Experiential teaching practice and reflections

Liu Xinrong, Associate Professor, English Language, Tianjin Foreign Studies University, Tianjin, China

Student teachers in classroom


In this article, two case studies based on experiential learning theories are analysed in regard to teaching aims, learning environment and practical outcomes, to explore the role that experiential teaching and learning plays in contemporary higher educational practice. The conclusion is made that effective learning for college students should be more personalised, dynamic and engaged, which needs reflections from both teachers and students during and after the learning process, resulting in co-development for both sides. The underpinning pedagogic theories are reviewed, and recommendations are given for future practice and research.


The Project of Reforms in Teaching and Learning on College Classes is a sub-project of A Comparative Study on College Teaching Reforms of Western Countries and China in the Context of Globalization, a project funded by Tianjin Foreign Studies University in 2017-2018. In the first phase, as project leader, I undertook research with the project members on the major teaching and learning barriers based on feedback from 60 English major college students and 40 professional teachers. We interpreted the feedback as follows:

1. An oversized oral class (usually more than 20 students) is not conducive for the teachers to interact with each student. Supremacy is still given to a teacher, who is expected to provide conclusions and correct answers. Twenty-seven per cent of teachers complain about the oversized classes. Fifty-two per cent of teachers think a lack of initiatives makes it hard for students to perform well on class.

2. The students gradually feel tired and distracted as the class goes on. Forty-eight per cent of students feel bored with the contents in textbooks. Thirty-two per cent of students are not satisfied with the teaching methods. Ten per cent of students feel the strain of one monotonous session lasting 100 minutes.

3. In practice, students usually prefer individual learning to partnership-based learning in practice. It is not easy for the students to concentrate on the opinions of their group members.

4. Our research found a strong demand from 60% of teachers for vocational advancement, and 25% of students see the urgency of teaching and learning reform.

Afterwards, the member teachers in this project underwent a series of training with the assistance of some foreign teachers and LDi Corporation Ltd. (Tianjin branch of an American consulting and training company), to explore effective communicative approaches and creative teaching. The methods of coaching and experiential learning were adopted in the process. After the training, the teachers built a bank of lead-in activities based on experiential teaching and learning theories. Over one semester, new approaches and those activities have been applied to Oral English classes, Marketing English classes and Business English classes. The succeeding feedback shows more satisfaction and better class performance from both the college students and teachers.

In this article, one of the most successfully adopted lead-in activities is taken as Case Study 1 to elaborate the functions and effects of experiential teaching and learning. According to the follow-up feedback, 85% of students consider this warm-up game the most popular one.

In 2018, as an academic visitor, I spent 6 months visiting the School of Education, University of Hertfordshire in further exploration for innovative approaches in teaching and learning. Based on the observations of nearly 48 hours of classes and discussions with some teachers in the School of Education, I was deeply impressed by the initiatives and creativity of the teachers there. Among many well-designed classes, I choose one as Case Study 2 to explain the application of experiential teaching and learning, in which students’ engagement is enhanced effectively.

Case Study 1 from TJFSU: A Lead-in Activity “Partners in a Narrow Escape” on English Classes

This case study is not a whole class activity. It is a warm-up activity purposefully designed for closing the emotional gap and enhancing mutual understanding between students and teachers. Effective communication and collaboration are the main tasks carried out during the first 20 minutes of a class. The game has been used repeatedly in Oral English classes, Marketing English classes and Business English classes at diversified grades and levels.


A class of 20-25 students is divided into 4 groups. From each group, two students volunteer to play the role of hostages. In the game, a chance falls upon them to manage a collaborative escape plan out of the jungle in which they are held hostage. But the condition is set that party A cannot speak and party B cannot see. Party A can use any hints of sound or physical contact to send a signal. Party B needs to receive the signals timely and correctly. Escaping routes are constructed by other students in the classroom. Desks and chairs can be used as obstacles along the routes. Time of escape will be recorded for each group.


