What Is Experiential Learning at US Universities?

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By Matt Killorin
Last updated on August 10, 2023

Get a deep understanding through learning by doing — and be prepared for your career — with this hands-on learning style.

A female international student wearing safety goggles works at a carpentry table while her professor wearing safety goggles watches over her shoulder

Perhaps you have heard the proverb: experience is the best teacher. Experiential learning, or learning by doing, is a common teaching methodology at many US universities. For international students studying for a bachelor’s degree, experiential learning may be different from the educational styles popular back home, such as lecture or memorization. If the idea of learning by doing makes you nervous, don’t worry. Not only can experiential learning be fun, but it can give you an advantage when pursuing a career after college. 

What Is Experiential Learning?

Experiential learning in the classroom was formalized in the 1970s by psychologist David Kolb. He bases his model on a four-stage cycle

  1. Having an experience

  2. Reflecting on that experience

  3. Drawing conclusions from the experience

  4. Experimenting based on what has been learned

Experiential learning activities at US universities include workshops, community service, internships, real-life simulations, group projects, and more. Experiential learning gives students the kind of valuable real-world insight that increases understanding on a given subject, looks good on resumes, and can help graduates land their first jobs in their chosen fields of study. 

Which Majors Use Experiential Learning? 

US university instructors across almost every discipline employ experiential learning techniques and encourage or require students to participate in internships. Let’s look at a few examples of how instructors incorporate this active learning methodology to foster comprehension and expose students to real-world applications of what they are learning in the classroom. 

Experiential Learning for Business Majors 

Corporate partnerships, business plan competitions, and new venture incubators are just a few experiential learning opportunities available for business majors at US universities. Employers want to see candidates with resumes demonstrating their leadership, communication, project management, and teamwork skills — all of which benefit from participatory activities both in and out of the classroom.

Experiential learning provides opportunities to build a resume that demonstrates familiarity with these and other similar soft-skill concepts, such as networking and creativity. The Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute has helped the University of Utah earn the title of 10th best undergraduate school for entrepreneurship in the United States, according to U.S. News & World Report. At Lassonde, students collaborate and innovate to launch and build prototypes and businesses and even get funding to turn their concepts into reality. 

Experiential Learning for Engineering Majors 

Manufacturing engineers are tactile people, so it shouldn’t surprise that real-world experience is essential. The difference between a student prototype on paper and an actual, working product could be thousands of hours of model refinement, quality assurance, and real physical testing. Through experiential learning, engineering majors can innovate faster and with better outcomes. 

Experiential Learning for Computer Science Majors 

Computer science majors often face unique challenges specific to the industry in which they work. A web developer working for a health care company may help develop an on-demand app for hospital patients or big data aggregators that prevent medication errors. In contrast, a computer science graduate working in the finance industry has an entirely different set of problems to solve, like security programs for online banking transactions or updating product algorithms that require market performance data. 

Computer science majors are often tasked with developing a puzzle-piece solution that requires creativity and innovation — the kind of development work that’s more suited to a school-sponsored hackathon than a classroom lecture. At the Center for Integrative and Experiential Learning at the University of South Carolina, students have the opportunity and resources they need to design and build computer systems, networks, and applications. They are also encouraged to participate in experiential learning activities and courses that promote community service, peer leadership, and social advocacy. 

Research Is Experiential Learning 

With millions of dollars in funding, modern campus-based centers for collaboration, and instruction from industry leaders and recognized scientists, many US universities are known for their cutting-edge research activity. While sometimes dealing with theories and constructs, research often relies on real-world experimentation and other fieldwork. Engaging with problems and solutions over time, in a hands-on way, helps students develop confidence and a better understanding of critical processes. 

Here are a few different research facilities at US universities that are innovators in experiential learning: 

  • University of Massachusetts Boston: UMass Boston is one of the best public universities in the United States for research, with $1 billion in private investments. Student-led research projects span every topic, from traffic safety improvements to K-Pop.

  • Florida International University (FIU): Students of FIU’s Medina Aquarius program conduct environmental and biological research from a lab 63 feet below the Atlantic Ocean’s surface. FIU’s environmental program also boasts research opportunities at multiple faculty-led laboratories.

  • University of Central Florida (UCF): U.S. News & World Report ranked UCF fiftieth of the best universities in the United States for undergraduate research/creative projects. From biomedical to engineering research that extends into outer space, UCF students are pushing boundaries and making breakthroughs in almost every discipline.

Internships Are Experiential Learning

According to a 2017 report commissioned by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE): “Graduates who had two or more internships while in college were twice as likely to be employed at six months, rather than to be seeking employment, relative to those who never participated in an internship.” 

Internships are a great example of how experiential learning can give students a competitive advantage when searching for jobs after graduation — and can help students transition into the real world with confidence. Many business-related programs require internship experience to graduate, while other programs — such as engineering at the University of Illinois Chicago — offer guaranteed paid internships

Experiential Learning Opportunities

There are countless opportunities for international students at US universities to use experiential learning to propel their education and prepare for their careers. For finance majors at Louisiana State University, the SMART lab simulates a stock trading floor so students can get a real feel for what to expect after graduation. Economics majors at American University take a hands-on, interdisciplinary approach to information processing at the Info-Metrics Institute. Regardless of your major, experiential learning fosters teamwork and reflection. It allows students to receive real-time feedback and apply what they have learned right away. 

Discover which career resources are available for international students at Shorelight partner universities >