Self-Directed Experiential Learning (SDL) » Self-Directed Experiential Learning (SDL)

Self-Directed Experiential Learning (SDL)

What is Experiential Learning?

Experiential learning is a process through which students develop knowledge, skills, and values from direct experiences outside a traditional academic setting.


Learning that is considered "experiential" contain all the following elements:

  • Reflection, critical analysis and synthesis
  • Opportunities for students to take initiative, make decisions, and be accountable for the results
  • Opportunities for students to engage intellectually, creatively, emotionally, socially, or physically
  • A designed learning experience that includes the possibility to learn from natural consequences, mistakes, and successes

From the Experiential Learning Center, University of Colorado at Denver



Benefits of Experiential Learning

Increasingly employers seek young people with more than just academic skills.  They actively recruit people who can collaborate and communicate, who can persevere and problem-solve.  Classroom exercises have a prominent place in education but learning experiences in self-selected areas of strength or interest yield life lessons that make our students more versatile, valuable and successful adults. 

A recent survey in Forbes magazine of over 100 HR managers, recruiters and CEOs  discussed the most desirable attributes they look for in new hires.  Descriptors included attention, focus, curiosity, willingness to learn, agility, perseverance, humility and not just “capability” but “copability”  – defined as the ability to function under pressure or to recover from setbacks. 

Having our students select or design their own experience to set a goal and accomplish something of personal importance is one way to help them develop, practice, and articulate essential skills.

Experiential learning...

  • Increases student engagement
  • Encourages a growth-oriented mindset
  • Bridges the gap between school learning and real-world learning
  • Increases student confidence
  • Increases student efficacy
  • Enhances retention of new learning
  • Personalizes learning
  • Increases self-awareness of individual interests and strengths

Steps in Experiential Learning

“Do something!”

Students will engage in a hands-on experience with guidance, but not direction from, peers and teachers. 

“What happened?”

Students will share the results, reactions and observations with their peers, reflecting on what they discovered.

“What was important?”

Students will discuss and analyze the experience and examine how themes, problems and issues emerged and were addressed.

“So what?”

Students will connect the experience with other real world examples, find trends or common truths in the experience, and identify “real life” skills that were developed. The students generalize this experience to others they have had or may someday face.

“Now what?”

Students will apply what they learned in the experience to new experiences.


I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.  

~ Confucius, 450 BC


For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.  

~ Aristotle, 350 BC


Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I will learn.  

~ Benjamin Franklin, 1750


There is an intimate and necessary relation between the process of actual experience and education.  

~ John Dewey, 1938