By the end of the game, the teacher will interview each participant about their truthful feelings. There are two rounds of interviews conducted by the teacher following the game. In the first round, each student is interviewed by the teacher to express his or her reflections on this activity in an open manner. The teacher is not supposed to make evaluations or comments but listen. In the second round, the teacher can add questions relevant to teaching topics, such as “What do you think is fundamental in communication?”, “How do you understand the relationship between leaders and employees in an organization?”, “What commitment should team leaders undertake?” and “Why do people need collaborative work?”


The guiding role and attitude of the teacher are fundamental in this activity. When making the assignments to the students, the teacher shows full respect for the students. For example, some students will take the job of timing or choose to be the audience, but they are also active in expressing their reflections on this activity.

In the interviews, students reflect on their own cognitive environment, learning process and learning barriers rather than find out the “correct answers”. From where the students sit, the teacher can understand them better instead of making assumptions.

Before such activities are adopted, the value of teaching contents is overestimated from the beginning of a class. In the regular feedback meetings, the teachers said that they did not have time to take into account the learning habits or personalities of the recipients in the traditional way of teaching. The designs in teaching and learning reforms create “a holding environment in which both staff and students can safely grow and develop, while challenging each other along the way”. (Little, 2011: 9)

The purpose is not only to fulfil the teaching goal of a class, but to lay a foundation for their long-term, well developed relationship in the future. In traditional Chinese culture, the role of teachers is in a superior position and teacher-oriented learning is considered formal and ceremonial (Li, 2000). When the learning activities are designed to shift the traditional role of teachers, both parties enjoy an equal opportunity to respect each other, feel free to express their innermost feelings about academic topics, and increase the initiatives in learning. When the students take on the roles of teacher, researcher and producer, they are able to engage in research, exchange and dissemination (Bilham, 2013: 14).

Case Study 2 from the University of Hertfordshire: Teaching Geography with Music and Craft

Two teachers with different disciplinary backgrounds from the School of Education jointly designed and executed a class-based activity of cross-curricular learning. The students are the teacher candidates who will learn how to help students of Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2 in England to understand geographical concepts with creative approaches such as model making and music. The learning objectives are achieved through the teachers’ rich teaching experience and careful class design. Although the teachers have not received purposeful training based on experiential teaching and learning theories like those Chinese teachers, they can encourage the students to be engaged in each step of the class with their professional experience built in a collaborative and partnership-based culture. The students also can attach their own experience to the subject knowledge and reflect on the possible effective teaching methods they might adopt after graduation.


In this class design, video clips, handicraft materials and musical instruments are used as tools for the teacher candidates to help their future pupils understand a fundamental geographical concept. The course consists of three steps:

  1. One teacher introduces the longest river in the UK, and asks each group of the students to create a 3D model of the river with a variety of handicraft materials from source to sea, label key features and add annotations.
  2. The other teacher asks everyone to surround a xylophone and experience the journey of a river by playing the xylophone. Then each student is asked to describe a real or imaginary river immediately, giving it a name and using an adjective to describe it. In the end, the teacher asks everyone to close their eyes, listening to the music played from the xylophone.
  3. Group work is required to create a river soundscape describing the journey from its source to the sea. The students should create narration (or poetry or chanting) and perform music to suggest the journey, before they film the journey down the river and musical composition using the camera.


The activity runs through the entire class for nearly 1.5 hours, and the rhythm of the whole class is quite compact. When each student describes the river and feels the impact of music in a circle, everyone is immersed in the journey of a river. They seem liberated by the activity in this part, rapidly showing genuine engagement (Bryson, 2007) with experiential learning. In the last step, group planning needs to be made, specific missions allocated and final performance rehearsed in 15-20 minutes. Some students were actively playing a leading part but not everyone could maintain 100% focus and participation.

What is challenging to the teachers is that they need to make a learning community within a short time, but this experience is still not a learning habit or culture but a one-time fresh experience. The teachers try to implant the concept of creativity in teaching to those teacher candidates. What they worry about most is whether this way will be accepted by everyone. The soundscape making is the key part of the activity. The teachers need to be inclusive and accept the differentiation in each group. There is also no limit on attainment, so the open ended activity will make the students relaxed and encouraged. The significance lies in that this teaching and learning principle will be carried on by those teacher candidates in their future teaching experience.

