As far back as 1995, Chapman, McPhee and Proudman identified very similar characteristics of formal experiential learning opportunities that help to distinguish experiential education methods from other forms of pedagogy. They define experiential learning as having a:

  • Mixture of content and process: there must be a balance between the experiential activities and the underlying content or theory.
  • Absence of excessive judgement: the instructor must create a safe space for students to work through their own process of self-discovery.
  • Engagement in purposeful endeavours: in experiential learning, the learner is the self-teacher, therefore there must be “meaning for the student in the learning.”
  • The learning activities must be personally relevant to the students.
  • Encouraging the big picture perspective: experiential activities must allow the students to make connections between the learning they are doing and the world.
  • Activities should build in students the ability to see relationships in complex systems and find a way to work within them.
  • The role of reflection: students should be able to reflect on their own learning, bring “the theory to life” and gaining insight into themselves and their interactions with the world.
  • Creating emotional investment: students must be fully immersed in the experience, not merely doing what they feel is required of them. The “process needs to engage the learner to a point where what is being learned and experience strikes a critical, central chord within the learner.”
  • The re-examination of values: by working within a space that has been made safe for self-exploration, students can begin to analyze and even alter their own values.
  • The presence of meaningful relationships: one part of getting students to see heir learning in the context of the whole world is to start by showing the relationships between “learner to self, learner to teacher, and learner to learning environment.”
  • Learning outside one’s perceived comfort zones: “learning is enhanced when students are given the opportunity to operate outside of their own perceived comfort zones.” This doesn’t refer just to physical environment, but also to the social environment. This could include, for instance: “being accountable for one’s actions and owning the consequences.”

— Chapman, S., McPhee, P., & Proudman, B. (1995). What is Experiential Education?. In Warren, K. (Ed.), The Theory of Experiential Education (pp. 235-248). Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.