What is Experiential Learning?

Experiential learning is a process through which a student develops knowledge, skills, and values from direct experiences. Academic experiential education at Brandeis includes community-engaged learning, internships and other activities including performances, lab work, and creative and studio work.  

Curricular activities that are "experiential" contain all the following elements:

  • Opportunities for the student to take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for the results
  • Opportunities for the students to engage intellectually, creatively, emotionally, socially, or physically
  • The design of the learning experience assumes some outcomes will be unknown and creates the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes, and successes.
  • Reflection, critical analysis and synthesis

*Definition by the Davis Education Committee, now the Experiential Learning Committee at Brandeis, and adapted from the National Society for Experiential Education

Definition and History

What is experiential learning?

How does it work?

Where did it develop?

Contemporary Topics & Developments in the Field

Experiential Education Resources

National Society for Experiential Education 


John Dewey

David A. Kolb

Kurt Lewin

Jean Piaget

Thoughts on Experiential Learning

An Excerpt from One Lawyer’s Take on “Experiential Learning”
Jules Bernstein, '57 - Keynote Speaker, 2010 Experiential Learning Symposium, March 18, 2010

There are several useful principles that I have tried to impart to interns from the get-go:

1. Expect to make mistakes. This is inevitable for many reasons, including the fact, as
Justice Holmes said, that logic is often inapplicable where law is concerned.
Intuition, or what is often called “elephant feel”6 is required. And this kind of
judgment may take years to develop. It clearly is the result of experiential learning.
Further, no one knows everything, including me. So do not panic and don’t take my
corrections personally. It is simply about learning and getting it right. I am here in
order to help you get there.

2. Learn not only from your mistakes but also from your defeats and losses. Do not be
discouraged. As in baseball, in law there always are winners and losers. So you
must get yourself up, dust yourself off, and get back onto the field.

3. Do not hesitate to ask questions because you believe you will expose your ignorance.
I have on occasion said to a judge “that is an excellent question, your honor,
[thinking to myself, why didn’t I anticipate it?], but I do not have an answer at this
time. However, with your permission I will submit my answer in writing this
afternoon.” Better this than a half-baked response, even if it is to a half-baked
question. Innocent questions from interns have frequently led to profound insights.
In law as elsewhere two heads are better than one, and so on up the scale.

4. Be dogged in doing research. There may be a case right around the next corner that
will change your entire perspective. Do not think that your first answer is the
ultimate answer. Be prepared to change your mind. Test your conclusions carefully.
And try to see and understand the other side’s case better than it does, so that you are
fully prepared to meet it head on.

These are but a few of many such principles that I have tried to impart as a mentor. Let me
say that I consider myself fortunate to have had mentors who were caring enough to “show me the
ropes.” Hopefully, those of you who are similarly situated as lawyers and otherwise will be as

Let me offer one concluding comment.

The impact of experiential learning is life-lasting. For the most part, younger people are
trying to look to their futures and are working on creating their lives and themselves. Experiential
learning is an important building block in this process.

For older folks, we have a different job. We often spend our time looking back at our lives,
trying to understand what happened and trying to make sense and find meaning in our experiences.
This requires honesty, courage and insight.

To conclude, experiential learning is an essential element of lifetime learning and must be
respected and applied as such.

6As was the case with the elephants who moved to high ground when they felt the
tsunami coming.