Direct Experience


Direct experience refers to built-in opportunities for active engagement in a learning environment which "decisively shape individual understandings" (Ewell, 1997, p.7).  When students have little or misconstrued knowledge of a certain topic, direct experience is required to gain that understanding and create, change, or refine a mental model. These views are not always accurate, but may be shaped by past experiences and may be “difficult to break out of even when they are demonstrably false” (Halpern & Associates, as cited in Ewell, 1997, p. 8). 

Checklist of Observable Behaviors

___ 1. Learning in context (Ewell, 1997, p.8): The student experiences an environment that provides an opportunity to acquire knowledge and skills by directly observing the object or phenomenon to be studied.

___ 2. Creating a mental model (Ewell, 1997, p.8): The student experiences repeatedly similar situations, thus making associations between causes and effects, through which humans make sense out of new situations.

___ 3. Changing a mental model (Ewell, 1997, p.8): The student re-uses existing brain connections for new purposes and constructs new associations based on the previous patterns of expectations.


            Ewell,  P.  T.  (1997).  Organizing for learning: A point of entry.  Draft prepared for discussion at the 1997 AAHE Summer Academy at Snowbird.  National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS).

            Halpern,  D.  F., & Associates.   (1994).  Changing college classrooms: New teaching and learning strategies for an increasingly complex world.  San Francisco: Jossey- Bass.


In a lesson entitled “Popcorn Poetry,” students are asked to creatively use their sensorial experience to learn abstract concepts in poetry.  They are given the opportunity to directly experience the concrete characteristics of popcorn such as its smell, taste, texture, and the sound of it popping.  These experiences enable the students to compose a poem about popcorn.  After the poems are completed, students will be able to tell how each of their senses contributed to identifying the popcorn characteristics.  The students can also describe how they were able to transform their experiences with the popcorn into the creative and accurate words they used in their writing.


Adapted from:

       Moran, A. Popcorn poetry lesson  [On-line].  Available: [2000, May 17].