The Imperative of Experiential and Hands-On Learning

For the past several decades, I have had my feet in both elementary education and teacher training and development. Regardless of age, grade level, and setting, I include hands-on and experiential learning as a integral part of my instruction. It is learning by doing with a reflective element which, in turn, creates conditions for deeply engaged learning.

Experiential education is a philosophy in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities. Throughout the experiential learning process, the learner is actively engaged in posing questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, assuming responsibility, being creative, and constructing meaning. (What is EE)

One of my favorite expressions is “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”  There’s lots of lip service about closing the achievement gap, serving marginalized populations, helping students gain 21st century skills, and preparing students for STEM-related careers. The problem is that the school systems working toward these changes are using a factory model of education prevalent in the 19th and 20th centuries to do so. The changes that are being sought are not coming into fruition as different outcomes are expected out of doing more of the same thing. This is why I titled this post, The Imperative of Experiential and Hands On Learning. I believe that current instructional strategies need to be turned on their heads to achieve desired results and outcomes. Hands-on and experiential learning is used in some elementary schools but this diminishes as students get older. In too many high schools and colleges, instruction seems to occur through engaging the ears and sometimes the eyes (through visuals such as with slide presentations). Interestingly, though, a Study Finds 52% of U.S. Adults Say No. 1 Way to Learn is Through Active Participation, Followed by Visual Demonstration.

Some benefits of experiential and hands-on learning include:

  • Increases motivation and engagement.
  • Engages most of the senses.
  • Builds social emotional skills.
  • More likely to engage emotions.
  • Lots of brain activation.
  • Increases retention of learning.
  • Making mistakes becomes a natural part of the learning process.
  • Expands critical thinking skills.
  • Preparation for real life.

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Increases motivation and engagement.

Hands-on learning is often lots of fun; and having fun increases engagement and motivation.

Hands-on activities encourage a lifelong love of learning and motivate students to explore and discover new things (Bass, et al.).(Case for Hands-On Learning)

Learning by doing allows students to become personally invested in their own learning process. Becoming actively engaged in their education builds confidence, as the lessons require students to rely on their own abilities to obtain knowledge. That confidence and self-reliance inspires students to embrace the learning process and enthusiastically seek out additional knowledge.   (Importance of a Hands-On Experience in the Elementary Classroom)

Engages the senses.

Hands-on and experiential learning often is multi-sensory learning often engaging sight, hearing, tactile kinesthetic senses as learners participate in the educational activities.

By definition, hands-on learning requires students to engage in the education process using multiple senses, including sight, hearing and touch. Known as multisensory learning, the hands-on teaching strategy engages the senses in a way that promotes learning comprehension on multiple levels.  (Importance of a Hands-On Experience in the Elementary Classroom)

More likely to engage emotions.

The personal nature of experiential learning engages the students’ emotions as well as enhancing their knowledge and skills. When students see the concrete fruits of their labor, they experience greater gratification and pride, thus enhancing their enthusiasm for continued learning.  (The Benefits of Experiential Learning)

Lots of brain activation.

When you combine activities that require movement, talking, and listening, it activates multiple areas of the brain. “The more parts of your brain you use, the more likely you are to retain information,” says Judy Dodge, author of 25 Quick Formative Assessments for a Differentiated Classroom (Scholastic, 2009). “If you’re only listening, you’re only activating one part of the brain,” she says, “but if you’re drawing and explaining to a peer, then you’re making connections in the brain.”(Hands-On is Minds-On)

Builds social-emotional skills.

Lots of social-emotional skills are addressed with hands-on, experiential learning.  Some of the specific skills that hands-on learning address are:

  • Goal-setting
  • Tolerance for frustration
  • Persistence
  • Asking for help
  • Working with others

Increases retention of learning.

When it comes to what learning methods work best, everyone is different, but the survey clearly demonstrates that hands-on training is favored by most Americans. Students who practice what they’re learning in a hands-on environment can often retain much more information when compared with sitting passively in a lecture room, so it’s not a surprise that hands-on training is the overwhelming favorite. (Majority of Americans Prefer Hands-On Training in Educational Settings, Survey Finds)

There is a huge increase in the amount of information that is retained by students who are given the opportunity to practice what they are learning in the form of hands-on training. When students sit and listen passively in a lecture-style environment, they retain 20 percent of the information. When they are given the chance to practice what they have just learned, that percentage increases to 75 percent. (What Are the Benefits of Hands-on Training?)

Making mistakes becomes a natural part of the learning process.

Experiential learning involves trial by error. As students engage in hands-on tasks, they find that some approaches work better than others. They discard the methods that don’t work, but the act of trying something and then abandoning it – ordinarily considered a “mistake” – actually becomes a valuable part of the learning process. Thus, students learn not to fear mistakes, but to value them. (The Benefits of Experiential Learning)

Expands critical thinking skills.

The National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking defines critical thinking as the “process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication.”  Hands-on learning allows students to experience a problem or task and make adjustments to improve outcomes. This “trial and error” exploration develops critical thinking and improves an understanding of abstract concepts that can be applied to real-life experience. (Improve Learning with Hands-on Activities)

Preparation for real life.

Experiential learning takes data and concepts and makes them “real” by applying them to hands-on tasks, with real results. As the student interacts with the information, it becomes real to them.

