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  • Writer's pictureLisa Gilchrist

The Power of Experiential Learning

Imagine creating vivid memories for learners. Imagine evoking emotions. Imagine building connections between learning and life experience. Experiential learning activities help educators do this.

Heinrich and Green (2020) argue that blending a combination of design, instruction, assessment, and learning (DIAL) in a thoughtful way allow educators to maximize experiential learning. For those not familiar with experiential learning, it includes opportunities for learners to work with real life scenarios. Examples include service-learning projects or case studies. A key part of the learning is that learners are asked to assess and react to situations as if it were real life. Reflection is used to help learners assess their learning.

The DIAL approach starts setting the stage for an effective learning experience and recognizes that “different environments and learning mechanisms lead to varied outcomes” (Heinrich & Green, 2020 p. 216). They further recommend that backward design be used to map out the instructional plan. Assessment is best done through a reflection technique where learners build on their past reflections. Finally, learning is solidified through discussion and feedback between learner and instructor. This is critical: learners cannot simply be left to interpret their experience on their own as the discussion leads to integrated, long-term learning.

Figure 1. Shift from unintentional to integrated approaches in experiential education. (Heinrich and Green, 2020. p. 216).

One of the most impactful learning activities I’ve experienced is Kairos Blanket Exercise which walks participates through the experience of Indigenous and settler history in Canada. The re-telling of history involves learners as participants in unfolding history and uses props to make the experience more life-like. While facilitators often use their own techniques, one of the powerful sessions I attended included baby dolls being used to represent real children. During the storytelling, when Indigenous children were taken from their families to residential schools, the baby-dolls were grabbed from their ‘mothers’ arms. More than one participant resisted the ‘taking’ and was in tears. All sessions that I’ve attended incorporate a debrief and critical reflection period. Learn more about the Blanket Exercise here

There is huge potential for using experiential learning in the community development field. Many activities include real-life scenarios with multiple potential outcomes. Having the ability to practice approaches, learn from case studies, and experience feelings and emotions, develops stronger, more effective community development practitioners.

Keep Shining!



Heinrich, W. F., & Green, P. M. (2020). Remixing Approaches to Experiential Learning, Design, and Assessment. Journal of Experiential Education, 43(2), 205–223.

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