Experiential Teaching and Learning Theories Applied in the Two Case Studies

Reconstructed Relationship through Experience

The students’ engagement is enhanced and the relationship between students and teachers has been transformed into a partnership that is characterised by equal co-developing and distributed authority (Woods and Roberts, 2018). In the new relationship, the characteristics of the individual's cognitive context are fully respected, which is often overlooked in traditional teaching. The teacher tends to talk more in class, but as a leader who takes charge of an organisational conversation (within a classroom), the teacher should know when to stop talking and start listening. “Few behaviors enhance conversational intimacy as much as attending to what people say. True attentiveness signals respect for people of all ranks and roles, a sense of curiosity, and even a degree of humility.” (Groysberg and Slind, 2012: 79)

In case study 1, the teacher in charge has flexibility to adjust and redesign the activities to suit the themes of the classes for some specific purposes. Compared to students, teachers are under more stress in teaching reforms and see the necessity of change. Many projects that are part of the teaching and learning reforms are supported by the universities, but not all the research achievements are transferred into teaching practice effectively. There is still a gap between teachers’ vision and the realisation of the research outcomes. In 2016-2018, nearly 50 teachers and staff in Tianjin Foreign Studies University were sent to the UK, the US, Canada and Singapore for exchange of experience in teaching reforms and academic improvement. This is a positive signal for newly qualified teachers engaged in change management and designs for college teaching activities.

In case study 2, collaborative activities are running through the entire class and the activities are purposefully designed for a specific teaching objective. Group activities are playing a crucial role, interspersed with personal interpretation of the tasks. Individual reflections are emphasised in the second step, and collective identity is presented in the first and third step. My interviews with the newly qualified teachers at University of Hertfordshire show the persistency in collaboration-based and partnership-based teaching and learning on class and teachers’ high enthusiasm in exploring innovative teaching approaches. The School of Education also provides the newly qualified teachers with relatively equal opportunities and well-established inclusive culture in which individuals are respected. In the University of Hertfordshire, newly qualified teachers generally undergo a course for qualification into pre-service teacher education. These courses are designed to enhance teachers' knowledge, skills and confidence.

Kolb’s Basic Tenets of Experiential Learning Theory

In Kolb’s model of experiential learning, experience is considered as concrete and knowledge is abstract. In his famous four-stage experiential learning cycle, learning is considered as a cycle of reflection on experience. Reflections are playing a role of transacting from one state to another. Kolb (1984) outlines six basic tenets of experiential learning. In this part, each tenet is discussed in relation to the two case studies.

Tenet 1: Learning is a process

Peter Jarvis suggests experiential learning consists of three key factors: experience, reflection based on prior knowledge, and learned experience (Kuk, 2018). Here, learning starts from a particular experience, after which the learners can reflect and build an understanding of the situation to decide the next action, and then the cycle starts again (Philpott, 2015: 6). One’s experience is considered as a starting point, reflection is a tool and learning is a result via experience-based reflection. In this sense, experiential learning is at an intelligent level and at an emotional level.

In case study 1, the warm-up game comes before the subject knowledge, so the students start from their concrete experience and reflections with regard to the questions related to the teaching topics. In this process, the teacher will win the trust from the students first, before he or she carries on the ongoing knowledge. Later, the students will receive the subject knowledge based on their own experience and understanding. In case study 2, the teacher introduces the goal and topics of the class first. Bearing them in mind, the students can follow the instructions to complete each mission and perform each activity. In this process, the teachers will repeat the key information they want to convey to each step of the class.

