Got Research in Experiential Education? Theory and Evidence

Opening Address SEER 2003: Got Research in Experiential Education? Theory and Evidence

Henderson, Karla A

We live in an age of information explosion. At our fingertips, literally, we have access to “mountains” of ideas, thoughts, and data. We can retrieve information about millions of topics. Yet, as Toffler (1970) suggested in Future Shock, we are becoming drowned in information and starved for knowledge. Theory nested in research and a focus on evidence-based conclusions can provide a knowledge base indispensable for effective experiential education.

Experiential education is a good thing. Successful educational leaders know that regardless of the age of students, personal experiences lead to learning. Practitioners who use experiential education, particularly in the outdoors, know subjectively that important lessons people learn in life can be a result of structured group experiences. Yet perceptions and intuitions about the value of experiential education are not enough. In the 21st century, the specter of accountability will grow (Neill, 2003). Experiential educators need to articulate the value of the process and content of experiential opportunities. To use information to create a body of knowledge, researchers must continue to develop and apply theory, and to address the emerging opportunities for evidence-based research and evaluation.


Last year in a research class, which students take in our department, we spent considerable time talking about theory. These bright and socially committed students struggled with the idea of how theory related to the professional problems they wanted to solve. A student remarked, one day, that someone ought to set up a website called “” for all the students searching to understand the myriad of theories that exist “somewhere.” Although I was amused, I was also a bit frustrated with the lack of understanding of why theory might be necessary if the research undertaken was going to provide more than descriptions about a localized problem. They struggled to see how theory was necessary to build a body of knowledge and how that knowledge led to new theories. Without theories, a body of knowledge that defines a profession cannot emerge.

Theory is not new. Researchers in experiential education have borrowed theories from other disciplines for years. Some people, however, question whether theories can be adequately applied to human behavior. Nevertheless, as Babbie (2001) suggested, theory enables professionals to offer logical explanations for patterns that we observe. Theories can also shape and direct research efforts so that researchers can better explain results. Theories provide the foundational base for knowledge. Without theories, data may be informational but not necessarily result in a body of knowledge. Data that lack a theoretical connection might be likened to having a ropes course without a leader. Further, as researchers reflect on theories in experiential education, both inductive and deductive theory are useful. Sometimes researchers start with a theory or hypothesis and set out to see how it works in a particular situation [deductive]. In the inductive approach, a broad question is asked and data are collected to find information that can lead to explanations grounded in theory.

In examining the papers presented at the Symposium for Experiential Education Research (SEER) during the past two years, several examples of theory were noted that deserve highlighting. For example, Pinch (2003) used the experiential learning cycle to examine how gender was operationalized in outdoor groups. Holman, Goldenberg, and McAvoy (2003) applied means-end theory to examine the outcomes, consequences, and values of an integrated wilderness adventure program. Goldenberg (2003) also employed this same theoretical framework to examine the benefits of Outward Bound for a group of young people.

Evidence-Based Approaches

Although the connections with theory have been an aspect of research for many years, the ideas related to evidence-based research and evaluation are relatively new. An essential aspect of applied research in experiential education is to explain the patterns that seem to be occurring so that results can be associated with best practices. Although measuring outcomes of experiential programs is essential, researchers in experiential education can expand the meanings of the outcomes by using evidence-based research

Outcomes-based research gained importance in the past two decades. Outcomes-based research is defined as measuring the extent to which a program or intervention affects participants on a set of specified outcomes, variables, or elements. Outcomes might include achievements or changes in skill, knowledge, attitudes, behavior condition, or life status. Overall performance for any organization or program typically has been assessed relative to good intentions, resources available, and the quality of programming. These performance indicators are important, but together are not sufficient without knowing to what end they are used. A problem with outcomes-based research is that researchers often are unable to describe the process or implementation associated with positive outcomes. Changes in behaviors or attitudes do not occur “just because” experiential education is used. Many factors must be taken into account to explain positive outcomes. Knowing the extent of positive outcomes will be helpful if researchers can explain why change occurred so others can improve their practice to reach those same outcomes. Therefore, it is not only the bottom line of change that is of interest, but also common sense, practical wisdom, and participant perspectives that are taken into account in “evidence-based” research.

During the 1990s, fields such as medicine and social services began to include “evidence-based” approaches in research (Tomison, 2003). Randomized and control trials historically were considered the gold standard of research. Problems existed, however, in trying to apply randomized control trials in social interventions. Randomization and control often could not be applied to real world problems and were not necessarily sensitive to local and contextual factors. Further, these trials were often too difficult or costly. Because of these issues, evidence-based research emerged.

The evidence-based approach refers to the conscientious use of current, reliable and valid evidence integrated with individual expertise to make decisions about best practices. The tenets of evidence-based research are that decision-making and the improvement of practice is best supported by a balance of sound theory and relevant empirical evidence. Policy and practice decisions are based on a critical appraisal of the best evidence. Therefore, evidence-based research involves developing as complete picture as possible by critically assessing the most reliable and valid information available (Tomison, 2003). The key to evidence-based research is tailoring the methods to the research question while considering the reality of the situation. In experiential education, a variety of methods such as meta-analyses, quantitative analysis, and qualitative analysis might be used to uncover evidence.

