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How Does Learning Work As Experience?


The notion of “experiential learning” shifts the emphasis away from conventional educational approaches and onto the learning and knowledge formation process occurring via reflection and firsthand experience (Dewey 1968, p. 186). In this work, I use autoethnography to investigate how participating in a fun charity run and hiking activities organised by my institution has shaped my unique perspectives on learning. This autoethnographic study uses two narratives—one about a charity fun run and the other about a university-sponsored hiking trip—to inquire into the nature of experiential learning. Autoethnography, as defined by Nicol (p. 5), is “a genre of writing that attempts to bring together ethnographic (or “outward reflecting”) and autobiographical (or “inward reflecting”) goals. The question of “How does learning work as experience?” demands researchers to have a firm grasp of the nature and effects of experiential learning on the growth of the whole person. This study sheds light on the significance of practical and hands-on learning experiences by examining the impact of experiential learning through sports and outdoor education. Autoethnography is an experimental research method since it can thoroughly explore and explain my experiences. In this paper, I apply John Dewey’s theory of experiential learning to my accounts of outdoor experiences as both adventurous and contemplative, as well as an unanticipated informative situation testing my perseverance and resolve in domains of difficulty. By delving into these events, I hope to better place myself, my thoughts, and my education within the broader social realm and deepen my understanding of human interaction. The dynamics of learning and growth in the human and societal contexts that my experiences strive to convey make it worthwhile to investigate how learning works for me as an experience. This chance to reflect on past events through an inquisitive autoethnographic method allows for examining how time spent in the great outdoors might inspire new forms of learning.

Setting and Methods

The South Brisbane neighbourhood was the starting point for the charity run, and the City Botanic Gardens was the final destination. The level, open area that served as the running track could fit a sizable crowd. If you’re a beginner runner taking on the five-kilometre run, you’ll appreciate the track’s flat course and how much faster and easier it makes the race overall. The training sessions took place at University’s Sports Centre, on the sports ground, simulating the conditions of an actual outdoor sporting event. In addition, we chose the Park as our sprinting venue since its terrain features a loop walk circuit, just like the fun runs, and so it prepares us for the variety of surfaces we’ll encounter on race day.

Boronia Peak Walk in Victoria, Australia, is a rocky, steep alpine environment teeming with native animals. There were various courses to try, each with its unique landscape, but all shared something about nature: the sounds, scents, and creatures. Boronia Peak Walk was perfect since its hiking trails offered the kind of realistic exposure to an outdoor activity that would be impossible in a place like a university.

Overwhelming volumes of textual information were gathered at the fun run and bush walk, with numerous seconds devoted to documenting feelings under such trying conditions. Photos I took at the time helped illustrate the transition from action to thought that I recorded in my notes. Thus, an autoethnographic approach permits me to investigate my own experiences to comprehend my preferred methods of learning and to challenge my conventional worldview regarding my encounters with the natural world (Nicol, 2013). Autoethnography allows me to incorporate my own experiences into a theory of education based on the value of the practical application. Autoethnography is a kind of writing that “seeks to construct a narrative of ‘lived experience’ as I recall experiences and events” (Nicol, 2013). This allows me to compare and contrast my pre- and post-learning selves. Accordingly, my ethnographic data is founded on my personal experiences, memories of those experiences, self-aware introspection, reflection, and an attempt to relate emotions, associations, and the mind and body to communicate this with others.

Linking Study to Research

This autoethnography takes John Dewey’s pragmatist conception of the educational experience as its theoretical starting point. That experience is fundamentally practical; it’s a question of ‘doing’, and reflecting on the implications of doing is something that Dewey’s research emphasises (Bates, 2015, p. 5). Dewey’s analysis of outdoor education, which he sees as a reactionary approach to education, supports his claim that experiential learning leads to “educational confusion.” Dewey’s (1916) argument for educational changes like outdoor education rests on the idea that traditional schooling should focus more on rote memorisation and developing students’ ability to think critically and creatively. Experiential learning, which integrates “thinking and doing,” is crucial for opening up previously unexplored avenues for personal growth (Bates, 2015, p. 7). Reflective experience is predicated on the idea that thinking experiences elevate experience above “just doing” (Dewey, 1968). The practice of regular reflection can accelerate personal and social growth. There are two ways in which people gain reflective experience, with ‘trial and error’ being the first, as described by Dewey. The ‘hands on approach’ favoured by this strategy places a premium on the action at the expense of careful planning. The second style places heavy emphasis on the analytical side of thinking; from this style comes the concept of reflection (Bates, 2015). Generalisable characteristics, such as first sentiments of bewilderment, uncertainty, and confusion, are used to identify the dominant mode of thought.

