Back to
Experiential Learning
Outdoor Education Theory

Scale of Experientiality
Gibbons &  Hopkins (1980)

James Neill
Last updated:
01 Oct 2005

Scale of Experientiality - Gibbons & Hopkins (1980)

Are some experiences more "experiential"?  Can we categorize some activities as being more "experiential"?  Gibbons and Hopkins (1980) believed so, and created a 10-rung ladder along which "degree of experientialness" could be ranked.  Although this "scale of experientiality" is often cited, the model appears to have some serious flaws, among them that the model seems inconsistent with Dewey's more widely accepted theory of experience.

Gibbons and Hopkins (1980) contended that there was such a wide range of different programs referred to as experiential that the term "experiential" lacked meaning.  In order to clarify what was meant by experience-based education, Gibbons and Hopkins created a "scale of experientiality".  This was a ladder-like or continuum model, illustrating how activities could be seen as varying in their degree of experientiality.

The scale of experientiality proposed by Gibbons and Hopkins (1980) seems flawed from the outset since life is 100% experiential, a point made powerfully in John Dewey's theory of experience.  One is experientially engaged in every moment, whatever type of experience we may deem that to e.  Experientality isn't switched off and on like a light switch.  Gibbons and Hopkins (1986) attempt to grade human activity seems doomed because its of what are ultimately artificial categorizations.  Gibbons and Hopkins' scale also falls prey to Westernized hierarchical thinking in its metaphorical "ladder" promoting "active" experiences as inherently more valuable than "passive" experiences.  As Dewey pointed out, experiences are not inherently good or bad, it depends very much on the individual circumstances.

Gibbons and Hopkins (1980) desire was to point the different kinds of engagements a person may have with educational experiences.  Gibbons and Hopkins demonstrate a preference for activities in which the study is heavily engaged in the planning and process.  These are seen are more active, whereas they imply that there are significant limitations and lack of experientiality for education activities which the participant "receives" rather than interacts.  However, even a brief excursion into, for example, post-modern literary analysis reveals that, for reading, reading of texts or watching images, is far from passive -- there is very active construction of meaning and experience by the participant.

I first took exception to Gibbons and Hopkins (1980) scale of experientiality when I was passionate about studying films.  I had found that film-watching was at times very deeply engaging with the very core of human existence.  I knew from psychological studies of films that they could potentially change attitudes, raise heart-beats, sexually arouse, alter emotions, etc.  And yet, on Gibbons and Hopkins' scale of experientiality, watching a film seems is dubbed as low experientiality and implied to be of little experiential value.

Thus its a brave and perhaps naive theorist who dares demark certain categories of experience as inherently preferable over others.  At the very least, unique individual differences must be recognized.  In the world of experience, one woman's meat is another woman's poison.  Distinctions amongst qualities of experience however are difficult to make (e.g., Eastern vs. Western values).  Experience is a vast playing field.  Nevertheless, Gibbons and Hopkins (1980) scale of experientiality was a promising effort to map the territory of experientiality, an issue that hasn't attracted much attention.  Hopefully more flexible and widely usable maps will be developed that go beyond Gibbons and Hopkins artificial hierarchical arrangement of "passive versus active" experience.

Gibbons and Hopkins (1980) suggest five major modes of experiential learning, with each mode have the features of the previous mode, plus a major increase in the supposed "fullness of experience involved".

Psychosocial mode                   10 - Social Growth Becomes exemplary community member
                9 - Personal Growth Pursues excellence and maturity
Development mode               8 - Mastery Develops high standard of quality performance
            7 - Competence Strives to become skilful in important activities
Productive mode           6 - Challenge Sets difficult but desirable tasks to accomplish
        5 - Generative Creates,  builds, organizes, theorizes, or otherwise produces
Analytic mode       4 - Analytical Studies the setting and experience systematically
    3 - Exploratory Plays, experiments, explores, and probes the setting
Receptive mode   2 - Spectator Sees the real thing in normal setting
1 - Stimulated Sees motives, TV, and slides

Figure 1
. Gibbons and Hopkins (1980) scale of experientiality

A good summary of the Gibbons and Hopkin's model is provided by Priest and Gass (1997, pp. 143-144):

In an attempt to avoid increasing confusion surrounding the definition and applications of experiential education, Gibbons and Hopkins (1980) developed a scale of experientiality that outlined various degrees of experiential programming.  Their scale refers to the among of actual experience in the learning situation.  Five criteria determine this amount, including the degree to which:

  • experience was mediated, that is, the more "direct" the experience, the more experiential,
  • client was involved in the planning and execution of the experience

  • client was responsible for what occurred in the experience

  • client was responsible for mastering the experience to fullest extent possible, and

  • experience enabled clients to grow in directions that were helpful to them

Based on these five criteria, the authors identified five increasing modes of experientiality: receptive, analytic (examination), productive, developmental, and psychosocial.  With two submodes for each mode, a total of ten submodes represented a continuum of experientiality from least to most experiential...Each of these mode and submode experiences has a cumulative effect, with the more experiential  modes possessing the elements of less experiential modes beneath them (see Figure).

In the receptive mode, experiences, or representatives of them,  are presented to learners who remain a passive audience throughout.  In these simulated experiences, learners  passive experience slides, pictures, films,  or other simulations of reality.  In the spectator experience, learners experience the objects of the study, but only as an observer.

In the  analytic (examination) mode, learners conduct field studies in which they apply theoretical knowledge and skill in order to examine an event, analyze an aspect of the environment, or solve a practical problem.  The exploratory experience exposes learners to interesting sites and encourages them to explore the possibilities of materials at hand.  In the analytical experience, learners study systematically, often applying theory to solve problems in practical situations.

