Generally speaking, experts delineate three "domains" in which students can potentially make significant gains through well-taught experiential learning courses. These domains interpenetrate and inform one another, as indicated on the diagram below.
- Enhanced mastery of Academic Content -- well-designed experiential learning requires students to employ higher-order, critical thinking skills such as applying course content to real-world situations and critically evaluating unpredictable (and uncontrolled) real-world circumstances. Real-world problems also tend to require interdisciplinary responses...requiring students to evaluate the fittingness of their discipline's contributions and perhaps create new syntheses of methodologies in order to be effective.
- Community-based engagement also requires students to develop social and civic competencies. With increasing competence comes, for many students, an increased sense of personal efficacy, i.e. the sense that one's actions can make a (positive) difference in the world.
- Finally, the challenge of applying one's skills, often in the context of encounters across lines of difference, to real-world challenges provides a rich opportunity for students to both recognize and evaluate their personal background, identity, and values. For many students, experiential learning is also a great way to "field test" possible careers, and can lead to real clarification in their understanding of personal mission/vocation.
The existence of these three domains of potential learning also imposes a real challenge for educators who wish to help their students maximize learning from their experiences. The process of helping students make meaning across all aspects of their experience is generally referred to as reflection. For more on experiential learning reflection, click here.