Many experiential learning projects are career-oriented, because they are, by nature, grounded in “real-world” activities. Through these activities, students start to discover and develop their own skills, aptitudes and passions. This discovery in turn sets them on a more defined path to college and careers. (The Benefits of Experiential Learning)

Games or Worksheets: Is there really a question about the choice?

I work part time with gifted elementary students at two Title 1 schools where most of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches; and where they and/or their parents are learning English as a second language. What I quickly discovered about my students was that many were lacking in foundational skills in ELA and in math. Sadly, the instructional method used by way too many schools, especially those considered low performing like mine, is to give students lots of worksheets to teach such skills. I don’t like worksheets. I didn’t like them when I was an elementary student and don’t know too many elementary students who say, “I love doing worksheets.”

I have been using games in my classrooms (elementary and higher education) for decades. My use of games has included board games, team building and cooperative games, and more recently, video games. In order to help my gifted students learn some of the foundational skills, I integrate a variety of these games. This post is split into two parts:

  • Personal Observations About the Use of Games for Learning
  • Example Games Used to Teach and Reinforce

Personal Observations About the Use of Games for Learning

There has been a lot written about using games for learning. Research generally supports their use for learning:

Across 57 studies that compared teaching with a game to using other instructional tools, incorporating a game was more effective (SD .33). Using a game improved cognitive learning outcomes along with intrapersonal and interpersonal outcomes. Researchers looking at other collections of studies have found that games help students retain what they’ve learned.

I have written about the teacher as an ethnographer and the teacher as a reflective practitioner. In line with these beliefs, I have made my own personal observations about using games with gifted elementary students at low performing schools.

The Desire to Win is a Motivator

One of the biggest draw in the use of games is that students want to build their skills in order to win the game. Most, if not all, of my students embrace and engage in competitive games with the goal of winning. The need to win is a strong motivator; and to win they need to develop those skills. Even in group team building and cooperative learning, learning basic skills in order to be successful is a great motivator for learning basic skills. The same can’t be said of worksheets. The major reward for completing a worksheet is a grade from the teacher. For many students, this type of reward is not all that motivating.

A Sense of Fun and Play

When games are used for learning, excitement and joy become part of the learning process. My learners’ excitement is seen with their squeals of joy, big smiles on their faces, and jumping out of their seats when they succeed in the games.  Doing worksheets is not fun and they do not elicit playful responses. They is limited joy in learning through worksheets.

Learning Doesn’t Feel Contrived, Pushed, nor Painful

Most children play games and many adults do so, too. Games seem to be part of human existence.  Thus, when games are introduced into the learning environment, they feel natural to the learners. On the other hand, worksheets are not part of learners’ lives outside of the classroom. This translates into worksheets feeling contrived and pushed. Doing worksheets is often painful for the learners.

Noise is Expected

Games often include vocal elements. Learner voices and noise are expected and accepted when games are played. The opposite is true for doing worksheets. The expectation is that there is silence in the classroom while students work through their worksheets.

Increased and Engaging Repetition of Concepts

In general, repetition is needed to gain and remember basic skills. Usually this occurs through memorizing and repeating core skills. Games often offer the repetition of basic skills in a fun way as learners work towards completing the game challenges. Doing multiple worksheets can provide the repetition but not the engagement.

Learners Spontaneously Help One Another

Even in games that ask learners compete (see the second part of this post for examples), they often help one another out when one of their peers get stuck. This type of peer assistance is not promoted, may even be seen as cheating when students are completing worksheets.

Natural, Immediate, and Continual Formative Assessment

Most games offer continual feedback on learners’ performances. Games provide immediate feedback about the degree of success with a challenge as this function is built into the game mechanics. The same is not true for worksheets. The teacher is the one who often reviews and grades the worksheet. Feedback does not tend to be immediate nor continual with the use of worksheets.

Increased Engagement

The above characteristics equal increased engagement, and increased engagement often means increased learning. I have to wonder if one of the reasons my learners didn’t develop foundational skills is that they weren’t engaged in their learning processes; that they just went through the motions of doing the worksheets.

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Examples Games Used to Teach and Reinforce Basic Skills

Word Fluency

Scrabble Relay

In this game, students were separated into two groups. A pile of several sets of Alphabet bean bags were placed about 25 yards from the starting line. In a relay type game, group members ran one a time to pick up and bring back to the starting line one bean bag at a time. The relay continued until all of the bean bags were picked up.

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The groups were then asked to create as many words as they could using the letters they collected. Letters could be reused after a word was created. Point values were: one point for words of 2 to 4 letters; two points for words with 5 to 9 letters; and 3 points for words with 10 letters or more.

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Words with Friends

I created a class account with Words with Friends EDU:

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The success of this game was better than I expected. The learners had never heard of nor played Scrabble so I was excited to see their level of engagement. They loved challenging one another; learning how the point values worked; and exploring the power words and their definitions.

Basic Number Sense

Similar to the word fluency games, I have been using a variety of both analog and digital games to increase my learners’ knowledge and skill with basic addition, subtraction, multiplication, and divisions.

Some of the analog math games I’ve used include”

Some of the digital games I’ve used include:


Parting Shot: One of my gifted students yelled out this week during class (I meet with one group for a half a day and the other for a full day): I love coming to my gifted class. It is so much more fun than learning. On one hand, I was happy to hear how much he enjoys the class. On the other hand, I was saddened that: (1) he didn’t see our fun activities as learning, and (2) his regular classroom lacked such fun.