Commissioned Reports

The Impact of Experiential Learning Programs on Student Success

Report resources

May 2009

Prepared for the Ontario Ministry of Education


Ontario is currently making visible efforts to increase academic standards, improve secondary school success for all students, and raise the provincial secondary graduation rate to 85% by 2010–2011. Reforms have led to important changes in the secondary school system, such as the creation of Specialist High Skills Majors and expanded cooperative education, providing students with valuable experiential learning opportunities that help prepare them for life after high school. Experiential learning complements students’ academic learning and provides youth with experiences and knowledge that maximize their growth and development while meeting their needs for career exploration. CCL was contracted by the Ontario Ministry of Education to undertake a systematic rapid evidence assessment (SREA) of the research literature devoted to examining the effects of experiential learning (EL) programs on student success.

The main research question governing this SREA is: What do we know about the impact of experiential learning on student achievement, secondary school graduation, and their preparation for their future post-secondary pathways? Addition questions addressed include: (a) What types of EL programs are available for high school students? (b) What are the outcomes of EL programs? (c) What factors facilitate or impede EL? (d) What is the quality of the research studies on EL?

Method and Assessment

The total number of studies captured for this review was 514. While 298 studies progressed to the second phase of screening, 113 met the required criteria for inclusion in the keywording stage. Keywording guidelines were developed to organize and compare the results of the studies. After applying these guidelines, 35 studies were eligible for final analysis. The report includes a chapter devoted to mapping the literature. The map provides a general break down of the various characteristics of the body of literature as elicited through the keywording stage of the review and supplies the reader with distinctive features of the literature before moving on to the next stage of in-depth descriptions and quality assessment.

The quality assessment rubric includes 16 questions, or guidelines. A binary scale was applied to each guideline, 1 point for meeting the criteria, 0 for not meeting it. Overall scores were grouped into three levels of quality: “High quality” for those studies scoring above 13 points (80% of full score), “Medium quality” for those with a score from 10 to 12, and “Low quality” for those scoring 9 or below (60% of full score). Of the 35 studies, seven were assessed as being of high quality, 15 were medium, and 13 were considered low quality.


The studies reviewed for this report varied on program type, measurement tools, outcomes and quality. Regardless of program type or the quality of the study, when career awareness was used as a measure of career preparation, all results were positive. Although tempered by the variation in the quality of the research, outcomes for indicators of graduation were also positive with all studies in this category indicating that EL programs have positive effects on retention and drop-out rates. The findings suggest that high school students who experienced any type of EL program demonstrate psycho-social benefits in terms of self-esteem, engagement in workplaces or schools, socialization and leadership, and motivation.

Nevertheless, the evidence of the impact of experiential learning on academic achievement (defined in the literature as grades, grade point average, standardized scores, and various other measures) is inconclusive. Four studies reported positive outcomes. However, two of these studies were rated as being of low quality. Moreover, of the four studies reporting no impact on academic success, two are of medium quality and two are of high quality. Nonetheless, based on the findings presented here, it is reasonable to conclude that EL programs do not appear to have a negative impact on student academic success. It is likely that moderator variables, such as prior academic achievement or the type of outcome measure (GPA versus test scores, etc.), have an effect on overall results.

In general, employers were happy to participate in EL programs, and enjoyed the sense of community commitment. They enjoyed being able to support young people in their preparation for the workforce, and they found having exposure to possible future employees beneficial. Still, there were a number of concerns raised by employers.

Conclusion and Discussion

Time and resource restrictions did not permit a complete and comprehensive review of the topic. Still, CCL was able to capture and screen over 500 articles, eventually narrowing the list to 35 studies for coding and analysis. These studies were diverse and heterogeneous, often limiting the depth of synthesis available. Other limitations include the variation in quality of the studies and the small number of overall studies focusing on any one outcome, such as academic achievement or graduation. Still, the report provides a discussion of findings that were amendable to synthesis and includes the follow list of further considerations:

  • EL programs that seek to prepare young people for life after high school are beneficial for students and for employers;
  • Placement for placement’s sake is not advisable;
  • Inappropriate placements hinder the interest of young people; possibly discouraging them from further engagement in the community and in the workforce;
  • A dedicated coordinator who oversees all aspects of the program is fundamental to the success of these programs;
  • A successful work experience placement must achieve a balance between the contribution that the students’ make to the business in which they are engaged and the learning opportunities for the students;
  • Students must be well prepared.

Ontario is currently making visible efforts to increase academic standards, improve secondary school success for all students, and raise the provincial secondary graduation rate to 85% by 2010–2011.

L’Ontario s’efforce visiblement d’augmenter les normes de rendement, d’améliorer le niveau de réussite de tous les élèves au niveau secondaire et d’accroître le taux d’obtention du diplôme d’études secondaires à 85 % d’ici 2010–2011