Internships and Experiential Learning

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

It’s summer, and college students are now in full internship season—time to hone their skills, build their resumes and networks, and get their foot in the door. The right internship can put students onto a trajectory for success and increase their chances of landing the full-time position of their choice. However, for college students, an internship is not just what many seem to think it is: an episode of work experience that lasts for a limited period of time and allows students to gain relevant skills and experience in a particular field, while developing professional networks. Rather, an internship should be viewed by college students as an opportunity for experiential learning.

Indeed, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), “An internship is a form of experiential learning that integrates knowledge and theory learned in the classroom with practical application and skills development in a professional setting. Internships give students the opportunity to gain valuable applied experience and make connections in professional fields they are considering for career paths; and give employers the opportunity to guide and evaluate talent.

students and internships

So, what is experiential learning? In its basic form, it’s any learning that encourages students to apply their knowledge and conceptual understanding to real-world problems or situations. However, an important component of the experiential learning process is reflection, which is key to ongoing meaningful discovery. Therefore, reflective skill building is essential to this process. Other important components of experiential learning are appropriate feedback (received from internship supervisors and peers) and the application of the conceptual understanding deriving from a learning experience to new and purposeful ones. Feedback supports the process of reflection and helps students to plan productively for the next learning experience. According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “Experiential learning engages students in critical thinking, problem solving and decision making in contexts that are personally relevant to them. This approach to learning also involves making opportunities for debriefing and consolidation of ideas and skills through feedback, reflection, and the application of the ideas and skills to new situations.”

Not surprisingly, then, three of the seven criteria established by NACE to define an experience as legitimate internship address the major components of experiential learning. The three criteria are: 1) The experience must be an extension of the classroom: a learning experience that provides for applying the knowledge gained in the classroom; 2) The skills or knowledge learned must be transferable to other employment settings; 3) There is routine feedback by the experienced supervisor.

Internships based on solid principles of experiential learning build strong critical thinking and reflective skills while promoting meaningful professional interactions, thus widening the circle of opportunity for college students long after the summer ends.

Copyright © 2016-2018 Forever Leaders.


  1. I actually kind of expected that an internship is exactly the definition of experiential learning. The definition given for what a student believes internships are, and what experiential learning is are the exact same thing in my opinion. I figured this was a given. I do not think that anyone goes into an internship with the idea that it will be anything other than experiential learning. The experience of an internship was just given a formal name – experiential learning. I have never participated in an internship, however, the research class I am taking that counts as course credit has all of these components of experiential learning. Every other week we have to turn in “Learning Logs” assignments that are part of our grade in the course. We reflect upon the troubles and obstacles we had to face since the last learning log and describe what we did to overcome them. For every one of our assignments, we receive grades and feedback for every single one of them. If we have any questions as to why something was graded a certain way or why we missed points, our TA and professor are quick to give us the reasons. In my research experience, we have applied many of the topics we have covered throughout my undergraduate classes. These topics include DNA isolation, purification, PCR, inserting genes into vectors through ligation and transformation, using aseptic techniques, using the necessary machinery for these processes, and more. These procedures and concepts are all things that we have learned in class. Has anyone had an experience with an internship that did not adhere to these guidelines of experiential learning? Was it an internship that was relevant to your major, or something entirely different?

    • Hi Darina,

      I have also had research experience similar to yours in a laboratory setting. I think, in general, internships implicitly count as experiential learning. Learning the workings of a lab, the possible scientific hypotheses you can make, and immersing yourself in scientific action all count as learning through experience. However, my ball drops when an internship is secretly disguised as a way to tack on a student to do busy/dirty/boring work. The student is usually so enamored with the fact that they have an “internship” to call their own that they don’t complain when they are not receiving any sort of experiential growth. I have had an experience similar to this, as well. The principles of reflection and receiving feedback fly out of the window when a student becomes bogged down by the work they do not want to do. This experience is detrimental and a waste of the student’s time. There should be honesty between both sides when experiential learning is not the purpose of the internship. This saves a lot of time and energy.

  2. This article made me really excited for experiential learning. Experiential learning is something that feel is crucial in helping students further their careers. In school, students face the having to learn the material and be able to test well. Experiential learning takes the material and applies it to the field of study. This type of learning allows students to make sense of the material and be able to apply instead fo just learning it for the exam.
    Internships allow students to apply themselves in real life scenarios and learn. Experiential learning allows this to happen. Internships are seen as resume builders that can help further you in life however the internship you have may also offer you a permanent position. In either case, you will continue to learn however it is important to be able to apply and adapt in the workplace. This will not just make you marketable, but it will be able to allow you put what you learned into actions. Women Lead definitely did that on several occasions. One of those occasions would be when presenting our poster projects. We learned to speak and present to in all types of people. Experiences like this that make you show what you have learned should be how learning should. Experiential learning allows for hands-on learning and teaches one to apply what they have learned.

  3. I loved reading this article. It seems to me classes can became an experiential learning experience. They are the most rewarding class due to this type of teaching/ learning style. My question is would schools be more successful if more things were based on experiential learning? I think so especially when we reach a certain point in our learning experience. I find myself and my peers no longer being as motivated to attend these test-based classes. Working on the field, failing, bring critiqued, and having real-life experience, is way more interesting and I think far more productive.

  4. I love the idea of experiential learning! I believe that this is actually the only way to really learn how to complete necessary tasks that we will face in the real world. School is all about taking tests, and learning how to take tests, but the material often slips through our minds once exam periods are over. We have a tendency to keep applicable information in our minds rather than random, theoretical facts and figures (although some are better at this than others).
    One fact I have a hard time agreeing on is that we use the material we have learned in the classroom in a professional setting. Oftentimes, with the correct specialization, this is true. But as far as internships go, I believe we learn so much more that we were often never taught to start off with! I’m a psychology major, but as I completed an internship in IT a couple years back, I learned more about the process of work than I had ever known, and surprisingly more about that than computers. To me, internships are a way of learning to cope with the professional world, exploring different paths and people, and learning what it takes to be in one of these positions that we all read and think about. I found, there is little to no correlation with my schoolwork, but being a psychology major isn’t the worst thing to be in the corporate world since you are, essentially, surrounded by your subject matter.
    In my opinion, learning isn’t occurring until it is experiential. From school, students learn a great deal. But from all that information, I would say that I learned to cope with what my expectations were as a student, what I needed to do to succeed, and how I could relate my own desires with my academic expectations (i.e. choosing interesting classes). Now internships provide a transition to learning about the professional world, which is quite different than what we are used to. Feedback is incredibly useful, sometimes surprising to realize that you had never properly received it before, while in the work atmosphere it is so applicable and appreciated! I do wish that school itself incorporated internships with their programs, but this is, nevertheless, one of the most useful learning processes.

    • I completely agree with you, Christina! Especially with what you brought up about internships applying to us on a larger scale than that of the classroom. I believe internships to be a great opportunity to explore different paths to see whether there’s a way to integrate what you are studying in various career paths or if there’s a different path intended for you to take. Although internships are a great way to expand on the knowledge being learned in the classroom and get hands-on experience, doing an internship without any diversity is not preparing us for the real world and keeping us somewhat “one-sided”. That’s why the second criteria is perfect to implement in all internships. Internships do not just prepare you for one single job but allow you to gain skills that can be transferred between jobs.

      I love the opportunities and the experience internships provide and would love to see them integrated into all programs in college because the process of getting an internship can be quite grueling. They provide us with a means of not entering the professional world completely blind and the chance to have professional networks before the first day on a job. The concept of looking at an internship as experiential learning allows me to see the true benefits of what an internship can provide for me in working towards a career.

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