Experiential Learning | Innovative Teaching and Learning Center | University of Northern Illinois (2023)

“Experiential [learning] is a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage students through direct experience and focused reflection to enhance knowledge, develop skills, and clarify values” (Association for Experiential Education, para. 2).

Experiential learning is also referred to as learning by doing, learning by doing, learning by experience, and learning by discovery and exploration, all of which are clearly defined by these well-known maxims:

I hear and I forget, I see and I remember, I do and I understand.~ Confucius, 450 BC

Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, participate and I learn.~ Benjamim Franklin See More, 1750

There is a close and necessary relationship between the current experience process and training. ~John Dewey, 1938

in her bookteaching in experiential education,Wurdinger and Carlson (2010) found that most college professors teach by lecturing because few of them have learned to teach in other ways. While good lectures should be part of an educator's teaching repertoire, teachers must also actively involve their students "in the learning process through discussion, group work, hands-on participation, and application of information outside the classroom" (p. . two). This process defines experiential learning, in which students engage in learning content in which they have a personal interest, need, or desire.

Learning through experience is not a new concept in higher education. Well-known educational psychologists such as John Dewey (1859-1952), Carl Rogers (1902-1987) and David Kolb (b. 1939) provided the foundation for theories of learning that focus on "learning by experience" or "learning by doing". Dewey popularized the concept of experiential learning, which focuses on problem solving and critical thinking rather than memorization and memorization. Rogers viewed experiential learning as "meaningful" compared to what he called "meaningless" cognitive learning. Kolb also noted that concrete learning experiences are critical to meaningful learning and is known for his Learning Style Inventory (LSI), which is now widely used across many disciplines to help identify preferred learning styles. A key element of experiential learning is therefore the learner, and this learning (the acquired knowledge) occurs as a result of personal involvement in this pedagogical approach.

A key element of experiential learning... is the learner, and that learning takes place...

Principles of Experiential Learning (EL)

In contrast to traditional classroom settings, where students compete with each other or remain uninvolved or unmotivated and the classroom is highly structured, in experiential learning situations, students cooperate and learn from each other in an approach more semi-structured. Instruction is designed to engage students in direct experiences related to real-world problems and situations in which the teacher encourages students' progress rather than directing them. "The focus of EL is on the learning process rather than the learning product" (UC Davis, 2011, para. 6). Proponents of experiential learning claim that students are more motivated to learn when they have a personal interest in the subject than when assigned to review a topic or read a chapter in a textbook. However, the essential thing in EL is “that the phases of experimenting (doing), reflecting and applying are present. Furthermore, "it is the reflection and application phases that make experiential learning different and more effective than models commonly referred to as 'learning by doing' or 'learning by doing'" (UC Davis, 2011, para. 12 quoting Proudman ).

The following is a list of experiential learning principles as they emerge (Association for Experiential Education, 2011, paragraph 4):

  • Experiential learning occurs when carefully selected experiences are supported by reflection, critical analysis and synthesis.
  • The experiences are structured to demand from the student Take initiative, make decisions and be accountable for results.
  • Throughout the experiential learning process, the learner is actively involved in asking questions, investigating, experimenting, being curious, solving problems, taking responsibility, being creative, and constructing meaning.
  • Students are intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually and/or physically engaged. This participation creates a perception that the learning task is authentic.
  • Learning outcomes are personal and form the basis for future experiences and learning.
  • Relationships are developed and nurtured: learner with self, learner with others, and learner with the world at large.
  • Instructor and student may experience success, failure, adventure, risk taking, and uncertainty because the results of the experience cannot be fully predicted.
  • Students and faculty have opportunities to explore and examine their own values.
  • Instructor key responsibilities include providing appropriate experiences, identifying issues, setting boundaries, supporting students, ensuring physical and emotional safety, and facilitating the learning process.
Instructor and student may experience success, failure, adventure, risk taking, and uncertainty because the results of the experience cannot be fully predicted.
  • The trainer recognizes and encourages spontaneous learning opportunities.
  • Teachers strive to be aware of their biases, judgments and preconceived notions and how this affects the student.
  • The design of the learning experience includes the opportunity to learn from natural consequences, mistakes and successes.
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The experiential learning process

