Framing Experiential Learning

If we want students to care about any subject, be it math, sciences, languages, or philosophy, then we must encourage a relationship with each. It’s always been my experience that for humanity, nothing is “real” until we have a relationship to it.

For me, this was never more clear than when I supervised a group of gap-year students in Belize. We were supporting a local effort to build a community lodge that would serve as a shared space and had to place a tarp over a partially thatched roof that was 20-feet wide and stood 30 feet above us. That was the first time that trigonometry had any real or practical application for me or any of my students. Calculating the angles with students when all we had were rocks, rope, a tarp, and a Herculean task ahead of us was the epitome of learning by experience.

Experiential learning can take many forms: summer programs, semester schools, gap-year education, classroom modules, etc. When done well, it has been shown to support leadership development; improve career satisfaction; and strongly influence academic improvement, as students see how information connects to reality. Students who immerse themselves in experiential learning perform better on campuses in both academic and leadership fronts. In the case of a gap year, it’s no secret that employers during an interview tend to focus more on those unique and exceptional experiences that are common in a gap year.

The Association for Experiential Education has a favorite set of defining traits for this type of learning:

  • Experiential learning occurs when carefully chosen experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis, and synthesis.
  • Experiences are structured to require the learner to take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for results.
  • The results of the learning are personal and form the basis for future experience and learning.
  • Relationships are developed and nurtured: Learner to self, learner to others, and learner to the world at large.
  • The educator’s primary roles include setting suitable experiences, posing problems, setting boundaries, supporting learners, insuring physical and emotional safety, and facilitating the learning process.
  • The educator recognizes and encourages spontaneous opportunities for learning.

Is It a Good Fit?

While every student can find some benefit from experiential learning, it may not be right for all students. As a student considers embarking down the experiential learning path, be sure they weigh these factors.

Age: It’s not uncommon to use experiential education early, when adolescence and hormonal changes are starting to take root. Learning through experiences helps kids not only boost their intellectual brain power, but it also influences their social and emotional experiences, which can affect students to the core. Some kids may not be mature enough for this type of adventure yet.

Personality: How will students know if they are ready—let alone happy—about a given future if they haven’t yet been exposed to their particular genius? That’s one of the benefits of experiential learning—to discover likes and dislikes. Experiential education tends to favor those who are more humanities-oriented (but not exclusively). Such students tend to have a less-prescribed path to their future place in society than those with a STEM focus. Consider personalities as you organize experiential learning activities, and take to heart individual students’ abilities and interests.

We frequently find students fit two or more of the following behavioral categories:

  1. The Worker—Seeking a break from the competitive pressures of getting into college. Taking a gap year works to round out students and give them added perspective.
  2. The Meaning Seeker—May exhibit a lackluster GPA due to a lack of real-world applicability. These students may be eager to find their place in the world and meet some need.
  3. The Pragmatist—Desperate to make the investment of college count; they want to maximize time and money.
  4. The Struggler—Often characterized by learning differences or otherwise not having found success in academics in high school. Experiential education is a new way to access inherent intelligence and frequently counts as a “win” for the first time.
  5. The Floater—Typically not engaged in school or may seem immature in their own life. Frequently these students have lost a reason to be an active participant in their own future and a gap year can expose them to greater reasons to be more active.

Parental Apprehension: Understandably, parents may have concerns about letting their children experience the world firsthand. Remember, student outcomes are dependent on some level of parent participation—when students are free and comfortable enough to experiment with different iterations of themselves, the outcomes improve. This means including parents at choice moments—particularly at the beginning, but just as much when students are out on program. A picture of a safe and happy student who is testing their understanding of self, place, and society will allow parents to differentiate more and ultimately support the independent development of an adult.

Advice for Advisers

Students and families may have questions on everything from simple logistics like insurance, travel plans, visas, or anything in between. How can you guide your students effectively? Help families explore the merits of different programs if you possess that expertise, or direct them to helpful online resources—some of which include peer reviews that might be helpful—like GoOverseas.com, GoAbroad.com, or TeenLife.com. Or, seek out an expert consultant, such as a member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association, who specializes in such placements. You can also direct students and families to websites like the American Gap Association’s Accreditation process for programs, the American Camp Association, or the Association for Experiential Education.