Neill’s (2003) application of meta-analysis in assessing adventure therapy outcomes provided insight into the outcomes of adventure therapy, as well as what conditions might exist if these outcomes were to occur. he suggested that the most effective outdoor education programs were those that were longer, involved adult-age participants, and were conducted by particular organizations. In another meta-analysis done by Marsh (1999), the outcomes related to self-concepts in youth campers were discovered to be more positive in camps that had intentionally stated goals for self-identity. Meta-analyses are emerging as important sources of evidence, but are only as useful as the primary research studies that are used.

Studies using quantitative statistical tools give information about outcomes, although enough description must exist to see how “what” was done contributed to skills, behavior, or attitude changes. For example, Griffin (2003) found that Christian spiritual beliefs could be strengthened through a combination of explicit spiritual teaching, and the group and personal challenges experienced in the outdoors. Russell’s (2003) examination of treatment outcomes using hierarchical linear modeling is an illustration of using data to understand not only that outcomes occurred but to show evidence of why some programs were more effective than others.

Studies using qualitative data also have potential to demonstrate how outcomes are related to practice. When interpreting qualitative data, however, researchers must be careful about how cause and effect are ascribed. Descriptive qualitative studies that use a social analysis can provide information to explain how and why individual or group outcomes might occur. For example, Brown (2003) drew upon ethnomethodology to examine how group members collaboratively constructed facilitation sessions. Similarly, Taniguchi and Freeman (2003) employed writing as a way to ascertain what meaningful learning experiences in an outdoor educational setting portended. Fox and Mullins (2003) applied a hermeneutic analysis of interviews to identify evidence about ethical outdoor leadership. Taken together, a variety of approaches and methods are helpful in not only describing the value of experiential activities, but also ascertaining policy issues and best practices through evidence-based research.

So What? Now What? What’s Next?

Assessing how the on-going research in the field of experiential education relates to theory and evidence must become an inherent function for both researchers and practitioners. As new information is gathered from research, experiential educators must ask questions about the type of evidence that exists and how evidence leads to future practice as well as how theory leads to future research questions. Using theory and evidence-based studies can further build the body of knowledge in this relatively new field of experiential education.

More theory driven and evidence-based research is needed. Good instruments to help with measuring outcomes and process such as those developed by Galloway (2003), and Sibthorp (2003) are required. Although descriptive and correlational research is helpful, researchers need to strive to determine aspects of cause and effect in future research. Claims can be made for cause and effect, however, only if the appropriate data exist. The focus on gathering and interpreting evidence, including aspects of process as well as content, need to be high on experiential educators’ agendas for the future.

Within the related fields of experiential education, a research-friendly culture can lead to better understanding the cause and effect of how programs are conducted, and how experiential educators lead and teach. Evidence-based research necessitates researchers working closely with practitioners. Practical wisdom is important, but this wisdom alone is not going to change procedures or policies within organizations. Descriptive data alone will not lead directly to a body of knowledge. Careful and ongoing analyses using evidence-based approaches will set the directions for future action. The research must be translated for practice so that theory and evidence can be co-created and informed by professional and participant wisdom. Experiential educators will then have access to more information, framed within a body of knowledge.


Babbie, E. (2001). The practice of social research (9th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Brown, M. (2003, November). An examination of social interaction in adventure education facilitation sessions. Paper presented at the International Symposium on Experiential Education Research, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Fox, K. M., & Mullins, P. (2003, November). Ethical outdoor leadership: Opening a dialogue. Paper presented at the International Symposium on Experiential Education Research, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Galloway, S. (2003). Development and validation of an outdoor leader experience use history instrument [Abstract]. Journal of Experiential Education, 25(3), 345.

Goldenberg, M. (2003, November). Youth development through outdoor adventure: Results from the Outward Bound “Unity Project.” Paper presented at the International Symposium on Experiential Education Research, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Holman, T., Goldenberg, M., & McAvoy, L. (2003). Outcomes-consequences-values of an integrated wilderness adventure program [Abstract]. Journal of Experiential Education, 25(3), 353.

Marsh, P. (1999). Does camp enhance self-esteem? Camping Magazine, 72(6), 36-40.

Neill, J. T. (2003). Reviewing and benchmarking adventure therapy outcomes: Applications of meta-analyses. Journal of Experiential Education, 25(3), 316-321.

Pinch, K. J. (2003). The mountain does not speak for itself: Covert operations in gender [Abstract]. Journal of Experiential Education, 25(3), 349.

Russell, K. C. (2003, November). Hierarchical data structure in wilderness therapy and education. Paper presented at the International Symposium on Experiential Education Research, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Sibthorp. J. (2003). Caveats for the development and use of behaviorally anchored rating scale in recreational program evaluation [Abstract]. Journal of Experiential Education, 25(3), 344.

Taniguchi, S., & Freeman, P. A. (2003, November). Outdoor education and meaningful learning: Finding the attributes to meaningful learning experiences in an outdoor education program. Paper presented at the International Symposium on Experiential Education Research, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Toffler, A. (1970). Future shock. New York: Bantam.

Tomison, A. (n.d.). Evidence-based practice in child protection: What do we know and how do we better inform practice. Retrieved August 27, 2003, from

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