In the productive mode, learners generate products, activities, and services that have been assigned by you or that they have devised themselves.  The generative paradigm allows people to learn by building, creating, composing, organizing, or otherwise generating products in appropriate settings.  Naturally, the challenge experience challenges them or allows them to challenge themselves as they pursue goals of productivity or accomplishment that they must struggle to achieve.

In the developmental mode, learners pursue excellent in a particularly field by designing and implementing long-term programs of study, activity, and patience.  The competence experience encouragers learners to focus on a particular field, to practice skills involved, to become absorbed in the activity, and to achieve recognized competence in it.  The mastery experience encourages learners to go beyond competence to develop commitment, to set high personal standards in their pursuit of excellence in a field of activity, and to become a master of their chosen area.

In the psychosocial mode, learners understand themselves and their relationships with others.  They accomplish tasks presented by their particular stage of development towards maturity and make contributions to the lives of others.  The personal growth experience enables learns to gain understanding of themselves as unique individuals and to gain knowledge of effectively and responsibility directing their own activities.  The social growth experience enables learners to become more socially competent with people of all ages and to act in more socially-responsible ways, using their accomplishments in service to the community.

A more indepth commentary is provided by Horton and Hutchinson (1997):

Criteria for Selecting Level of Experience. When designing educational experiences, it is important to consider not only the level of involvement for each experience, but also the standards of quality for the experience and the learners' ability to respond. For example, observing a live presentation by "Bill Nye the Science Guy" might rank low on a scale of experientiality but high on a scale of quality. However, if learners are not prepared for or capable of responding to Nye's presentation, the experience will be low on a scale of readiness to learn. The same can be said for the environment in which the experience is facilitated. Watching the presentation on television will have a much different effect on the learner than watching it live on stage.

When matching experiences with content, one must begin by establishing a range of experientiality for the unit. To facilitate the process, Gibbons (1980) has adapted this aspect of decision-making to the following hierarchy of experiences:

  • Receptive mode. Experiences, or representations of them, are presented to learners, who remain a passive audience throughout.
    1. Simulated experience. Learners passively experience slides, pictures, videos, and other simulations of reality.
    2. Spectator experience. Learners experience the object of study with all senses, but as observers.
  • Analytical mode. Learners conduct field studies in which they apply theoretical knowledge and skill in order to study some event, analyze some aspect of the environment, or solve some practical problem.
    1. Exploratory experience. Learners are exposed to interesting sites and encouraged to explore the possibilities of the materials at hand.
    2. Analytical experience. Learners study field sites systematically, often applying theory to solve problems in practical situations.
  • Productive mode. Learners generate products, activities, and services, either assigned or of their own devising.
    1. Generative experience. Learners build, create, compose, organize, or otherwise generate products in appropriate settings.
    2. Challenge experience. Learners are challenged to pursue goals of productivity and accomplishment.
  • Developmental mode. Learners pursue excellence in a particular field by designing and implementing long-term programs of study, activity, and practice.
    1. Competence experience. Learners focus on a particular field, practice the skills involved, become absorbed in the activity, and achieve recognized competence.
    2. Mastery experience. Learners go beyond competence, developing commitment to a set of high personal standards of excellence.
  • Psychological Mode. Learners learn to understand themselves and their relationships with others. They accomplish the tasks presented by their stage of development toward maturity and make contributions to the lives of others.
    1. Personal growth experience. Learners gain understanding of themselves as unique individuals and learn to direct their own activities effectively and responsibly.
    2. Social growth experience. Learners become more socially competent with people of all ages and act in more socially responsible ways, using their accomplishments in service to the community.

According to Gibbons' (1990) hierarchy of experiences, as the degree of experience increases, the learner takes on more responsibility for learning. At an introductory level, an experience at the lower end of the scale may be quite appropriate. On the other hand, if a unit builds on previous knowledge gains and is designed for highly motivated and competent learners, experiences should be at the higher end of the scale.

Gibbons (1990) cautions curriculum designers to view his hierarchy in relative terms rather than absolutes. In the real world, learning does not take place at just one level of experience. Rather, it functions as a range of experiences that reflect the interests and expertise of the learners. The same is true for an instructional unit. If it is to be truly experiential, it should present a range of activities that reflect the level at which the content is addressed, the interests and abilities of the learners, and the environment in which the learning will take place.

Elements of Experience. Gibbons (1990) defines the elements of experience as "the things that make the experience happen," including the nature of the activities selected, the skills to be applied through the activities, and the way in which the activities are facilitated...Gibbons illustrates how higher levels of experience require a more sustained number of defining elements (activities and skills).

The stages of Mastery and Competence mark degrees of expertise in the application of a selected set of skills through a sustained and facilitated pattern of experience. Learning to function as an expert has traditionally been accomplished through apprenticeship. In such a system, the beginner, faced with clearly defined content that comprises a craft or trade, is guided through a clearly defined set of skill-building activities leading from apprenticeship to journeyman to mastery. The lower level Exploratory stage may call for nothing more than, for example, a career exploration day for ninth grade students.


Gibbons, M., & Hopkins, D. (1980). How experiential is your experience-based program? The Journal of Experiential Education, 3(1).

Gibbons, M. & Hopkins, D. (1986). How experiential is your experience-based program? In R. Kraft & M. Sakofs (Eds.), The theory of experiential education (pp. 135-140). Boulder, CO: Association for Experiential Education.

Horton, R., & Hutchinson, S. (1997). Nurturing scientific literacy among youth through experientially based curriculum materials.  National Network for Science & Technology, USA.