, and team learning.
Emerging research interest is also found in the relationship between experiential learning and expertise, intuition, mastery, and professional and career development, decision-making, and judgment in organizations.