Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 3, Issue 1 - July, 2010


Experiential Learning Philosophy Applied to Extension

Sanders, C. B., County Extension Director, Author


As Extension Agents we practice experiential learning in all phases of programming. The experiential learning process is used in planning, implementation, and evaluation of all Extension programs. As the 4-H motto states, "Learning by Doing", Cooperative Extension uses experiential learning as a way to educate citizens. Research on experiential learning dates back to John Dewey (1938), where he believes that true learing occurs through the relfection and application of the experience. In the following journal article, "Experiential Learning Philosophy Applied to Extension", I will use several models and theories to fit what works best for Extension Agents in developing programming.

The mission of Extension was set forth early in the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. As stated the mission is “the development of practical demonstrations of research knowledge and giving of instruction and practical demonstration of existing or improved practices or technologies” (Smith-Lever, 1985 amended). Basically, Extension educators have a desire to make a difference in their clientele by sharing knowledge and skills resulting in knowledge gained, skills gained, or an attitude change within the local clientele. Whether an Agricultural Extension Agent, Family Consumer Science Agent, or 4-H Agent; the philosophy resulting in an adoption of a new practice or skill and/or knowledge gained remains consistent from agent to agent. Extension education implies the need for adopting of new practices, skills, and techniques and emphasizes the need for change as a result of learning (Seevers, Graham, & Gamon, Conklin, 1997).

So, how do we make this transfer of knowledge from agent to clientele take place? Extension philosophy stresses practical knowledge, linkage to research, the use of hands-on application, and programming in a nonformal or nonschool setting (Seevers, et al., 1997). Program development to meet the needs of the people is the first step. This plan or map incorporates identifying the target audience, program design, implementation, and evaluation as the steps to a successful program.

As an Extension Agent, experiential learning is used in all phases of our program development. The father of Extension, Seaman A. Knapp stated, “What a man hears, he may doubt; what he sees, he may possible doubt, but what he does, he cannot doubt” (Ramussen, 1989). As a livestock agent, the typical target audience would be those livestock producers within the county. These people will either be already involved in the livestock industry with prior experience or people that are interested in becoming involved in the industry, and looking for more knowledge and experience. Dewey (1938) stated that each learner brings prior knowledge with them to each new experience. I find that even new clientele with no livestock will come to Extension programs with at least some prior knowledge. That prior knowledge may be having livestock as a child or having a neighbor with livestock that entices their wants or needs.

After identifying community clientele needs, the next step involves program design and implementation. When planning a program the selection of the delivery method to use needs to be considered, for example; What educational activities/learning experiences are most appropriate for the audience? ; Do the learning activities build logically on other learning experiences? ; Are the program delivery methods selected appropriate for accomplishing the objectives? (Seevers, et al., 1996).

During the program planning and implementation stage, experiential learning is a major component. Many educators believe that without an experience, there can be not true learning or real understanding of a concept or situation (Andresen, Boud, & Cohen, 2000). Therefore, when selecting the program delivery method, whether it is a field day, demonstration plot, or workshop, it is important to include hands-on activities where people can actually experience the new skills or knowledge. It is important to include a variety of teaching methods: hands-on or inquiry-based experiences, and include a fun environment to help the attendees retain the new knowledge. In addition, this experience can take place in many different environments. As Extension agents we have the advantage of teaching in an informal, “community setting where the focus is on learning” (McGrath, Conway, Johnson, 2007). Therefore these programs may take place in cow pens, pastures, laboratories, or face-to-face farm visits. Regardless of the content of your presentation, learners will come to field days with a variety of personal experiences, learning styles, ethnic and religious backgrounds, and mental and physical abilities through which your information will be processed (Blair, Meyer, Rager, Ostlie, Montgomery, & Carlson, 2004).

The final phase of program development is the evaluation stage. Although this is the final stage, this process should take place during all phases of program development. This stage most closely relates to the reflection stage of the experiential learning model. True learning occurs through the reflection and application of the experience (Dewey, 1938; Joplin, 1981). This reflection or evaluation stage helps the clientele to understand the importance or impact of the new information that has been experienced throughout an Extension program. Therefore it is the responsibility of the Extension educators to ensure opportunities for reflection,  not just program evaluation (Torock, 2009). The reflection or evaluation period can take place during the Extension program by questioning the participants of their ides and thoughts on the new experience. In addition, after an Extension program is over, an agent might visit some of the participants to reflect on their adoption of the new experience learned. Furthermore, it is the hope of the Extension agents that the participants have experienced new knowledge and see what Extension has to offer and will continue this reflection with the agent long after a “program” is over. This idea builds continuous relationships with the agent and their clientele. The voluntary nature of Extension educational relationships is powerful because it demands the highest quality teaching and listening applied to subject matter that is highly relevant to the student (McGrath, Conway, & Johnson, 2007).