Dinan-Thompson and McMahon’s definition of autoethnography is a research approach that encourages reflection on one’s experiences and gained knowledge. It entails examining the life of a competitive swimmer. As discovered by these scholars, Autoethnography is an effective means of studying embodied experiences disregarded by traditional research methods (McMahon & Dinan-Thompson, 2011, p. 37). Additionally, Purdy and associates adopt an autoethnographic examination as they recount their time engaging in competitive rowing. According to their claims, the multifaceted nature of power in athletic competition can be best studied by using autoethnography. Purdy et al. (2008, p. 332) stress the significance of autoethnographers’ capacity to critically reflect on their experiences and the power dynamics at play (Purdy et al. 2008, p. 332). Through autoethnography, Nicol questions the effectiveness of outdoor education in promoting eco-friendly behaviour among students. According to Nicol, autoethnography is a helpful tool for outdoor educators, enabling them to evaluate their work and gain insights into its impact. Nicol stresses the importance of experiential learning in outdoor education as it nurtures a deeper connection with nature and heightens environmental consciousness (Nicol, 2013, p. 5).

In her research, Coghlan undertook an autoethnographic approach to explore the involvement in a charity bicycle challenge. In this context, Coghlan regards autoethnography as a powerful tool to explore a wide range of experiential learning dimensions. Critical reflection on personal experiences and the broader social, cultural, and political contexts that shape them are important features Coghlan emphasises in autoethnography. Coghlan also practised analytic reflexivity during her stay at camp, where she maintained a diary from her arrival till dinner time (Coghlan, 2012, p. 112). Ellis et al. dive into autoethnography in an article that illuminates its usefulness in research. According to them, this method is perfect for examining the links between individuals, their social and cultural environments, and the larger political systems that influence them. Critical reflection on one’s experiences and the more significant social, cultural, and political circumstances that shape them is a hallmark of autoethnography ( Ellis et al., 2011, p. 275).

The following extracts contain data from the fun run:

A beautiful Saturday morning has dawned. As I line up with hundreds of my fellow students and faculty members for a charity run, I experience a rush of adrenaline. I can’t wait to see how my preparation does in a real-world race situation. Participants gather at the starting line wearing matching t-shirts bearing the charity’s emblem to collect money for a local organisation that helps disadvantaged children in our town. We’ll be walking through some of the most stunning neighbourhoods and landmarks in the city along our chosen path. Jogging through the marathon, I enjoy the picturesque views while concentrating on running. Cool breezes kiss my skin and make the temperature perfect for my jog. Strategically placed water stops allow me to refill my fluids and re-energise on the course. I learn firsthand the significance of these hydration breaks to sustain my endurance throughout the race. Positive energy is critical when running, and the many water stations along our route provide ample opportunity to replenish our fluids and receive much-needed encouragement. Volunteers cheer us on with boundless enthusiasm, and this infectious spirit keeps us motivated to keep pushing forward. I learn how important it is to harness this positivity – it can make all the difference in my performance. As the finish line draws near, my excitement rises and my adrenaline surges. I’ve realised the vital role of a support system in aiding me in reaching my goals. Pushing towards the end, one foot after the other, my heart races excitedly. Faster and faster, I run as the crowd roars. With determination, I pushed past my limits using the power of a strong mindset. As I complete the task at hand, I am filled with pride and contentment. The value of effort and perseverance has been etched in my mind, knowing the importance of never giving up on my objectives. These actions have made me realise the critical consequences of giving up or pushing through. Having completed the race, we indulge in a post-event celebration where we mingle and unwind with like-minded runners. I grasp the significance of recognising my accomplishments and forging relationships with those who share my enthusiasm. Moreover, I realise the impact that a sense of camaraderie and encouragement can wield in aiding me to achieve my objectives. This unique occasion has imparted knowledge about my personality, camaraderie among runners, and practical expertise.

Manifest and Latent Aspects of the Experience

Running the race was the outward manifestation of the event. Passing charming neighbourhoods and famous landmarks, I felt my adrenaline surge at the start of the race, teaching me that I need to push through the demanding physical challenges. In moments of respite, water stops were a welcome breath of fresh air, and the gentle breeze lifted our spirits. Volunteers stationed there inspired us with their positive can-do attitude, motivating us to persist in our hard-earned progress.

The latent aspect of the experience was the social and emotional impact of participating in the charity run. Attending the event was a great way to meet new people and give back to the university. People’s identities are shaped by the communities in which they participate, as described by Tajfel and Turner’s social identity theory (Coghlan, 2012, p.114). Taking part in the charity race helped me feel more connected to my university and gave me satisfaction in helping an organisation that shared my ideals.

In addition, we could mingle with one another and toast our success as a group at the party that followed the race. John Dewey argued that people learn best when actively engaging in activities with meaningful social and emotional content (Dewey, 1968). The charity run, and the party after that provided me with an opportunity for hands-on, experiential learning that aided in the growth of my social and emotional competencies.


