Experiential learning is becoming a much more recognized alternative and compliment to pure traditional academic learning. Experiential learning has been defined by Lewis & Williams (1994) as, “…learning from experience or learning by doing. Experiential education first immerses learners in an experience and then encourages reflection about the experience to develop new skills, new attitudes, or new ways of thinking” (p. 5). “Learning by doing” is certainly not a new concept, though, as we have had “apprentices,” “journeymen,” and “masters” in most learning contexts since before we necessarily had words to describe them. The post-activity reflection that is included in this definition aids the acquisition of the new skill, attitude, or way of thinking.
Examples of Experiential Learning
One context where we sometimes use the term “experiential learning” is when we are assessing previous experiences in work and training in order to make a prior learning assessment which can grant individuals with academic credit, entry into an academic or training program, strengthen a job application, or allow entry into a professional body. In job advertisements, we will often see that a certain degree is required, or equivalent work experience. Through this recognition of experiential learning, new opportunities can present themselves for those who do not have the required prerequisites but who do necessarily have sufficient past learning experiences. In the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), we often use and encourage the use of Prior Learning Assessment and Recognition (PLAR) to reduce unnecessary training time and costs required for a member to achieve their qualification. If previous work and/or training experiences show that specific CAF performance objectives have, indeed, been previously achieved through other means, such as within a previous work or training experience, a PLAR can be requested and evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Conversely, there are also organizations outside the CAF who will recognize CAF experiences towards credit or qualifications.
The second use of the term “experiential learning,” which is likely the more common use in the training and educational context, concerns itself with integrating experiential learning into traditional training and education. This may include real-life simulations and other learner-centric and learner-controlled activities. The instructor’s role in this context is as a facilitator. We often see experiential learning in the CAF as part of the Training Pillar of the Professional Development Framework, which is illustrated in the figure above. Examples of experiential learning in the CAF could come in the form of simulated live field/air/sea exercises, planning an attack, operating simulated vehicles, typing a memo (as I did in my RMS Clerk QL3 course back in 2005!), firing a weapon, performing first aid on a dummy, taking apart and putting together an engine during training, and using simulated a 360 degree air traffic control center to run through real-life scenarios, as they do at Canadian Forces School of Aerospace Control Operations (CFSACO). In my own occupational training, as a Training Development Officer, we led mock Qualification Standard and Training Plan Writing Boards during our course, followed by real writing boards, under supervision, with real subject matter experts during our on-the-job training.
Experiential learning also occurs as part of the Experience Pillar, as illustrated above. The Experience Pillar is defined as “the application and continued development of the knowledge, skills and attitudes obtained through education, training, and/or self-development in the performance of assigned roles and duties” (GoC, 2018a). In other words, experiential learning happens on the job and throughout our careers. We move beyond simulated vehicles, for example, and operate various types of vehicles in theatre, on various types of terrain, and in various types of weather. In other contexts, such as leadership development, we move beyond role-playing difficult discussions, and move into handling difficult discussions within many different real-life scenarios, in many different contexts, and with many different types of people. Experiential learning in training is excellent for practicing what is to come. Experiential learning throughout our career, and indeed throughout our entire lifetime, continuously develops us and adds depth to our knowledge and skills.
Myself, showing off a simulated Reverse Osmosis Water Purification Unit (ROWPU) during the Basic Public Affairs Officer Course: Exercise Veritas Thunder, 2012
Experiential learning is an important consideration in terms of prior learning assessments. Older workers want their life work experiences to be recognized so that new opportunities can open up for them. CAF recruits are no longer only younger adults people fresh out of school. Practical abilities and tacit knowledge must be respected and equivalencies must be offered through the process of PLAR in order to avoid training redundancy and to reduce unnecessary training days. There are many occupations in the CAF that have an equivalent in the civilian world, for example, cooks, various types of technicians, and nurses. Granting equivalencies based on experiential learning, whether through work or other life experiences, just makes good sense. In many cases, only training that covers the military aspects of the job may be required to get an individual to the operationally functional point (OFP) in their occupation.
Recognizing education in the younger graduates (or recruits), who may be new to the workplace and lack life/work experiences, and recognizing the life/work experiences of the older population, who may lack traditional academic degrees/training certification, “levels the playing field” and can help to provide the best individual, regardless of age and regardless of how the pertinent knowledge and skills were gained. In a time when we, in the CAF, are focused on reconstitution, that is rebuilding the numbers we lost due to the lack of recruitment and training during the pandemic, this point seems especially relevant. As Lance Lee, in Spectre’s (1993) article on experiential learning, stated “capability is the bottom line” (p. 135). Indeed, it is!
The future of experiential learning, in terms of enabling experiences in training or in the workplace, looks bright. In fact, it would be hard to imagine one CAF school or qualification that does not have some sort of experiential learning included. In terms of civilian academic and college programs, many are offering experiential learning extended opportunities in the forms of co-ops, internships, and practicum.
It is highly likely that these practices will continue and expand. The implications of the greater recognition and value given to experiential learning, that I envision, will be that training and educational institutes could evolve. It could be more the norm that students come in and out of programs to acquire what, and only what, they need to do their jobs. They will not invest time or money, or their organization’s money, to relearn what they already know from previous workplace or school learning. Workplaces will value experience gained equally to, if not more than, academic credentials. Job advertisements will never list a certain degree as an absolute minimum. The words “or equivalent experience” will always appear in advertisements- including within CAF recruitment advertisements.
I believe that training and education should always include some form of experiential learning. Examples include through simulations, role-playing, working through scenarios, games, field trips, and many other options. Consider your target audience, consider your context, and consider what it is, in the world beyond the schoolhouse (or virtual classroom), that you are looking to achieve. The next time you, as an instructor, consider creating a long PowerPoint deck for your classroom lecture, consider how you could enable “Learning by Doing.” Your students will thank you for it!
Government of Canada. (2018a). Canadian Armed Forces professional development framework.
Government of Canada. (2018b). DAOD 5031-1 Canadian Forces Military Equivalencies Program.
Lewis, L.H. & Williams, C.J. (1994). In Jackson, L. & Caffarella, R.S. (Eds.). Experiential
Learning: A New Approach (pp. 5-16). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Spectre, P. H. (1993). Lance Lee: Building self-reliance, character, and boats. Wooden Boat, 114, 52-63. Published by Jossey-Bass Inc.
Sternberg, R. J., Wagner, R. K., Williams, W. M., & Horvath, J. A. (1995).Testing common sense. American Psychologist, 50(11), 912-927.