Experiential learning vs. traditional learning: Everything you need to know

November 6, 2023
5 mins
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Every great educator is also a student. They never stop learning and growing—nor do they stop finding the best ways to enhance their students' learning. 

That's why many educators often reevaluate their teaching methods. By blending experiential learning experiences with traditional teaching methods, educators and higher ed institutions have found that they are able to expand their offerings and enhance student learning outcomes. 

So, what are the differences between these two methods, and how do they influence learning experiences? That's what we're here to discuss. 


Experiential learning vs. traditional learning: What's the difference?

The simplest way to think of the difference between traditional learning and experiential learning is by thinking of them as showing and telling, respectively. 

It's almost akin to the 'show and tell' days that many of us fondly remember from elementary or primary school, where students would stand in front of the class and present a tangible item to complement their narration. On their own, each approach is effective, but when they work in tandem, the learning experience is enriched. 

Traditional learning, a time-honored approach that has long been the staple of educational systems around the world, mirrors the 'telling' portion. It relies heavily on educators imparting knowledge through structured lessons, supported by textbooks and other resources.

Assessments, such as exams and assignments, ensure that the information 'told' finds its place in the student's understanding.

Experiential learning, on the other hand, more closely resembles the 'showing' portion. It allows students to take the robust theoretical base they've gained in the classroom and immerse themselves in authentic, hands-on experiences, actively applying and experimenting with what they've learned. 

Whether it's through work-based learning, internships, fieldwork, or cooperative education (co-ops), experiential learning amplifies the essence of traditional learning, enabling students to see their knowledge in action.

Even though some institutions have experiential learning programs in place, there is often a challenge to ensure that every student, regardless of their background or situation, can complete the activities. That’s why many innovative universities are taking advantage of experiential learning platforms like Riipen to provide equitable access for all their students.

Both approaches have values that cater to diverse educational needs and have their unique set of advantages. Let's take a quick look at the pros and cons of each approach.




Traditional learning

  • A structured and systematic approach
  • Time-tested and widely accepted
  • Clear benchmarks for assessment
  • Can be passive in nature
  • Sometimes, it may fall behind current industry demands
  • Might not cater to all learning styles

Experiential learning

  • Encourages active student participation
  • Bridges the gap between theory and real-world application
  • Cultivates critical thinking and problem-solving skills
  • May require more resources to implement
  • Might be challenging to integrate into traditional curricula
  • Requires institutions to develop and maintain relationships with a diverse range of organizations

Challenges faced in traditional learning models

Traditional learning models excel in building a foundational understanding for students. However, as with any method, there are limitations. Let's examine them more closely.

Lecture-based methods can lead to passive learning.

Lectures may be an effective way to ensure the consistent flow of information from educator to student, but there's an increasing acknowledgment that students have different learning styles, and this approach may not be as engaging as others.

This isn't to say that lecture-based methods inherently promote passivity; however, the structured nature of these courses makes it easier for students to rely on memorization or chegging to pass assessments rather than actively engaging with the material to obtain deeper connections.

There are slight gaps between education and employability. 

One of the primary objectives of education is to prepare students for their future careers. However, the traditional learning model can sometimes fall short in bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and its practical application in the real world. 

Students may score well in exams yet feel unprepared when faced with actual workplace challenges. This disconnect can lead to a gap between the education received and the skills required for employability, causing students to scramble to adjust when they first enter the workforce.

Traditional learning often lacks emphasis on career clarity.

While traditional learning prepares students with a wide range of skills and theoretical knowledge that will benefit them in whatever career they choose, the path to identifying a fulfilling and suitable career isn't always straightforward.

Without real-world exposure or access to authentic work-based projects, students may find it challenging to pinpoint what they truly want from their careers. This is a considerable problem for underserved students as they often only have one shot at their education.

There's a lack of networking opportunities 

As the saying goes, "It's not just what you know, but who you know." Networking has become a crucial element in securing internships and job opportunities, but it's not the primary focus of traditional learning. 

While internships have sometimes been used to enhance a student's academic journey, these opportunities are not always available to every student, and they are becoming increasingly difficult to find. 

In fact, 41.3% of students reported being unable to secure an internship simply due to the lack of available opportunities. In today's competitive landscape, students need equitable access to these opportunities to better prepare them to navigate the realities of the modern job market.

The pressing need for relevance in education

More and more of today's students are voicing a desire for hands-on experiences, real-world correlations, and an educational journey that feels intrinsically tied to their prospective professional lives.

In fact, an astounding 55% of students claim to have trouble engaging with or retaining their current course material, and a whopping 81% of them feel that it's important for schools to provide real company-led projects. 

The sheer number of students highlighting engagement issues underscores the urgency to reimagine and restructure academic content to include experiential learning experiences. 

Despite this evident demand, a disconnect remains, with only 30% of educators confirming their institutions offer such opportunities. If institutions implemented experiential practices into their curriculum early on, then students could gain a firsthand glimpse of their future careers, test theories, make vital connections, and hone skills in environments mirroring their post-graduate destinations.

This career clarity is vital to ensure that students love what they do and discover the skills they will need to use in their professional lives.

