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Illustration: Students in five or six groups engaging in a variety of learning activities

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What makes college students successful after they graduate?

The University of Washington recently reported that 53 percent of recent college grads were unemployed or working in a job that didn’t even require a university degree. In addition, 49 percent of recent college graduates decided to forgo applying to basic entry-level jobs in 2022 due to feeling underqualified.

We’re on the cusp of a major disruption in education, business and society itself. The average worker changes jobs 12 times in their professional career. And the portion of U.S. adults ages 18 to 29 who see higher education as “very important” has dropped from 74 percent to 41 percent in just six years. To top this off, the percentage of jobs that mandate college degrees fell from 51 percent in 2017 to 44 percent in 2021.

Higher education institutions and educators addressing such trends need new ways to understand what leads to success during higher education, in the transition to getting a job and once employed in the workplace.

The Importance of Experience

In a job market that demands employees continually upgrade their skills, success comes from continually developing competencies over time. The rise of nondegree courses and programs, the spread of free on-demand online courses (from MOOCs to platforms like Coursera and the ever-popular YouTube), and the growing popularity of microcredentials (with a recent report highlighting that half of the more than one million credentials offered in the United States aren’t coming from higher ed institutions)—these all signal a fundamental reshaping of the educational landscape. With the value of having specific skills and abilities beginning to overshadow the value of obtaining a diploma from a specific institution, the higher ed classroom must evolve to ensure students aren’t just learning rote content but also how to continually develop new ways of thinking and high-order abilities. In short, students must learn how to learn from their diverse life experiences.

The recent onslaught of ChatGPT into the public domain is just the latest thundercloud causing turbulence in classrooms across the country and leading some people to revisit the very purpose of education. In a recent reflection on the topic, John Warner asked the provocative question “How about we put learning at the center?” and reminds us that “learning stuff is accomplished through doing stuff. Learning is rooted in experiences.” As longtime proponents of experiential education ourselves, this call to double down on the importance of experience as a key component of the learning process resonates deeply with us.

Conversations around experiential learning are not new to higher education. Recently, however, we’ve heard what seems to be a crescendo of calls for colleges and universities to seize the power, as Steve Mintz put it, of experiential learning through a variety of high-impact practices to better prepare students with the competitive skills they need in a disrupted job market. This trend, coupled with the fact that some institutions are starting to shift toward competency-based education models—where learning is measured by demonstrable skill mastery independent from seat time in a classroom—suggests that experience is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity in education. But while any pedagogical evolution that creates more learner-centric classroom environments and better motivates students to cultivate their skills and abilities should be difficult to fault, the current discourse on experiential learning is incomplete.

Experiential Learning Builds Real Intelligence

A scan across a variety of articles will illustrate that most discussions around experiential learning focus explicitly on the whys and hows of curating new experiences for students that allow them to develop skills in a hands-on, applied way. What is missing from the conversation is a framework for understanding the type of distinct intelligence that is gained from those experiences such that students can perpetually extract new insights from their lived experiences both inside and beyond the classroom. In short, experiential learning must be coupled with an appreciation for the intelligence developed from experience.

It has been more than a century since German psychologist William Stern coined the term “intelligence quotient,” IQ, launching a continuing quest for predictors of individuals’ future success through assessments and standardized test scores. Since then, IQ scores have long been assumed to be a key predictor of success in college and even life itself. And, until recently, various standardized tests like the SAT have generally been unquestioned as correlated with IQ and have served for decades to signal the likelihood of future achievement. Yet the dramatic shifts in society today, as illustrated by the statistics above, are now challenging such embedded assumptions. And that reinforces a question: How can we design learning programs and ready our students for success in today’s environment?

Three decades ago, emotional intelligence, or EQ, added a complementary piece to the success puzzle, and today there is an enduring notion of multiple forms of intelligence across education. But even with the addition of EQ to our educational landscape, we have not had a framework for understanding and intentionally developing the wisdom and talents that are derived through structured and informal experiences. The popular press has often referred to this seemingly informal type of intelligence as “street smarts.” The “10,000-hour rule” has also been used to describe how practicing something leads to expertise but without defining the mechanisms by which it results.

Experiential intelligence, or XQ, adds an important piece to the intelligence puzzle. One of us, Soren Kaplan, defines XQ as “the combination of mind-sets, abilities, and know-how gained from your experiences.” It complements IQ and EQ by giving an intentional lens through which one can both make sense of one’s personal and professional history, as well as continually learn from new daily experiences.

Three elements of XQ present a learning architecture that not only provides coherence within an experiential learning classroom but also a framework for lifelong learning from one’s lived experiences:

  • Mind-sets, or attitudes and beliefs about yourself, other people and the world.
  • Abilities, or competencies that help you integrate your knowledge, skills and experiences so you can respond to situations in the most effective way possible.
  • Know-how, or knowledge and skills derived from your experiences.

Just as memorizing facts does not translate into having a high IQ, experiential intelligence is not simply a list of things that you’ve learned over time. Rather, it is about cultivating an intentional awareness of how you view opportunities, perceive challenges and tackle goals based on prior experiences. XQ offers a pathway to understanding why we think and behave in certain ways as a function of how we are influenced by our past experiences.

Four Ways to Grow Experiential Intelligence

Experiential intelligence offers more than another Q we can assess for students. When conceptualized as a framework for learning, it has practical implications for structuring classroom activities to ensure that students are truly cultivating new skills and knowledge about themselves that is transferable to the world they will face after graduation. Designing high-impact experiential learning activities both inside the classroom and in the field—including team-based assignments, role-plays, problem-solving activities, experiments, community volunteering, ethnographic research, practicums and internships, and other experiential learning activities—provides distinct opportunities for shifting mind-sets, inspiring introspection and fostering personal growth.

We propose four strategies for developing students’ XQ as part of their experiential learning journey.

Emphasize three core learning anchors. In addition to cultivating new experiences from which students can learn, anchoring learning and reflection in a coherent framework helps them make sense of those experiences. The three elements of XQ—mind-sets, abilities and know-how—offer a unifying logic through which students can understand the experiences they’ve had in the past, as well as any new experiences cultivated in the classroom. Asking students to regularly inquire into their experience and reflect on iterations of three core XQ questions will help them develop an intentional habit of learning from their experiences:

  • How did this experience change or reinforce my existing mind-sets?
  • What were the abilities that this experience strengthened or developed?
  • What new knowledge or skills did I gain through this experience?

Cultivate diverse teams. When creating teams for experiential group projects, intentionally connect students with different backgrounds and encourage them to share prior experiences as a starting point for their learning and collaboration. Consider how the different life experiences of students can come together to complement the assets of the team. Facilitate discussions about how prior experiences have led to the mind-sets, abilities and know-how that each individual will contribute as part of the group’s learning experience. When forming teams, ask the following questions:

  • What are the most poignant life experiences that have helped you develop the strengths that you’ll bring to this team?
  • How did these experiences shape how you think, specifically your attitudes and beliefs about yourself, other people and the world?
  • What abilities did you develop as a result of your experiences that you will contribute as part of your teamwork?

Reframe failure as experiential learning. When we begin to realize that all experiences are fodder for learning, we can help students reframe setbacks and struggles as growth opportunities, an important viewpoint that supports resilience. Specifically, instructors can invite students to identify specific mind-sets, abilities and know-how gained from their struggles with both process and content. Exploring how students can apply their learning to foster future success helps them develop a growth mind-set that will serve them well in today’s perpetually changing world. When reviewing the learning experiences of students, ask:

  • What challenges did you experience in working as a team, and why did they feel like challenges to you?
  • How did this learning experience change how you think about yourself and others?
  • What abilities did you develop as part of this work?
  • What knowledge and skills did you gain that you can apply to future endeavors?

Reveal how life experience is a personal textbook. Recognizing and valuing how one’s distinct collection of personal experiences instills equally distinct assets provides an empowering view of oneself and how one’s possibilities can be leveraged for the future. As educators, we have an opportunity to help students see how their life experiences make up their own personal textbook—a storyboard about themselves that they can delve into to understand, interpret and apply as the basis for deeper learning, personal growth and achieving professional goals. Provide students with guiding questions as part of classroom discussions, one-to-one feedback or in team settings:

  • What life experiences had the most profound influence on the mind-sets (attitudes and beliefs) you hold about yourself, other people and the world?
  • Which mind-sets will serve you well as you move into your future, and which may get in the way of your goals?
  • What experiences, including both challenges and successes, have led you to adapt or do things that resulted in the development of specific knowledge, skills and abilities? How might you use these to achieve your future goals?

Experience leads to personal growth. That’s the essence of experiential learning. When we facilitate learning experiences that help students more deeply understand themselves, they often gain insight to what underlies their thinking and behavior, including the strengths they possess from their lived experience. Experiential intelligence offers a new approach for understanding oneself in today’s rapidly changing, uncertain environment. Having a framework that highlights the mechanisms by which experience fosters tangible assets—mind-sets, abilities and know-how—gives educators a greater opportunity to set their students up for future success.

Soren Kaplan is an affiliate at the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and a co-founder of He has worked with a wide range of organizations, including Disney, Visa, Cisco and the American Nurses Association, and is the author of Experiential Intelligence: Harness the Power of Experience for Personal and Business Breakthroughs. Lindsey Godwin is the Robert Stiller Endowed Chair of Management at the Stiller School of Business at Champlain College, where she serves as academic director of the Cooperrider Center for Appreciative Inquiry. Her article on “Earthshot OD” was recently named one of the most impactful articles of all time for the field of organization development.

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