Tenet 2: Learning is grounded in experience

“All learning is relearning.” (Kolb, 1984: 28) The previous knowledge and experience of each student will determine his or her perception and understanding. In case study 1, the teacher challenges the students with alternative ways of thinking. This new experience attaches an impact on the students’ preset experience. Once their minds are opened and renovated, the students will prepare well to get into next stage. But, the students might be sceptical of the class design. “How is the activity related to the class?” The teacher and students will both be challenged in light of new experience, theory and reflection. In case study 2, the teachers’ teaching goals are penetrated into the ongoing activities before hand, so less scepticism will be aroused. But when their memories of a river are introduced to help understand the teaching theme, the students come into a potential learning situation with a set of expectations based on their previous experiences.

Tenet 3: Learning involves mastering all four learning modes

In Kolb’s experiential learning cycle (Philpott, 2015: 8), learning is a process achieved through four learning modes: concrete experience, reflective observation, abstract conceptualization, and active experimentation. In practice, learners can start from each of the mode, but in effect, they need to master all four modes of learning. In case study 1, the interactive activity is set at the beginning of the class, in which the individual learner has his or her own way of learning. If the teacher is not familiar with the four learning modes, the class will easily be distracted by the part of reflective observation. Time management is necessary for planning professional learning. There is a risk that the mode of abstract conceptualisation will be weakened in a less well organised class. In case study 2, the whole class requires interactive activities and team work. The time for concrete experience and reflective observation is enough and the cycle may start again in each activity.

Tenet 4: Learning is a process of adaptation

In both of the cases, the teachers’ feelings, perceptions, thoughts and decisions should be adapted to the learners’ responses and reflections. The teacher’s professional qualities are critical in the experiential teaching process. Teachers need to be objective, impartial, open-minded, not eager to be controlling. Students can be optional in their roles as they are adapting to the learning environment. Every student’s opinion should be respected and valued.

In Schön’s theory, the teachers can be classified into professional practitioners and reflective practitioners (Schön, 1990, 1994). Professional practitioners usually hold the belief that there are stable and universal solutions to problems across a range of contexts (Philpott, 2015: 9). The risk of being controlling in class might be increased if the teacher is a professional practitioner who sees control as important. By contrast, reflective practitioners stress the personally generated, contextually specific solutions to ever-changing circumstances. In this way, the teacher may think and act in relation to the perspectives of each student and value their options and opinions.

Tenet 5: Learning involves transactions with the environment

On the traditional class, a teacher-centred approach is adopted and the learning process usually starts from the teacher’s perspective and planning. Knowledge is always transacted from the teacher to the students. In contrast, in experiential learning, a two-way transactional process is emphasised. The environment of the class both influences and is influenced by the learning.

In case study 1, the teachers are eager to make change in class teaching and learning. More efforts are made on the teachers’ side to change the teaching and learning environment. For the students, innovative teaching methods are inspirational but not all of them feel comfortable in a more co-operative role. Simple as these introducing games are, they are not trivial for the students but crucial for the setting of learning environment. Professional teaching is required to associate the games to the objectives of the lectures and the learning process. More enthusiasm and efforts from the students and teachers are needed if such methods can be usefully employed on class. Some teachers admit that they tend to expect the students to play an active role in class, but they don’t realise that some students are too introverted or shy to fulfil the teamwork.  .

In case study 2, the teachers think more for the students’ feelings and reactions in class. The teachers do not push the students to respond actively, but encourage them to complete the missions first. Nearly everyone’s personality is considered in class activities. Small challenges are set within an acceptable scope. Since the whole class is based on experience and engagement, the teachers spend more time on class design in case the students feel tired in the later part of the class. For these reasons, the module exercises were designed to draw on real-life experiences and the teachers will have more patience with regards to responses from the students.

Tenet 6: Knowledge is created through learning

This teaching concept is underpinned by the belief that knowledge is not taught by the teachers but constructed by students and understood in individual ways and habits for the best application. Knowledge is at an intellectual level and emotional level. In traditional teaching, the teacher-oriented activity shows the impact from teachers on the students at the intellectual level. But the experiential teaching emphasises the impact of learners’ value and identity on their cognition at the emotional level.

