The History of Experiential Learning in Higher Education

by | Mar 10, 2023 | Written Posts

Medieval workshop: where the history of experiential learning began

Experiential learning allows students to learn through hands-on experiences, including practical work, internship, volunteer work, and other real-world activities like project-based learning. The approach of experiential learning has been used for centuries in higher education to provide students with valuable knowledge and skills that will serve them in their future careers.

Where it all started: the history of experiential learning begins

What began as humble apprenticeships had the core of what makes experiential learning what it is today: human to human knowledge transfer through doing. The history of experiential learning can be traced back to the medieval universities, where students would learn through apprenticeships and hands-on experience but of course learning by doing is as old as human skills and tool use. This more formalized medieval approach was seen as a way for students to gain practical knowledge and skills that would be useful in their future jobs. During the Renaissance, experiential learning became more widespread, and students were able to study a variety of subjects through hands-on experience, including medicine, law, engineering and of course, painting.

19th and 20th centuries

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, experiential learning became more formalized in higher education. For example, in the United States, John Dewey introduced the concept of “Experiential Education,” which emphasized the importance of hands-on learning and real-world experience in education. This approach was embraced by many universities, which began to offer practical experiences as part of their educational programs.

In the mid-20th century, experiential learning became increasingly popular in higher education. This was due, in part, to the rapid growth of the industrial and technological sectors, which created new opportunities for students to gain hands-on experience in various fields. Additionally, many universities began to offer programs that specifically focused on experiential learning, such as co-op programs and internships. In 1974, Dr. Dabid Kolb published the seminal Toward an Applied Theory of Experiential Learning, marking the beginning of experiential learning theory and introducing modern academic rigor to the field.

Modern era

Today, experiential learning is an integral part of higher education, and it is widely recognized as an effective way for students to learn and develop valuable skills. Many universities offer a range of experiential learning opportunities, including internships, co-op programs, service learning, project-based learning and study abroad programs. These programs allow students to gain real-world experience in their field of study and develop important skills that will serve them in their future careers.

To this day, faculty and staff involved in experiential learning consistently rate it as crucial to their students’ professional development, per the EduSourced annual benchmarking report.
EduSourced supports experiential project-based learning: often referred to as capstone, senior design, practicum and project-based learning. To learn more, click here.

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