Experiential Learning. Do it!

The fifth session of the Our Whole Lives: Sexuality Education for Adults seven-month course begins with the following activity: attendees bring their two hands together and pay close attention to any and all sensations. They may ask themselves the following questions: Which areas are moist or dry? Calloused or smooth? Hot or cold?

As an experiment, reader, try to do this activity if you are physically able. Take as long as you like.  Two hands, palms oriented up, held together in a sort of "bowl" or "giving" gesture.

Now take a few moments to reflect on how this felt to you. Was it pleasurable? Awkward? Did it make you happy? Sad? All of the above? What memories or desires did this bring up for you?

Now take a few moments to connect your reflection to a larger concept about human sexuality. What could your experience indicate about the nature of a sexual being? Of sensuality? Of masturbation? Of skin hunger?

This form of classroom activity is known as experiential learning: A process in which learners may have a concrete experience, make observations and reflections about that experience, distill abstract concepts, and repeat (Kolb, 1999). Whether or not the learner begins with a concrete experience is irrelevant to the theory. But in sexuality education, beginning a lesson with a relevant (and age-appropriate) experiential activity broadens the categories of learning and teaches a skill.

Categories of learning

The above activity combines a physical action with an emotional reflection and a thoughtful extrapolation. This trifecta of learning categories – psychomotoraffective, and cognitive, respectively – corresponds to the three categories of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning Domains. An experiential activity allows students to absorb information in multiples ways simultaneously.  

As a dance teacher, I cannot merely demonstrate a step, describe a step, explain the nuances of a step, or recite the history of the step if the ultimate goal is to get students to dance. I must instead work closely with students on all levels: impart cognitive information, negotiate with their emotional barriers, physically guide them through a new dance move, and repeat over and over until they get it.

So, how does this tie into to human sexuality?

Experiential learning activities challenge students to deeply and thoroughly encode that lesson’s focus, discover something about oneself, and acknowledge human sexual diversity. For example, a quiz following a lecture on skin hunger only tests a student’s cognitive understanding of skin hunger. An experiential learning activity, like the one above, challenges students to encode “skin hunger” on an affective and psychomotor scale, discover their relationship to skin hunger, and hear about differing relationships to skin hunger in a non-judgemental format.  These activities convey more than information: they teach skills that can stick with us for the rest of our lives.

Teaches a skill

Try on the idea that every sex ed class is fundamentally a life-skills class. As human sexuality is an interdisciplinary field, and sexuality informs how people engage in the world, sex education would benefit from addressing the how as well as the what of sex.

For example, the ultimate goal of a sex ed lesson plan on the topic of body language could be to cultivate the student’s ability to read body language. The what of the lesson could be the definition of body language and naming the most expressive parts of the body, which could perhaps be useful in a psychology course. In a high-school sex ed course, this information is wasted unless educators incorporate how to read body language effectively. A lesson plan with an appropriate skills-based activity gives students something to apply directly to their lives.

In the world of adult sexuality education, experiential learning is all the rage. From local classes on sexual techniques to major international organizations, adults are signing up to have experiences, not to only absorb cognitive data. The popular Body Electric School markets itself based on the “unique experience” its workshops provide. Adult students want information coupled with practice experience.

When lesson-planning for adults, it may be easier to incorporate experiential learning than when lesson-planning for high-school students or younger. Legal regulations, school policies, and general anxiety about comprehensive sexuality education for young people has stifled mere dialogue about sex, let alone sexuality-related classroom activities. Educators must get creative as to how to incorporate experiential learning into sex ed curricula.


Kolb, D.A., Boyatzis, R.E., & Mainemelis, C. (1999). Experiential learning theory: previous research and new directions. In R.J. Sternberg & L. Zhang (Eds.) Perspectives on thinking, learning, and cognitive styles. The educational psychology series (pp. 227-247). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

8 responses to “Experiential Learning. Do it!

  1. I loved your blog. I never thought of incorporating experimental learning into a sex ed class because I always thought of the ramifications of going to far or exposing to much depending on the age group. Incorporating experimental learning in a sex ed class just like the hand example you gave in your blog, is a great examples of incorporating this learning technique. Experimental learning gives everyone an opportunity to learn with their particular learning style with an added bonus: hands on experience.

    As an adult learner, I appreciate experimental learning because it gives me an opportunity to test myself to see if I understand the material and if I am applying the material appropriately. Like you have mentioned, it is hard to incorporate experimental learning with adolescences due to many restrictions but, if we as educators are to educate adolescence properly, I think there needs to be some age appropriate education which can and should include experimental learning. Experimental learning can be helpful in teaching girls and boys how to properly use a condom and other forms of protection.

