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What is Experiential Learning? Discover How You Can Learn by Doing

Experiential learning is an opportunity to gain knowledge and skills that can help you professionally as you work on a real-world project.

A student getting experiential learning in programming with the support of a professional who is pointing at the computer.

It’s a common complaint among job applicants: Why does an entry-level position require two years of experience?

There may be as many reasons as there are hiring managers, but you can earn the experience employers demand — even for entry-level roles — while also getting your foot in the door of an industry that interests you.

Whether you’re just entering the job market or looking to change careers, experiential learning can increase your understanding of an industry, expand your professional network and begin to build a base of experience through internships, volunteer opportunities or partnering with a company as part of a for-credit college course.

What Does Experiential Learning Mean?

Dr Gwen Britton with the text Dr Gwen BrittonYou can think of experiential learning as just that: anything that allows you to experience a job or profession as a way of deepening what you’re learning in a classroom.

“Experiential learning is really learning through doing, whether it’s working on a project or learning how to do something by actually engaging in the activity,” said Dr. Gwen Britton, vice president of product strategy at Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU). “Either way, experiential learning involves learning by doing and reflecting about that learning.”

Experiential learning introduces you to the knowledge and skill set you'll need in your field by actually placing you in the workforce, according to Darrin Heald, a director of community partnerships for SNHU and a former internship manager.

“It really is an opportunity for students to gain experience in a way that they might not otherwise have an option to do," he said.

What are Experiential Learning Examples?

As a college student, you can participate in several types of experiential learning opportunities, many of which are incorporated into a class or degree program. Heald said the SNHU Career Team identified at least 17 types of experiential learning.

Some forms include:

  • Challenges
  • Class projects
  • Internships
  • Research projects
  • Service learning

Here are examples of what experiential learning can look like across a variety of academic programs:

Experiential learning isn’t always tied to a program or discipline, though. Some opportunities offer learning outcomes and soft skill development that can benefit you no matter your career goals.

One example of this is a learning opportunity that allows you to engage in diversity, equity and inclusion activities with classmates university-wide. At SNHU, “Exploring Diversity,” which is funded by the university's Office of Diversity and Inclusion, encourages interested students to learn more about different cultures and experiences in a collaborative environment that culminates in a presentation.

Recently, 50 students from a range of online degree programs, including social sciences, business, health, liberal arts and STEM, came together to study Black history and culture.

Over the course of six weeks, participants worked in groups to research a related topic and assemble a presentation that could take the form of a webinar, podcast, digital story or video. Some of the topics they explored included:

  • Black women leaders
  • Colorism
  • Covert racism, discrimination and microaggressions
  • Economic disparities
  • Global Black history

At the end of the experience, successful participants walked away with new knowledge and a certificate of completion to support the skills they gained, such as teamwork, time management, research, writing for an audience, and presentation development and delivery.

Future installments of “Exploring Diversity" will focus on Hispanic heritage, the immigrant experience and military affiliation, inviting students to broaden their knowledge of the world.

Why is Experiential Learning Important?

While there are many types of experiential learning, there are just as many benefits to your academic and real-world knowledge, not to mention the impact they can have during a job search.

Experiential learning is important in education because it can help you:

  1. Acquire relevant experience
  2. Build your network
  3. Develop skills
  4. Feel more engaged
  5. Find a sense of direction
  6. Practice interdisciplinary collaboration

Take a closer look at each reason:

1. Acquire Relevant Experiences for Your Resume

A chief benefit of experiential learning is that it helps you gain experience in a field before you begin your career. That is vital to your academic journey since the job market you will enter often expects 1-2 years of experience, even for entry-level positions.

Sonja Moffett with the text Sonja MoffettExperiential learning opportunities that build on skills and knowledge relevant to your academic program can help fulfill those qualifications you might encounter on the job boards.

"(SNHU's online) experiential learning offerings are a solution to finding time to gain the experiential competencies and gain the confidence to speak to their accomplishments in an interview," said Sonja Moffett, an early engagement partner at SNHU.

Some projects also include certificates or micro-credentials you can include on your resume and portfolio to make sure a potential employer understands what you’ve learned.

Moffet said experiential learning projects make students stand out as job candidates.

"By participating in our learning experiences, students position themselves for increased opportunities to prevail in a competitive interview process," she said. "A degree is a qualifier, but experience is a differentiator."

You can reach out to your college's team of career advisors to help you position the skills and knowledge you gained during the experience on your resume and in job interviews.

2. Build Your Network

Experiential learning projects also allow you to interact with professionals — and potentially future employers — along with fellow students with similar interests.

