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Experiential Learning

Active learning and experiential learning are commonly used terms that can have different connotations in different contexts. This page intends to clarify common terms used at UMD. 

All of the terms in this section are types of active learning.

Active learning is built on the theory of constructivism and is a broad category of teaching strategies that allow students to engage with content and construct their own knowledge.

Instructors act as facilitators instead of serving only as content experts.  Allowing students to engage directly with the material has generally been shown to improve academic performance (Freeman et al., 2013) as well as affective outcomes such as student motivation and self-efficacy (Corkin et al., 2017) when compared to lecture-based learning. 

Many types of classroom activities fall into this category, including pair or small group discussions, interacting with readings, answering questions individually or collaboratively, using case studies or simulations, and doing projects.  Active learning often involves students working collaboratively, but individual hands-on learning also occurs.


Corkin, D. M., Horn, C., & Pattison, D. (2017). The effects of an active learning intervention in biology on college students’ classroom motivational climate perceptions, motivation, and achievement. Educational Psychology, 37(9), 1106-1124. 

Freeman, S., Eddy, S. L., McDonough, M., Smith, M. K., Okoroafor, N., Jordt, H., & Wenderoth, M. P. (2014). Active learning boosts performance in STEM courses. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 11123), 8410-8415.

Community-based learning is a type of experiential learning that is explicitly situated within the local, regional, national, or international community beyond the university. 

This type of learning promotes academic success and critical thinking skills and allows students to understand their social role in the world. It is important to view communities as equal partners and focus on their assets rather than emphasizing deficiencies (Garoutte & McCarthy-Gilmore, 2014). As with all forms of experiential learning, students must engage in critical reflection to make sense of their community-based experiences. Community-based learning is often called service learning when direct or indirect services are provided to the community.


Garoutte, L. & McCarthy-Gilmore, K. (2014). Preparing students for community-based learning using an asset-based approach. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 14(5), 48-61. doi: 10.14434/josotlv14i5.5060

Cooperative learning is designed to prioritize the science of learning, emphasizing group processing, higher-order thinking, and problem solving.

It is “a highly structured form of group work that focuses on the problem solving that – when directed by an effective teacher – can lead to deep learning, critical thinking, and genuine paradigm shifts in students’ thinking” (Mills, 2010, p. 5). Unlike some group activities or projects where students may simply divide up the workload, in cooperative learning, students must actively participate and engage with one another to contribute to a joint product, outcome, or understanding. Instructors often facilitate this positive interdependence by emphasizing group processes and individual and group accountability. 


Mills, B. J. (2010). Cooperative learning in higher education: Across the disciplines, across the academy. Stylus Publishing. 

Discovery-based learning is an inquiry-based learning approach used in the FIRE (First-Year Innovation & Research Experience) program at UMD.

Rather than learning and being tested on specific knowledge, in discovery-based learning, “the knowledge desired for the student is never explicitly stated in the experience. Rather, the [student] discovers it” (Abdullah et al., 2017). This is often accomplished through research experiences.


Abdullah, A., Adil, M., Rosenbaum, L., Clemmons, M., Shah, M., Abrahamson, D., & Neff, M. (2017). Pedagogical agents to support embodied, discovery-based learning. UC Berkeley.

Experiential learning is rooted in experiential learning theory that emphasizes learning through meaningful participation in and structured reflection on real or simulated experiences. 

It is a type of active learning in which students “are given a chance to acquire and apply knowledge, skills and feelings in an immediate and relevant setting” (Smith, 2010). According to experiential learning theory (Kolb & Fry 1975), students interact with concrete experiences in the classroom, community, or workplace. They then reflect on those experiences, generalize beyond the specific circumstance they experienced, and apply their learning in a continuous spiral.

When students are able to apply their learning to simulated and/or real-world situations, they are better able to transfer their understanding to new contexts. Structured reflection is a crucial component of this learning strategy because it allows students to make connections and solidify their understanding. Some examples of experiential learning include applied research projects, campus entrepreneurship/incubators, case studies, field experiences, internships, labs, simulations, community-based learning, service learning, and practica. 

For more information, visit Carleton University’s Experiential Learning page.


Kolb, D. A. & Fry, R. (1975). Toward an applied theory of experiential learning. In C. Cooper (Ed.), Theories of group process (pp. 33-57). John Wiley. 

Smith, M. K. (2001, 2010). David A. Kolb on experiential learning. The Encyclopedia of Pedagogy and Informal Education.

Practica are structured internship-like experiences which allow students to gain supervised professional experience and apply their academic understanding to their discipline. 

These courses are most common in applied fields such as social work and education. They generally allow students to split their learning time between a professional setting under the supervision of a mentor and the classroom. In the classroom, students debrief, reflect, and connect to their real-world experiences

Problem-based learning and project-based learning (both abbreviated as PBL) are experiential learning processes that have many similarities and are often used interchangeably. Both are usually (but not necessarily) collaborative in nature.

Problem-based learning “is focused, experiential learning (minds-on, hands-on) organized around the investigation and resolution of messy, real-world problems” (Torp & Sage, 2002, p. 15). Students investigate an ill-structured problem, learn the appropriate content needed to create a solution for the problem, and then work to develop solutions. 

In project-based learning, students also work to create products that solve real-world problems. Students are given choice and autonomy to plan and create a project that meets the given criteria. Instructors coach students and facilitate real-world connections.


Lee, J. S., Blackwell, S., Drake, J., & Moran, K. A. (2013). Taking a leap of faith: Redefining teaching and learning in higher education through project-based learning. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-based Learning, 8(2).

Torp, L. & Sage, S. (2002). Problems as possibilities: Problem-based learning for K-16 education. Association of Supervision and Curriculum Development

Service learning is based in the theory of humanizing pedagogy, which requires students to be conscious of the society in which they are situated.

Service learning is an experiential “approach to teaching and learning in which students use academic and civic knowledge and skills to address genuine community needs” (National Youth Leadership Council, n.d.). This may take the form of direct service working with people in the community (e.g. delivering food or participating in a health clinic), indirect service (e.g. removing invasive plants in a park), project-based service (e.g. making a website for an organization), or advocacy (e.g. creating a social media campaign). Like all experiential learning, critical reflection is a crucial component of service learning before, during, and after the service because it allows students to position their experiences within their content knowledge and discipline (Jacoby, 2022)


Jacoby, B. (2022, Feb. 25). Service-learning as community engagement [Symposium session]. 2022 PTK Symposium, University of Maryland.

National Youth Leadership Council. (n.d.). Service-learning.

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