    Your example about teaching someone to dance was a great example because it represents the different ways in which a student learns and the different ways in which a teacher needs to teach so every student in the class can learn.

  2. Kira, thank you so much for sharing this activity. I learn most effectively through experiential learning. I did take some time to examine my hands, and I felt comfortable. I thought about how people’s stories are told through their bodies.

    I would argue that it is easier to incorporate experiential learning with lesson plans geared toward adult learners, but would advocate for navigating the difficulties and incorporating it into youth’s (high school or younger) lesson plans, as well. One reason I would especially advocate for this is because of different learning styles. I think that young students are often taught from a formal-authority approach, and they often tune out. I think if we use experiential learning to teach more subjects, including sexuality, it would be more effective.

    Thank you for sharing the different perspectives, and the arguments about why people aren’t as open to experiential learning. I appreciate it.

  3. I think the exercise would be great with an adult audience, especially those who are trying to reconnect with their partner(s). An exercise like this also test abstract comprehension. I can also see an experimental learning lesson being taught to High Schools, like as you suggested with body language. That lesson can be coupled with a healthy relationship lesson or with sexual assault lesson. Learning to read someone’s body language is a great tool for a safe, sexual, healthy relationship. Great post.

  4. Kira, you are so right to remind us that learning takes shape in different ways for different people. Your use of Bloom’s taxonomy to consider the the psychomotor, cognitive and affective domains reminded me of Malcolm Knowles idea that adults need to learn experientially and Howard Gardner’s perspective on multiple intelligences as a mechanism to develop different learning modalities as people have a variety of competencies.

  5. This was awesome. The activity in the beginning of your post reminded me of what I do during meditation and that immediately hooked me. After a very experiential learning focussed study abroad program, I now always recommend experiential learning to others if they have the chance, however, I never knew why it was such a good learning/teaching technique. A lightbulb went off in my head when you said “The above activity combines a physical action with an emotional reflection and a thoughtful extrapolation. This trifecta of learning categories – psychomotor, affective, and cognitive, respectively.” Now I get why experiential learning is so useful, it utilizes each of Bloom’s learning categories!

  6. Wow… You are an exquisite writer!! I’m greatly impressed. I love how you engaged your reader from the beginning by directly addressing them through the use of second person. It forced me to engage immediately on the content of your blog. I think you also did an awesome job on explaining what experiential learning is by using language that was sophisticated and academic yet easy to follow. I know I am not supposed to comment like this, but I think your writing skills are superb, and they need to be spotlighted.

    As for the content of the blog, my comments piggyback off my accolades to your writing skills. I again enjoyed how you used your own experience as a dance teacher to connect a real world experience to experiential learning. Brilliant!

  7. Wonderful post, Kira. I feel like experiential learning is often overlooked, but it is actually one of the most helpful and effective ways I learn. So much of my education has been focused on the cognitive aspect, yet to fully grasp a concept you really do need to also incorporate affective and psychomotor learning as well.
    I feel like most sex ed instructors I’ve had in the past (except the ones at Widener) were probably too scared to try to use any kind of experiential learning because there is always a fear of crossing boundaries depending on the subject. However, if lesson plans/activities are thoroughly researched, I think they should absolutely be employed in a sexuality education classroom. It gives people more practical experience, rather than just giving them a word, and they have to spit back the definition to you. I agree that it would be a lot more difficult to offer experiential sex ed learning to teenagers, but I also think they could greatly benefit from the right lessons!

  8. I immediately thought of the quote often attributed to Ben Franklin (or a Chinese proverb, depending on where you look), that says, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” We have seen this to be true in our classes at Widener!

    And now you have me racking my brain- how CAN we creatively incorporate appropriate experiential into our lesson plans?? I think when we as aspiring sex educators think of sex education, we often jump to the direct mindset of comprehensive sex education. In this context, experiential learning may well receive opposition and and resistance. However, as we know, comprehensive sex education could more accurately be described as education for the “mind, body, and spirit.” Thus, it would be seen to include topics like relationships, communication, life skills, etc. The Dibble Institute has wonderful curriculum for this for youth through young adults. Though it would be ideal to be allowed to teach experientially in “traditional comprehensive sex education” (if that idea even actually exists) context, it might be beneficial to start on topics like healthy relationships. And who knows, maybe a well-orchestrated slippery slope of a conversation will lead to situations in which that experiential sex education piece would “fit right in”! Here’s hoping!

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