Lesson 5 - Theories of Learning
18. Learning by Doing: Experiential Learning
18.5. Strengths and Weaknesses of Experiential Learning Models
How one evaluates experiential learning designs depends partly on one’s epistemological position. Constructivists strongly support experiential learning models, whereas those with a strong objectivist position are usually highly skeptical of the effectiveness of this approach. Nevertheless, problem-based learning in particular has proved to be very popular in many institutions teaching science or medicine, and project-based learning is used across many subject domains and levels of education. There is evidence that experiential learning, when properly designed, is highly engaging for students and leads to better long-term memory. Proponents also claim that it leads to deeper understanding, and develops skills for a digital age such as problem-solving, critical thinking, improved communication skills, and knowledge management. In particular, it enables learners to manage better highly complex situations that cross-disciplinary boundaries, and subject domains where the boundaries of knowledge are difficult to manage.
Critics though such as Kirschner, Sweller and Clark (2006) argue that instruction in experiential learning is often ‘unguided’, and pointed to several ‘meta-analyses’ of the effectiveness of problem-based learning that indicated no difference in problem-solving abilities, lower basic science exam scores, longer study hours for PBL students, and that PBL is more costly. They conclude:
In so far as there is any evidence from controlled studies, it almost uniformly supports direct, strong instructional guidance rather than constructivist-based minimal guidance during the instruction of novice to intermediate learners. Even with students with considerable prior knowledge, strong guidance when learning is most often found to be equally effective as unguided approaches.
Certainly, experiential learning approaches require a considerable restructuring of teaching and a great deal of detailed planning if the curriculum is to be fully covered. It usually means extensive re-training of faculty and careful orientation and preparation of students. I would also agree with Kirschner et al. that just giving students tasks to do in real-world situations without guidance and support is likely to be ineffective.
However, many forms of experiential learning can and do have strong guidance from instructors, and one has to be very careful when comparing matched groups that the tests of knowledge includes measurement of the skills that are claimed to be developed by experiential learning, and are not just based on the same assessments as for traditional methods, which often have a heavy bias towards memorization and comprehension.
On balance then, I would support the use of experiential learning for developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age, but as always, it needs to be done well, following best practices associated with the different design models.