Why Post-Secondary Institutions Should Prioritize Experiential Learning

A Primer on Experiential Education in Ontario


Today, higher education learning extends well beyond the traditional classroom to involve anything from visiting the office of a local Member of Parliament to walking through a city park or the assembly plant of a major car manufacturer! Motivated by innovation in pedagogy and a call to prepare students for the new world of work, post-secondary institutions have welcomed experiential learning across all disciplines. 

Educators, students, and pedagogy scholars alike understand that students learn best through direct experience and active reflection. Institutions are following their lead in recognizing the importance of experiential learning. As of 2020, virtually all major Canadian universities boast some form of experiential learning unit, whether through an Experiential Learning Hub, Office of Experiential Education, Experiential Education Unit, or a Centre for Teaching Excellence. 

The Association for Experiential Education (AEE) describes experiential education as a philosophy of “hands-on learning that begins with a concrete experience.” Experiential learning can take one of three primary forms: course-focused experiences, community-focused experiences, and workplace experiences. 

Often, the first thoughts that come to mind upon hearing “experiential learning” revolve around co-op terms and work placements, but experiential learning practices can be embedded in traditional classroom environments just as effectively. Course-focused experiential learning practices strive to bring practical, real-world experiences to the classroom, whether through role play activities and debates, case studies, labs, or other interactive activities. Problem-based learning and blended learning are prime examples of how instructors encourage active involvement and can provide students with choice and flexibility.

Community-focused experiential learning connects course content to real-life experiences in the community, and can include community-based learning, research, and service. Like co-ops and student placements, community-based experiences engage students in real-world applications of knowledge. These experiences often involve collaboration with community partners, which fosters important leadership skills in students — skills like social awareness, critical thinking, and communication. 

Students can also gain valuable skills and knowledge in relevant work-focused experiential learning experiences, including through work placements, internships, and co-ops. Usually, work placements (or practica) are linked to professional programs such as Social Work, Nursing, Law, and Teacher Education programs. Internships, on the other hand, refer to paid work assignments that allow students to learn and develop skills in a professional environment through a full-time or part-time job. Co-op, or co-operative education programs consist of 4 to 16 month work opportunities where students earn credits while working a paid position. Evaluations in work-focused experiential learning often require assessment by both employers and the student’s home university.

Through experiential education, instructors advocate for students’ exposure to different ways of knowing and learning, increased participation, links between theory and practice, and enriched career exploration. Instructors are increasingly developing courses with active learning components and experiential opportunities for students to learn from each other. These pedagogical practices establish life-long learning and prove that effective education is not restricted to university lecture halls. 

In addition to the development of new perspectives, students who participate in experiential learning opportunities gain major advantages in the job market. Employers continue to seek and expect work experience from new graduates, and students that are able to draw on their success in problem-based learning projects or co-op placements often bring more relevant experiences to the table. Students may also establish a clearer idea of the career they wish to pursue through their involvement in experiential education ventures.

All in all, the design of experiential education enhances students’ potential to learn from mistakes, successes, and challenges that they would otherwise not encounter in a solely text-based course. Experiential learning takes students out of their comfort zone, and into an academic adventure where they can achieve their greatest educational gains.



Association of Experiential Education. (2019). What is Experiential Education? Retrieved from https://www.aee.org/what-is-ee

Carleton University. (2019). Course Focused EE Strategies. Retrieved from https://carleton.ca/experientialeducation/i-course-focused-ee-strategies/