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Experiential Learning in Higher Education: Design and Implementation

Updated: Jul 6

By: Patricia Moore Shaffer, PhD

Principal & CEO


In today’s dynamic educational landscape, higher education institutions are increasingly adopting experiential learning to enhance student engagement and learning outcomes. This approach goes beyond traditional classroom teaching, providing students with hands-on, practical experiences that prepare them for real-world challenges.


What is Experiential Learning and Why is it Important?

Experiential learning is an educational philosophy that advocates for student learning through direct experience and reflection. It involves activities such as internships, co-ops, service learning, and project-based learning. This approach is vital as it fosters critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and deepens subject matter comprehension, thereby increasing student engagement and retention.


Designing Effective Experiential Learning Programs

To design effective experiential learning programs, higher education institutions have employed these strategies:


  • Integrate with Curriculum: Ensure that experiential activities align with academic goals and learning outcomes.

  • Collaborate with External Partners: Establish partnerships with businesses, non-profits, and community organizations for real-world projects.

  • Offer Internships and Co-ops: Provide structured opportunities for professional experience.

  • Implement Service Learning: Combine community service with academic coursework.

  • Develop Study Abroad Programs: Facilitate cultural and environmental immersion.


Successful Examples of Experiential Learning

There are many successful examples of experiential learning in the US higher education landscape. Here are a few to inspire you:


  • LaGuardia Community College: LaGuardia's experiential learning includes extensive internship opportunities and community-based projects that enhance students' professional skills and civic engagement.

  • Northeastern University’s Co-op Program: Integrates professional work experiences with academic study.

  • Stanford University’s d.school: Emphasizes design thinking through hands-on projects.

  • Valencia College: Offers service learning programs where students participate in community service projects as part of their coursework, promoting both academic learning and social responsibility.

  • Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI): Uses project-based learning to solve real-world problems.


Challenges and Solutions in Implementation

Implementing experiential learning programs presents several challenges. Resource allocation is a major concern as these programs can be resource-intensive. To address this, institutions can secure grants and form partnerships to support funding and logistics. Another challenge is assessing the outcomes of experiential learning. Developing clear assessment rubrics and using reflective practices can help measure student learning effectively. Additionally, scaling these programs for large student populations can be challenging. Leveraging technology, such as virtual simulations and online collaborative projects, can aid in making experiential learning scalable and accessible.


Benefits for Students and Institutions

Experiential learning offers numerous benefits for both students and institutions. For students, it enhances learning by providing a deeper understanding and retention of knowledge through practical application. It also improves career readiness by offering real-world experience and developing essential skills. Moreover, it fosters personal growth by increasing students’ confidence, independence, and sense of responsibility. For institutions, experiential learning enhances their reputation and attractiveness to prospective students. It strengthens engagement with industry and community partners, creating valuable networks and opportunities. Additionally, it contributes to fostering a culture of innovation and practical problem-solving within the institution.


Experiential learning is a powerful tool in higher education, offering numerous benefits to both students and institutions. By effectively designing and implementing these programs, institutions can provide valuable, real-world experiences that prepare students for future success. Shaffer Evaluation Group has supported higher education institutions that are designing and implementing experiential learning. Learn more about how we can help you assess the success of your experiential learning program by contacting us at seg@shafferevaluation.com.

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