Experiential Learning Vs Active Learning: ELI5 The Difference

Last Updated on October 4, 2023 by Editorial Team

An ever-transforming field, Education, has been flooded with opinions, research, and methodologies to enhance the learning process for the coming generations. Experiential and active learning methodologies are a byproduct of these ongoing explorations. 

Even though these pedagogical approaches extend life-long benefits to both the educator and learner, many struggle with the basic theoretical understanding of both. Pertaining to the age group, learner’s requirements, and the subject matter, each of them can be applied accordingly. 

But to do that, educators and learners must know their basic dichotomy, including pros and cons. So, the blog focuses on anatomizing these core pedagogies in the contemporary context.

Explaining experiential learning and active learning through meanings

Experiential learning is associated with Kolb’s experiential learning theory, which states that learning occurs in 4 stages, namely: Active experimentation→Concrete experience→Abstract conceptualisation→Reflective observation. Even though experiential learning is considered a concept of experiential learning theory, learning is an internal cognitive process largely having to do with the learner.  Professional understanding has always used the approach to imply the experiential knowledge or wisdom that an educator offers. 

With a lot of differences between active learning, passive learning, and reflective learning, it is crucial to understand that active learning, on the other hand, isn’t simply assignments, watching videos, or indulging in activities outside the classroom. In the mainstream context, active learning involves the optimal utilization of class timings for engagement-based exercises. Following the principles of constructivism, active learning believes that students learn and retain knowledge when they interact with the subject, which creates a mental activity. 

So, even though there are theoretical differences, both of these approaches are highly student-centered and research-supported champions in the field of education. 

Pros and Cons explored 

Experiential, as well as active learning, belong to the highly revered pedagogy family. So, let’s have a closer look at each of their pros and cons. 

Experiential Learning:

Experiential Learning: Pros

1. Personalized

Experiential learning is adopted by most sciences as their pedagogy. Listening to a real-life experience gives third-person exposure to students. Acting like a bridge between theory and practice, experiential learning is associated with greater retention and enhanced overall academic performance. 

2. Reflection-Based

Experiential learning draws on reflection and introspection immensely. Teachers encouraging classroom reflections and group discussions on concepts like freedom, equality, etc., will lead to valuable insights that a student can take home as a lifelong lesson. Additionally, teachers can facilitate such discussions by being just a moderator after offering experiential wisdom. 

3. Strengthens retention and recall

Analysis and in-depth processing, especially those done on a semantic level, can lead to better retention and recall. Several studies have found a link between semantic understanding and retention. Thus, experiential learning is a great way to approach semantic learning. 


1. Time-consuming

It is an established fact that classroom discussions or practical activities require extra time. While the retention is greater, the in-depth understanding also takes enough time for both the student and teacher. 

2. Isn’t universal

Experiential learning, no matter how beneficial it is to a classroom, has its limitations. Not every situation can be replicated or can be understood from a third-person perspective. 

3. Expensive

Experiential learning needs extra resources, volunteering, and effort. These types of investments often cause a monetary hike in the expenditure of students and faculties. While the benefits after experiential learning are life-long, they might cause a budget imbalance in the short term.

Active Learning: Pros 

active learning

1. High Student Engagement

Student engagement or involvement is at its peak when teachers take the initiative to go out of the box. Distractions or class-disrupting behaviors are even lesser when active learning approaches are put to work.

2. High Knowledge Retention

Knowledge is both mental work and practice generated. Through active learning, a student’s mind learns both by engaging in a concept practically and mentally. Thus, much greater amounts of knowledge are retained through these approaches. 

3. Offers Hands-on Experience

Active learning involves pilot studies, exploration, and practical exposure to the subject matter. Apart from taking the material, the students are acting on it and understanding the consequences. 


1. Requires Monitoring

Engaging students in active learning also means monitoring their engagement and making sure they follow what is being taught. While active learning creates an interactive environment, there might be students who are completely out of touch with the crux of the activity or learning. Passive learning requires monitoring too, it is even more important and challenging for the teacher to supervise and monitor the practical engagement of students. 

2. Fewer concepts can be taught

Looking at the syllabus, professional commitments, and management of a big classroom, educators can’t be held responsible for using passive teaching. Unlike conventional teaching, active learning demands far greater spontaneity, flexible or longer periods, and pedagogical creativity.  It is important for educators to be aware that planning lectures while including active learning strategies, comes with limited preparation and presentation of material. 

3. Time-Consuming

Just like experiential learning, active learning is very time-consuming. Passive learning is mostly opted for by teachers due to the pressure of completing the syllabus. This time constraint is also one of the primary reasons why classrooms prefer passive teaching over active learning.

Are experiential learning and active learning interrelated? 

Considered the major tenet of psychology and learning sciences, “constructivism”, believes that knowledge cannot be transmitted but rather is created by the mental activity of a learner. A study[1] by Susan E. Cooperstein and Elizabeth Kocevar Weidinger found that elements of constructive learning form the basis of true active learning. Coming to the latter, a study[2] that critiqued experiential learning has found a constructivist approach to be the guiding methodology behind the incorporation of experiential learning. 

From a theoretical point of view, experiential learning has been understood by philosophers as an umbrella term for all engaging and reflection-based pedagogical approaches. However, as per mainstream understanding and from a professional standpoint, the bifurcation was necessary. Experiential learning, derived from experiences, and active learning, derived from operative approaches, are two different forms of learning, especially on paper. As opposed to passive learning, both are heavily suggested by pedagogical coaches from all around the world. In practice, both can involve similar forms of participation. 

For instance, class discussion is both a part of active learning and experiential learning. Apart from using the same participation methods, both active and experiential learning are built on the foundation of reflection. While the former wants student engagement and learning derived through their own participation, the latter is rather based on reflection and insights drawn from the experience of a third-party reference, such as a teacher, practitioner, etc. 

Which is better for students with LD?

Learning disabilities can be both neurological and developmental. It involves difficulty in understanding one or more academic subjects. While there aren’t many studies to help understand whether students with learning disabilities benefit from experiential learning and active learning, as special needs (especially the studies broadly including students with all types of disabilities) students are under-represented in such studies. 

Another reason for their lack of representation is the modified structure of learning methods employed in special education. However, even with the modified and personalized pedagogical structure followed for students with learning disabilities, active learning has proven to be more effective. In a study[3] by Saied Bishara, active learning intervention for students with learning disabilities resulted in enhanced self-image, higher motivation, and achievement. 


Experiential, as well as active learning, has proven to be a motivation booster in a conventional classroom. With limitless benefits, there also come limits to their applications. Hence, depending on the nature of the subject and the needs of the learner, educators can freely experiment with both forms of teaching. 


  1. Kocevar‐Weidinger, E. (2004). Beyond active learning: a constructivist approach to learning. Reference Services Review, 32(2), 141–148. https://doi.org/10.1108/00907320410537658
  2. Tara, J. (n.d.). Experiential Learning: A Theoretical Critique from Five Perspectives. Information Series No. 385.
  3. Wubbenna, Z. (n.d.). Active and traditional teaching, self-image, and motivation in learning math among pupils with learning disabilities.

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