“(Experiential learning) offers great relationship-building and valuable conversations with employers," said Matt DiPirro, an associate dean of liberal arts programs at SNHU.

Darrin Heald with the text Darrin HealdEstablishing a robust professional network can be a critical step toward getting your foot in the door at a company you want to work for. Many jobs aren’t ever listed or advertised, according to CareerOneStop, so finding those means you have to have a network you can tap.

“Students are getting really good exposure to employers in the field,” Heald said. “When done correctly, you really have an opportunity to showcase your skill, your educational knowledge and really start to build a brand for yourself as a student to these employers.”

3. Develop Skills

Employers across nearly every industry are looking for employees who have not only technical and subject-specific knowledge but soft skills as well. Those are skills, also known as transferable skills, such as critical thinking, teamwork and written and oral communication, that can be used across many disciplines.

During the job search, "students can speak to skill-based competencies that they can immediately use in their prospective roles and discuss soft skills gained as a participant," Moffett said.

Experiential learning provides many opportunities to develop and demonstrate these skills. Often, experiential learning projects involve research and working as part of a team and with industry professionals. That means students have to rely on their ability to research, collaborate and communicate.

"(Experiential learning) is a proactive approach to career readiness that develops their professionalism and any core competencies they will need, in addition to the theoretical knowledge they gain in their degree program," Moffett said. "We want to position them for success, and these experiences do that."

4. Feel More Engaged

Access to hands-on projects can also foster student engagement — something that's especially needed at the undergraduate level. Wiley, a leader in educational resources, recently surveyed students for The State of the Student 2022 report and found that 55% of undergraduate students are having difficulty staying engaged in class.

To become more engaged, 81% of all surveyed students agreed that it's important or very important "for schools to offer real company-led projects," according to the organization's report. Students want experience applying themselves to real-world material.

Plus, real-world approaches to learning, including the focus on experiential learning, can help you determine what you want to do with your education.

5. Find a Sense of Direction

A growing number of students need that.

Matt DiPirro with the text Matt DiPirro The State of the Student 2022 report found that the number of students feeling uncertain about what field they want to pursue more than doubled between 2021 and 2022, jumping from 9% to 21%.

Through experiential learning, you can get an idea of what kind of work you enjoy. "These experiences can be difference-makers for students preparing for the job market and understanding where to take their education," DiPirro said. "Many students complete their experience with a strong sense of meaning and direction for their education or career path."

You may discover positions and pathways you didn't know existed. Take advantage of the network you build during your experiential learning opportunity; there's likely an industry professional who can tell you more about an area that catches your interest — and let you know how to position yourself for a role in that.

6. Practice Interdisciplinary Collaboration

Many times, classes you take within your major are filled with people working toward the same degree program as you. Some experiential learning projects unite people from different disciplines, introducing them to what they might expect from a realistic working environment.

For instance, SNHU's Game Design Challenge brought game art and development students and creative writing students together to conceptualize a game.

Jacob Powers with the text Jacob Powers"(The creative writing students) gained real-world communication experiences by collaborating across disciplines with game art and development students," said Jacob Powers, an associate dean of creative writing at SNHU. "They worked to achieve a single goal, a critical asset to any career or industry, and broke away from the antiquated idea that writers must work in isolation to create a stellar product."

Through the experience, students from both programs had the opportunity to integrate their areas of expertise into one project.

"The group dynamic and framework challenged their ability to collaborate, deliberate, delegate and negotiate with their peers," Moffett said. "But they do eventually work together to come (to) a consensus on how to successfully approach and complete their projects as a team."

The Benefit of Virtual Experiential Learning Opportunities

Virtual experiential learning projects also fill a critical gap if you're earning your degree online. Online students, who often have full- or part-time jobs, families and other responsibilities, will be competing with campus-based students who have spent part of their college careers completing one or more traditional internships.

“This allows students to really get out there and start to build a resume that showcases, ‘Yes, I have relevant experience in this field, and there’s an artifact to show you what I’ve done',” Heald said.

Britton said because online students are so busy combining school into already full lives, experiential learning projects show employers you’re someone who goes the extra mile.

“Busy is relative,” she said. “... Engaging in experiential learning opportunities will feed that passion and truly help (students) build their resume so they can show future employers their successes fueled by their passion.”

The virtual environment and online communication involved in many experiential learning opportunities also prepare you to work in a distributed workforce — a reality for many today.

"We are acclimating our students to the new workforce they will face beyond graduation," Moffett said — and ensuring they are more comfortable and ready for the changes to come.

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU online program that can best help you meet your goals.

Rebecca LeBoeuf ’18 ’22G is a writer at Southern New Hampshire University. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

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About Southern New Hampshire University

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.