This narrative is a retrospective look at my training sessions, where I function as a student studying the ins and outs of running and a professional runner. Occupation is not merely a passive state butt requires constant material observation, strategic thinking, and introspection (Mcleod, 2023, p. 4). Being a runner is an energetic occupation. Running and using effective strategies for maturation and expansion must be balanced. This contrasts with a student’s job, which entails studying and mastering the techniques and regulations governing a fun run. Being a runner meant more to me than just a means to an end (Dewey, 1968). I participated in the run because I wanted to acquire strategies to increase my social engagement with people and participate in my training groups. The charity fun run races allowed me to do just that. Since experiential learning is all about actual life situations, I began to adopt the knowledge and outlook of my fellow students.

The following extracts contain data from the Hiking Activity.

When we all loaded up our backpacks and set out on the trail, I was initially bewildered since I had assumed our leader would take care of transporting our luggage to the campsite. When I heard that we must travel 10 kilometres to Boronia Peak Walk while carrying backpacks weighing a minimum of 9 kilograms, my surprise and bewilderment quickly transformed into terror and doubt. I start mentally analysing my predicament and wondering what I can do to lessen the difficulty of this bushwalk and the accompanying discomfort, worry, and anxiety. It’s either that or I have to stop every 15 minutes to dislodge the backpack from my shoulder, which means I have to take out my enormous sleeping bag and carry it in my arms. Several factors played into my final decision: if I stopped every 15 minutes, I’d fall much further behind my party, we would only make it to our destination much later than planned, and my arms would get tired from lugging my sleeping bag. The only way to find out which is better is to try them both. Taking a break was challenging since I had gotten so far behind that my friends were getting impatient, waiting for me to catch up. But it was tough to descend the high rocks with my sleeping bag in my arms. Carrying the sleeping bag relieved more discomfort than carrying my backpack for 15 minutes, and I preferred the challenge of descending the rocks to dealing with the annoyance of my friends.

In this journey stage, I am learning through aesthetic and reflective experiences. The first step in problem-solving is the pre-reflective stage, which includes my internalisation of difficulty and confusion caused by discovering I am to hike with a large rucksack (Dewey, 1968). This is an aesthetically pleasing experience since it causes powerful emotional reactions in me and prompts me to take a holistic view of the issue by evaluating my ability to avoid further pain (Bates, 2015, p. 7). Next, I engage in abstract contemplation as I think about potential courses of action, develop those possibilities using reasoning, and finally put them to the test overtly (Bates, 2015). As my uncertainty and bafflement fade, I enter the post-reflective phase, where I feel proud of my efforts and relieved to have found a solution to my suffering. In addition to the information presented above, I relied on observation, doing, and action to learn how to set up my tent and use the stove for cooking. Cooking as a profession involves negotiating and adapting to various situations. Neither my tentmate nor I could get the stove to come on, and we spent much time criticising one another’s cooking techniques (Bates, 2015). We negotiated, and each of us would prepare a dish. In addition, I found it difficult to set up the tent since I was either too impatient or needed to know the optimum place to lay the tarp. There was a lot of trial and error before we successfully built our tent, but in the end, it was worth it since we could take what we learned and apply it to our next camping trip.


In conclusion, this auto-ethnographic study of the university charity fun run and hiking activity has shed light on experiential learning through sports and outdoor education. What is the function of experience in learning? was the driving question for this study. Analysing the existing literature reveals autoethnography to be an effective method for investigating the relationship between individual experiences and their historical, cultural, and political settings. The ability to critically reflect on one’s own experiences and the more significant social, cultural, and political factors that shape them is central to the practice of autoethnography. Sports and outdoor education are only two examples of how experiential learning can be used in the classroom. Personal experience has shown me that hands-on learning is one of the most effective ways to acquire new information, expand one’s horizons, and foster respect for the natural world.


Bates, A. (2015, April 5). 3.6 Experiential learning: learning by doing (2) – Teaching in a Digital Age.

Coghlan, A. (2012). An autoethnographic account of a cycling charity challenge event: Exploring manifest and latent aspects of the experience. Journal of Sport & Tourism17(2), 105–124.

Dewey, J. (1968). Democracy and education: an introd. to the philosophy of education. Free Pr.

Ellis, C., Adams, T., & Bochner, A. (2011). Autoethnography: an overview. Historical Social Research36(4).

Mcleod, S. (2023, February 16). Kolb’s Learning Styles and Experiential Learning Cycle. Simply Psychology.

McMahon, J., & DinanThompson, M. (2011). “Body work—regulation of a swimmer body”: an autoethnography from an Australian elite swimmer. Sport, Education and Society16(1), 35–50.

Nicol, R. (2013). Returning to the richness of experience: is autoethnography useful for outdoor educators in promoting pro-environmental behaviour? Journal of Adventure Education & Outdoor Learning13(1), 3–17.

Purdy, L., Potrac, P., & Jones, R. (2008). Power, consent and resistance: an autoethnography of competitive rowing. Sport, Education and Society13(3), 319–336.


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