As an Extension agent for the past 9 years, I see the process of Extension programming closely following Joplin's 1981 model of experiential learning, where experiential learning is a tool that should be used in the planning, implementation, and evaluating of Extension programming. Joplin used the five step process of focus, action, support, feedback, and debriefing. The focus stage closely resembles identifying the target audience and the planning stage of the Extension model. In this stage, learners prepare for learning (Joplin). Not only does the learner prepare but I see the facilitators preparing as well. It is during this stage to get to know your audience and better understand their needs. This helps the agent or facilitator better prepare the new experience as well as choosing an appropriate learning environment to better suite the needs of the learners.

The action stage is where the experience occurs (Joplin, 1981). The action stage would relate to the implementation stage of the Extension program. Simultaneous with the action stage are the support and feedback stages – two components other experiential learning models overlook (Joplin). During the implementation stage the actual sharing of the new experience or knowledge takes place. I believe that it?s during this phase of support and feedback that participants have reflection time on this new knowledge gained. For example, How will each participant use the information?; Will this new knowledge be implemented on their operations?; Will this new practice change make an economic impact on their operation? Etc.

The model proposed by Joplin that I see fitting into the Extension program, aligns with Dewey's theory that experiential learning is a “continuum” (Dewey, 1938). As stated previously the evaluation stage of the Extension program demonstrates this continuous cycle. The learning does not end at the conclusion of an Extension program, it includes that participant taking the information and making a practice change of adoption on their operation. This process make take time working with the Extension agent throughout the process change. In addition, reflection will take place with the participant, Extension agent, and other participants during this process. It might entail what works and does not work or how we can change the experience to fit a particular operation, etc.

Sometimes Extension agents become so excited about transferring knowledge, we simply skip over the most important part of the experience – reflection. Therefore, by incorporating Joplin's experiential learning model in the program planning and execution processes, Extension educators may ensure that the reflection piece is built into the program design, which may decrease the possibility of leaving out this crucial component of learning (Torock, 2009).

As an Extension agent, I believe that we are truly engaged in the experiential learning process. As the 4-H motto states, “Learning by Doing”, is what Extension does. Boyer (1990) argued that putting knowledge to work in service to the community involves different methods and produces different outcomes. Extension agents continue to develop programs using a variety of methods and the experiential learning process to provide new experiences for our clientele to adopt. Extension educators are action oriented and passionate about experiential learning, learning by doing (McGrath, et al., 2007).

Andreasen, L., Boud, D., & Cohen, R. (2000). Experience based learning. In G. Foley (Ed.) Understanding adult education and training. Sydney:Allen Unwin.

Blair, R., Meyer, N., Rager, A., Ostlie, K., Montgomery, K., Carlson, S. (2004). Best Practices for Environmental Field Days: Structuring Your Event for Fun and Learning. Journal of Extension, (42)3. Available at

Boyer, E.L. (1990). Scholarship reconsidered: Priorities of the professoriate. Princeton, NJ: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Dewey, J. (1938). Experience and Education. New York,NY: Simon and Schuster.

Joplin, L. (1981). On defining experiential education. Journal of Experiential Education, 4(1), 17-20.

McGrath, D., Flaxen, C., Johnson, S. (2007). The Extension Hedgehog. Journal of Extension, 45(2). Available at

Rasmussen, W. D. (1989). Taking the University to the People: The first seventy-five Years. Ames:Iowa State Univeristy.

Seevers, B., Graham, D., Gamon, J. & Conklin, N. (1997). Education Through Cooperative Extension. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers.

Smith Lever Act as Amended in 1985. Public Law 99-198. 99th Congress.S. 1435.1985.

Torock, J. (2009). Experiential Learning and Cooperative Extension: Partners in Non-Formal Education for a Century and Beyond. Journal of Extension, 47(2). Available At: