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Fostering Educational Excellence Through Experiential Learning

It is now imperative for higher ed to provide learners with skills-based learning that will allow them to succeed in the workforce, and experiential learning is an effective way to do it.

In the ever-evolving landscape of education, the spotlight has turned toward experiential learning (EL) as a catalyst for transformation. According to the Institution for Experiential Learning, research on the topic across dozens of interdisciplinary subjects has more than quadrupled since 2000.[1] Students are placing increased weight on the EL opportunities a college or university offers when evaluating their options during the admissions process. In response, the list of institutions making participation in EL a requirement for graduation grows every year.

It’s really no surprise, given the myriad of benefits of experiential learning. Students who participate in EL see a 42% bump in their four-year graduation rates.[2] Gallup’s “Big Six” study identified distinct EL and high-impact practices that increase a student’s confidence in their ability to be successful in the job market.[3] And let’s not forget the employer side, where a LinkedIn study found that 35% of entry-level job postings on their site required three years of experience or more.[4]

It’s this last number that draws the attention of many university staff and administrators. Higher education is, after all, in the business of helping students build meaningful lives, and a career is a large variable in that equation. Students seek educational opportunities for economic and social mobility. An increased return on investment (ROI) for the student can be yielded when programs include EL opportunities. This is even truer for graduate students, who have chosen to pursue a specialization in a specific discipline to advance their careers.

Through an effective experiential learning program, institutions can help students build the resumes necessary to land those ideal careers. However, building those systems requires challenging traditional pedagogy in three important ways.

1) Embracing Skills-Based Learning

Due to current hiring practices, skills-based learning has never been more important than in today’s ecosystem. That is not to say that students have not been building skills in their more traditional coursework. However, those skills have traditionally been more of an afterthought in an educator’s syllabus.

Experiential learning systems ask educators and institutions to bring the high-value, marketable skills that resonate with contemporary industry needs to the forefront of curricula. It goes beyond the traditional confines of academic paradigms, inviting students not merely to absorb knowledge but, critically, to apply these skills actively in navigating the intricacies of real-world challenges.

This paradigmatic shift embodies a practical dimension in education, instilling in learners a proactive approach to knowledge acquisition and problem-solving. The emphasis here transcends simple memorization, instead fostering a holistic development that prepares students for the dynamic demands of professional life.

Often, through reflection, students discover that the skills they developed and honed through their EL are those traditionally called “soft” or what is rebranded today as power skills.[5] These are the collaborative, interactive, human skills highly sought after by employers. Being able to identify that fact not only helps them see how the more traditional learning they’re undertaking continues that skills development, but also offers them a chance to articulate that skill or competency to a future employer.

2) Equitable Access Through the Curriculum

Key to an effective experiential learning system is ensuring its accessibility to every student. This mission, of course, presents a unique challenge, as the percentage of nontraditional students enrolling in higher education begins to surpass traditional students. How do you ensure a working parent has the chance to be a part of the EL system alongside their other responsibilities, especially given WGU’s School of Business working adult student population?

The answer is that you incorporate it into the curriculum. Educators need to think strategically about how their curriculum is preparing their students for life after graduation. That includes helping them earn skills, helping them articulate those skills, and helping them build their resume.

For many professors, this practice may challenge the status quo. Many have been teaching the same syllabus for years and are reluctant to change. However, it’s crucial to remember that EL can enhance their classroom experience, not detract from it. Building alignment between the program and the courses revolves around the idea that everyone wants what’s best for the students.

Incorporating EL into the curriculum through this strategic alignment ensures that every student, irrespective of socioeconomic background, is afforded an equal opportunity to enhance their marketability and forge a competitive edge in their early career.

3) The Role of Technology in Providing Scale

The obvious benefit of technology is that it makes EL opportunities available to our students, sothey can be seen anytime, anywhere. As an online institution, it may seem like WGU has a built-in advantage in leveraging technology to scale experiential learning, yet we face our own distinct challenges, particularly when it comes to the asynchronous nature of online learning.

Experiential learning often requires collaboration. Whether it’s working with a group or directly with a manager or instructor, the importance of the interpersonal aspect of EL cannot be overstated. In an environment that navigates between the synchronous and asynchronous more than most, fostering that collaboration through technology is vital, so students get the most out of the experience.

Success lies in forging dynamic partnerships and cultivating collaborative networks among various stakeholders. From curriculum developers and assessment teams to career services and ed tech professionals, expertise across the spectrum is required to execute complete experiential learning initiatives. Understanding who those partners are in your own ecosystem can provide an important foundation from which to construct the complete system.

For us at WGU’s School of Business, our partnerships run the gamut: from our faculty members to our ed tech providers in PeopleGrove who help us have projects that align to the skills and competencies we want our students to build. Each of our partners is aligned with the first two principles discussed above: skills-based learning that’s part of the curriculum and equitably accessible for every student.

No Longer Optional

The burgeoning prominence of experiential learning in higher education is an organic response to students’ amplified aspirations for tangible returns on their educational investment. The #1 reason a learner chooses higher education is to get a good or better job. Given the current employment marketplace, experiential learning is no longer an optional part of the student journey.

These insights underscore WGU School of Business’s profound commitment to advancing experiential learning, especially for traditionally underserved student populations. The institution’s focused dedication to skills, unwavering commitment to equitable access and adept online navigation encapsulate a transformative vision for the educational landscape. This comprehensive exploration invites educators, policymakers and learners alike to recognize the enriching potential of experiential learning as an integral force in shaping the future of education.


[1] Experience Based Learning Systems, “This is Experiential Learning,” 2020

[2] NACE, “Sparking Early Experiential Learning,” 2023

[3] Gallup, “Six College Experiences Linked to Student Confidence on Jobs,” 2019

[4] LinkedIn, “Hiring’s new red line: why newcomers can’t land 35% of ‘entry-level’ jobs,” 2021

[5] Reuters, “Why ‘power skills’ is the new term for soft skills in the hybrid work world,” 2022