Introduce the idea as soon as you can:

  • Assemble a panel of alumni.
  • Educate families about their resources (websites, counselors, etc.) that highlight both the options and benefits of the available programs.
  • For gap years, encourage families to apply to college, and then request a deferral.

Be prepared to address common concerns:

  • Is it safe?
  • What will it cost?
  • Is it appropriate?
  • Will I lose academic skills or motivation?

What are the student’s goals?

  • Why does the student want to be immersed in experiential learning?
  • What are his/her specific interests and skills?

Families need to have realistic expectations:

  • Start with more structure and work toward less; train students to be independent and travel smart.
  • Ideally, this should be a student-driven process.
  • All placements should match a student’s goals, readiness, and abilities.
  • There will be program applications, and often phone or Skype admission interviews.
  • Programs will request full disclosure on past and present health or behavioral issues.
  • Students will be held to program rules and high levels of accountability.

Financial Aid Options

Families will also likely have questions about financing these endeavors, which cost about $120 per program day, on average. Monies are available—you just have to know where to find them.

Last year, the American Gap Association (which is changing to the Gap Year Association), surveyed its members and found that more than $4 million was given away in 2016 alone. These scholarships were given for needs-based students, but they’re not readily advertised. Parents (and advisers) must ask about them to dig up the details. Other associations, like the American Camp Association, also have robust financial aid pages to help families navigate the costs involved in a summer experiential program.

Also, take note that a new string of scholarships is starting to arise for students taking a gap year, including 98 scholarships of $2,000 each given to students through Hosteling International, and $30,000 given away by the Travel Access Project—a nonprofit focused on making international experiential education more accessible. Some colleges are starting to offer money for students to take a gap year, too. Inquire at institutions that interest your students.

Maximizing the Benefits

Finally, be intentional with the post-program transference. In an ideal scenario, this would support the student’s learning and processing while also sharing the wealth of their experiences with their peers and community. Additionally, experiential education participants will often return with greater excitement that has a window in which it can be harnessed. Missing that window effectively cuts the benefits by putting students back into the routine of school. A common mistake is to sway too far in the other direction and bombard a returning student with too much before they are ready: It takes time for each participant to clarify their thoughts and relevant lessons, and supporting that process takes time and a willingness to see the “new student” and encourage their new perspective into their class.

The best advice is to ask questions that require the individual to reflect on their experiences—thus solidifying outcomes and supporting growth. These are especially true if a student is returning home from an international experience where their world view will have grown rapidly. Taking the time to prepare all of the stakeholders—parents, students, the remaining student body, teachers/faculty, colleges, etc.—to provide a soft landing can pay dividends rapidly.


Ethan Knight is the executive director and founder of the American Gap Association, a nonprofit dedicated to making gap-year education more accessible for students of all backgrounds.


Big Names in Gap Years

You’ve likely heard that Malia Obama took advantage of her time between finishing high school and beginning her freshman year at Harvard to learn about the movie industry. Here is a list of other famous “gappers” who went on to achieve some pretty great things, according to www.gapyear.com:

  • Prince William
  • John Lennon and Paul McCartney
  • J.K. Rowling
  • Hugh Jackman
  • Mike Myers
  • Benedict Cumberbatch
  • Nigella Lawson

When it comes to experiential learning:

  • 60–70 percent of international education students are women.
  • 86 percent of gap-year students report being satisfied or very satisfied with their careers. Conversely, the national average is slightly more than 40 percent of workers that are satisfied with their careers.
  • The three most common reasons students take a gap year are because they 1) are burnt out from the competitive pressures of getting into college, 2) have a desire to know more about themselves, and 3) have a desire to see different cultures.
  • Experiential learning tends to attract students with higher rates of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder and depression.