In both of the two cases, when the emotional level is considered as a key part, students’ experience based on prior knowledge is not a target of transformation or changing, but a very helpful context to trigger the learner’s real emotion. Those emotion-based reflections are unique. More importantly, the reflections are not only on the learners’ side but also on the teachers’ side. Learned experience is not to be expected as a result, but a channel to build trust between students and teachers, and make reflections in later life-time practice. “To understand learning, we must understand the nature of knowledge, and vice versa.” (Kolb, 1984:38) This quotation suggests that knowledge is created as people interact with others, and opportunities should be provided in class or after class to draw on individual experience and personalised learning plans.

Reflection in the middle of acting and after acting

The “Double-loop” learning developed by Argyris and Schön can overcome some limitations of Kolb’s model (Philpott, 2015: 8). The concept of Reflective Practitioner emphasises a dynamic reflection practice in teaching process. In traditional teaching, the students usually achieve reflection-on-action or zero reflection by the end of the teaching activity. In the experiential teaching, reflection-in-action occurred in the process of experience, which is helpful to both the students and the teachers, who tend to actively participate in the teaching activity in partnership.

Schön is famous for the terms reflection-in-action and reflection-on-action (Schön, 1990, 1994). The former refers to the way people adjust their actions in the middle of acting. The latter is about what people are thinking about for the future after acting. For example, the teacher will adjust his or her actions after the experiential missions are given to the students when the students make different choices. Because the process is not planned to achieve a certain result, the dynamic factors that lead to different results will be the key elements for the teacher’s consideration, and the teacher will use his or her reflection-in-action to allocate the mission. In the same way, reflection-in-action also happens through the whole process of participating when the students carry out the mission. When the students are trying to adjust their solution to solve a problem, they become reflective practitioners (Schön, 1990, 1993) who are framing and reframing the problem.

In case study 1, the activity is only conducted in the first 20 minutes. The students’ opinions are not represented by others but through their own expressions. In this part, the teacher will play a role of coaching instead of teaching. More challenges and changes might be involved during the activities, since all responses will be fairly respected and could not be judged or commented on. But the warm-up part is still the most striking part in experiential teaching and learning. Both the students and the teachers have to encounter the new experience and fresh challenges from each other. Their traditional ways of thinking or deep-rooted beliefs and attitudes will also be challenged during the repeated reflections happening during the activities. Each one is dependent on another’s response. They need to be more accepting and flexible when they are listening to others, although disagreement will occur in actions. But the risks that the teaching topics might be weakened are avoided in the following part of the class, which will fully focus on the subject knowledge. After the mutual trust has been established and the students’ interest and motivation are also enhanced, the lecture-based and seminar-based way of teaching will still be effective.

From a broader sense, the design and function of the warm-up activities are based on the conceptualisation of reflection-on-action. The activities can be selected from the database, fine-tuned and redesigned according to the specific curriculum for future use. The required teaching materials are not complex, but the physical space for activities should be ensured.

In case study 2, the materials required are relatively rich, varied and complex. Such a class could be seen as a well-designed one with very specific purpose. Much freedom is given to the students to reflect on their own experience and cognitive context within the framework of class design, so subject knowledge will be closely attached to each step of the activities. Reflection-in-action plays a major part here. Once those college students become newly qualified teachers after graduation, the activities in this class will spur their reflections on the pedagogic application to their future careers.


Students are frustrated with difficulties in their academic lives, especially when the abstract concepts and theories are implanted into their minds with less consideration of their experience. The value of experiential teaching and learning has been tested and it is effective in helping students and teachers to overcome the difficulties.

The teachers can design the interactive activities to suit the themes of their classes. The teachers’ willingness to challenge the uncertainty in classes and their respect for divergent personalised learning form the basis of such practice and are key elements in teaching reforms.

The learners should be encouraged to express their understanding of knowledge during and after the interactive activities. Such practice will promote students' abilities to reflect on practice, improve their collaborative capabilities, and help them with creative thinking. So a teacher with pedagogical content knowledge (Shulman, 1986, pp 9-10) and subject knowledge will transform these two kinds of knowledge into an indivisible new form of knowledge naturally (Philpott, 2015: 15).

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