Benefits of experiential learning in driving student engagement

Experiential learning is widely used to create meaningful learning experiences that extend past the classroom. Let's take a closer look at how it drives student engagement.

It lets students tackle real-world challenges.

When students get their 'hands dirty' and dive into authentic problems that they will face in the workplace, it transforms their learning experience from that of something hypothetical to something tangible. 

No longer are they just memorizing facts and concepts, they are motivated to put those theories to the test and proactively find solutions to the problems at hand.

It offers a sense of purpose and real-world implications.

Instead of merely completing assignments for a grade, experiential learning instills a profound sense of purpose. It gives them a better understanding of how their work can impact the larger world and add value to the world. 

This realization fuels their dedication, ignites passion for their subjects, and cultivates a relentless pursuit of excellence.

It boosts teamwork and collaboration with industry partners.

When students dive headfirst into group tasks or liaise with industry partners, they're thrust into a melting pot of varied viewpoints. Communicating their thoughts becomes paramount, and harmonizing disparate ideas for a shared objective becomes the game's name. 

Such real-world collaborations don't just heighten engagement; they arm students for the cooperative dynamics of today's professions.

It harnesses the unparalleled value of mentorship and insights.

As students complete their experiential learning experiences, they often find seasoned professionals or educators guiding their path, offering nuggets of wisdom and feedback.

This feedback loop ensures students understand their strengths and areas of improvement. Such mentorship is invaluable in refining skills, clarifying doubts, and fostering a mindset of continuous learning.

How can institutions start integrating experiential learning into their curriculum?

For educational institutions looking to incorporate experiential learning into their curriculum, the path forward involves thoughtful planning, industry partnerships, and leveraging innovative platforms. Here are some practical steps institutions can consider:

  1. Identify curriculum gaps & plan: Review the existing curriculum, pinpointing areas where experiential learning can add depth and application, decide on the type of activity suitable for your students, and ensure these experiences sync with the course's learning objectives.
  2. Engage industry partners: Build relationships and collaborate with industries that can elevate the learning experience through guest speakers, workshops, and real-world projects relevant to the course material.
  3. Leverage platforms: To expand your network of industry partners and access global projects, you might want to consider using platforms like Riipen to make it easier to integrate experiential learning. Not only will you have access to an extensive support network, but you’ll also have all the project management tools you need to find or create lasting experiences for your students.
  4. Prepare: Once your industry partners and projects are selected, gather all necessary resources (from readings to research tools) and develop rubrics and tailored assessment tools to evaluate the activities effectively.
  5. Facilitate & implement: Introduce the experiences to students, set clear expectations and context, convert industry partnerships and projects into graded assignments, and play a guiding role, allowing students to explore solutions autonomously yet being there to steer when necessary.
  6. Evaluate, solicit feedback, and iterate: Collect feedback from all participants, assess the success of your activities using tools like discussions, reflections, and debriefing sessions, and refine the experiential learning experiences, making iterative improvements to ensure effectiveness. If you’re using a platform like Riipen, you can collect all feedback and self-reflections directly on the platform. 

Explore Riipen's platform 

Traditional educational methods, though valuable, sometimes lack the immediate relevance students seek. That's where experiential learning platforms like Riipen shine. 

With access to over 31,000 global businesses, Riipen offers diverse, real-world projects across all industries, ensuring every student, irrespective of background, can gain practical experience.

For example, Johnny Swierczynski, a marketing student from the University of Southampton in the UK, needed to work closely with a client on a real-world project for a course was taking; however finding a industry partner and getting them on the same page with his educators expectations was a challenge—That’s where Riipen stepped in. 

They were able to connect him with the right partner and helped him gain the experience he needed to fulfill the course requirements. Here’s what he had to say, “Despite the challenges, completing this project with Riipen was probably my favourite assignment I’ve done in the last two years. Not only was it intellectually challenging, I also learnt so much through it that I wouldn't have, if I’d done a fictional project like many of my classmates.”

Individualized dashboards (like the one pictured below) make it easy for every participant to keep track of their tasks and projects. 

Designed for ease, its user-friendly interface suits educators and students alike. Its adaptability stands out, fitting seamlessly into varied educational disciplines. 

Riipen’s extensive marketplace allows educators to browse through available open projects or create their own and find industry partners to match with.


Jump ahead:

Key takeaways

  • Experiential learning emphasizes hands-on experience and real-world application, while traditional learning primarily focuses on structured theoretical knowledge. 
  • While traditional learning methods provide foundational knowledge, there are pressing challenges, such as the gaps between education and employability and the lack of networking opportunities, underscoring the need for more real-world, relevant educational experiences. 
  • For institutions aiming to incorporate experiential learning, a strategic approach involves identifying curriculum gaps, engaging with industry partners, leveraging platforms like Riipen, and continuously evaluating and refining the learning experiences based on feedback.

Riipen isn't just an additional tool; it's an educational revolution, bringing relevance and industry readiness to the forefront of learning. If you want to start incorporating experiential learning into your curriculum, schedule a demo and see how easy it is to do with Riipen.

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