At a Glance 

For the purpose of the University of Iowa 2022-2027 Strategic Plan, experiential learning is defined as the practice of learning through applied experience – curricular or co-curricular – and guided reflection on those experiences (Kolb, 1984). These experiences help students apply knowledge and theory through conceptual, practical, and reflective components. Experiential learning could include but is not limited to research, community engagement, internships, student employment, study abroad, applied classwork, student organization leadership, or service.  While most experiential learning is engagement, not all engagement is experiential learning. 


As you continue with your teaching, management or coordination of courses or programs, or develop future programs and courses, consider how you can incorporate experiential learning.  These steps can support your efforts.  

  1. Identify what is happening in your area already
    Are there internships, mentored research, guided practicums, simulations, community engagement, or mentored on-campus employment being offered in your area? Discuss how you can be part of diversifying or strengthening the opportunities that are offered in your area. 
  2. Support strong pedagogy
    Experiential learning involves content, application, and reflection. Having one without the others lessens the depth of learning that an experience can offer. As you review existing experiential learning programs or courses, or are creating new ones, make sure to help students integrate their learning by supporting or structuring the application of content. Also design lessons or activity plans that connect academic content to its application and support reflection about the experience.  Quality matters in order for experiential learning to be a high impact practice.  Recommendations to make a experiential learning a high impact practice include: clear connections to course or program goals; relevant duties for the students at appropriately high levels of expectations; significant investment of time and effort over extended amount of time; continuous constructive feedback;  well-structured reflection opportunities; and assessment of the learning objectives (Eyler, 2009Kuh & O’Donnell, 2013)
  3. Effective reflection is critical
    Reflection is the process of thinking about oneself as a learner, considering what one has learned and how particular experiences (such as your program or course) contribute to learning. Reflection is a metacognitive skill and needs to be developed with practice. It is more likely to happen when the facilitator provides students with structure to support meaning-making, such as a prompt to think or write about.  Consider how you can add reflection to an experience: a brief discussion, debrief, one-minute paper, essay, or an open-ended question on a program evaluation. Structured reflection increases the likelihood that students will reflect on the experience. In one article regarding community engagement, researchers found that having at minimum three reflection opportunities allowed students to have greater learning outcomes achievement (Painter & Howell, 2020).  Ask questions regarding what they noticed during the experience - new competencies, skills, insight, or emotions.  Then broaden their connections by addressing why it is important, what they or others may need to change to be better prepared in the future, how it connects to their course content, or the impact the activity can have on others. The Center for Teaching is a great resource for methods that can foster reflection.  
  4. Know the resources on campus. 
    Colleagues across campus have expertise and can take referrals of students who want to be involved or can consult with you as you design experiential learning lessons, courses, or programs.  Some of the resources include the Iowa Center for Research by Undergraduates, Office of Community Engagement, Pomerantz Career Center, Study Abroad, Office of Leadership, Service, and Civic Engagement, and of course, the Center for Teaching.  

Already teaching or facilitating experiential learning? Encourage students to track their experiences and reflect upon them in their engagement record


Being able to assess what and how students are learning during experiential education is important for both current and future students. There are many ways to assess learning, but the models discussed below share an emphasis on reflection and on experiential learning. 

Toohey et al. studied five models of assessing practicums: the attendance model, the work history model, the broad abilities model, the specific competencies model and the negotiated curriculum model. The attendance and work history models are both pretty rudimentary and do not assess the student in enough detail. The broad abilities model asks students to consider, use and reflect upon the abilities they acquire and use while in the workplace. This model also requires the skills a student will be learning to be specified before their workplace experience (Toohey et al., 1996).  

The specific competencies model takes the broad abilities model a step further and designs the program around the opportunity for a student to develop specific skills or competencies. This may include having a student participate in multiple experiences with different organizations or at different locations. Students are also often required to demonstrate their learning through a paper or oral examination (Toohey et al., 1996).  

The negotiated curriculum model involves the student, the workplace supervisor and an academic advisor to create a learning contract that focuses the student’s experience and maximizes their learning potential (Toohey et al., 1996). Toohey et al. concluded that the best way to assess experiential learning experiences is to combine different elements from each model. Depending on the type of experience, different components from different models will be more effective (1996). 

McNamara endorses the negotiated curriculum model because it is beneficial to have multiple sources assessing the student’s learning. If only the student or the supervisor assesses the student’s learning or success, they may be unable to provide a holistic review of the student’s experience (McNamara, 2011). McNamara recommends the advisor develop a placement plan for the student, the student keeps a journal or portfolio, and the supervisor writes a report assessing the student (2011). 

In a 2011 study, Molee et al. developed a model to assess students’ learning in service-learning courses. The study used a model that asked students to reflect on their experience by responding to specific, structured questions. First, the students answered objective questions about their experience, like ‘who?’, ‘what?’, ‘where?’, etc. Second, the students were asked to analytically evaluate their experience. Finally, the students were asked reflective questions about their learning. The study found that this model was able to effectively document student learning (Molee et al., 2011). 

Many of these models share an emphasis on a reflective piece, often an essay. Bennion et al. found that reflective essays can help students solidify permanent cognitive and behavioral learning. The study found that through essay writing, students demonstrated earnest comprehension of the concepts they learned instead of restating things that had been said by lecturers (Bennion et al., 2020). 


Why is experiential learning important and what are the impacts of experiential learning?  When structured in a high-quality manner, experiential learning is a high-impact practice (Kuh, 2008). High-impact practices have positive relationships with first & second year retention (Provencher & Kassel, 2017); student engagement and GPA (Kuh et al., 2008); and job attainment and career plans (Miller et al., 2018).  Additionally, applied learning correlates to higher academic motivation in students’ fourth year (Trolian & Jach, 2020).

Individual opportunities also have benefits.   

Undergraduate research results in critical thinking, intercultural effectiveness, and need for cognition; (Kilgo et al., 2015) as well as increases in GPA (Bowman & Holmes, 2018; Sell, 2018). 

Internships have positive correlations with lifelong learning, socially responsible leadership (Kilgo et al., 2015); leadership skills (Soria & Johnson, 2017); and 4th year GPA, especially for those with lowest GPA during their freshman year (Parker et al., 2016).   

Study Abroad shows a positive relationship with multicultural competence (Soria & Johnson, 2017); senior year engagement (Gonyea, 2008); and interpersonal, communication, problem-solving and teamwork skills (Potts, 2015). 

Community Engagement and Service Learning has a positive relationship with leadership skills and multicultural competence, (Soria & Johnson, 2017Einfeld & Collins, 2008); and critical thinking and cognitive development (Eyler et al., 2001).  

Experiential education can impact University of Iowa students positively.  However, keep in mind that length and type of experience as well as different backgrounds and educational contexts mean that student outcomes may be different.  Consider your student population when you design your courses or programs (Coker et al., 2017Kuh, 2009Zilvinskis, 2019; Kilgo et al., 2019Langhout & Gordon, 2019; Lake, 2021).