Learning Not Experience: Differentiating Learning From Experience

Empire State College awards credit for demonstrated knowledge, not for the experience itself.

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) has established guidelines for the assessment of learning acquired outside of traditional college settings. Central to these guidelines is the idea that credit is awarded only for demonstrated knowledge, not for experience alone.

If you think about this for a moment, this is precisely what every teacher does: evaluation is based on student’s learning and not on a mere fact that a student has been attending a class. Educators assess not that the student was present in class or the input from readings and exercises but the outcomes gained from the learning experience.

This distinction between learning and experience can be applied to knowledge gained from non-academic settings and experiences. The fact that a person has worked for 15 years for an organization or participated in training does not mean that this person has acquired college-level learning. The experience of working or the awarding of certificates provides the context, but the student’s knowledge is dependent upon the application and articulation of that learning beyond the particular experience.

People unfamiliar with the assessment of experiential learning often assume that what is being assessed is the experience itself. This assumption stems from the concern: “How is it possible to assess experience?”

The experience is not being assessed; rather the learning outcomes are being evaluated. By focusing on the knowledge a student has acquired, can articulate, and can demonstrate, the evaluator can begin to assess the extent of that student’s learning.

It is the learning, not the experience that is being assessed.