Experiential learning involves a series of steps that provide students with a hands-on, collaborative, and reflective learning experience that helps them “acquire wholly new skills and knowledge” (Haynes, 2007). While learning content is important, learn from itprocessis the focus of experiential learning. At each stage of the experience, students will engage with the content, the teacher and each other, as well as reflect on themselves and apply what they learn to a different situation.

The following outlines the steps that comprise experiential learning as noted by (Haynes, 2007, para. 6 and UC Davis, 2011).

While learning content is important, learning through process is at the heart of experiential learning.

Experiencing/Exploring “Doing”

Students will have hands-on experience or hands-on experience with little or no help from the teacher. Examples might be: making products or models, role-playing, giving a presentation, solving problems, playing a game. An important aspect of experiential learning is what the student learns from the experience, not the quantity or quality of the experience.

"What happened?" share/reflect

Students share results, reactions and observations with their peers. Students will also get other classmates to talk about their own experiences, sharing their reactions and observations and discussing the feelings generated by the experience. Sharing means reflecting on what you've discovered and relating it to past experiences that can be used for the future.

Process/Analyze "What's important?"

Students discuss, analyze and reflect on experiences. Describing and analyzing their experiences allows students to relate them to future learning experiences. Students will also discuss how the experiment was conducted, how questions, problems and doubts arose as a result of the experiment. Students will discuss how specific problems or issues were addressed and identify recurring themes.

Generalizing "So what?"

Students will connect the experience to real-world examples, find common trends or truths in the experience, and identify “real-life” principles that emerged.

Application "What now?"

Students will apply what they learned from the experience (and what they learned from previous experiences and practices) to a similar or different situation. In addition, students will discuss how the newly learned process can be applied to other situations. Students will discuss how the issues covered can be useful in future situations and how more effective behaviors can develop from what they have learned. The teacher must help each student to feel responsible for what they have learned.

In experiential learning, the instructor leads rather than directs the learning process, where students are naturally interested in learning.

Teacher roles in experiential learning

In experiential learning, the instructor leads rather than directs the learning process, where students are naturally interested in learning. The trainer assumes the role of facilitator and is guided through a series of critical steps for experiential learning, as noted by (Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010, p. 13).

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  1. Be willing to accept a less teacher-centered role in the classroom.
  2. Approach the learning experience in a positive, non-dominant way.
  3. Identify an experience in which students will find personal interest and involvement.
  4. Explain to students the purpose of the experiential learning situation.
  5. Share your feelings and thoughts with your students and let them know that you too are learning from the experience.
  6. Link course learning objectives to course activities and direct experience so students know what to do.
  7. Provide relevant and meaningful resources to help students succeed.
  8. Allow students to experiment and find solutions on their own.
  9. Find a balance between the academic and supportive aspects of teaching.
  10. Clarify the roles of students and teachers.

Student roles in experiential learning

Qualities of experiential learning are those in which students choose to be personally involved in the learning experience (students actively participate in their own learning and have a personal role in the direction of learning). Students are not left entirely alone; However, the instructor assumes the role of guide and facilitates the learning process. The following list of student papers is adapted from (UC-Davis, 2011 and Wurdinger & Carlson, 2010).

...students choose to personally participate in the learning experience...
  1. Students are involved in practical, social and personal problems.
  2. Students have freedom in the classroom as long as they progress in the learning process.
  3. Students often need to be involved in difficult and challenging situations when exploring.
  4. Students will self-evaluate their own progress or success in the learning process, which becomes the primary means of assessment.
  5. Students learn from the learning process and become open to change. This shift includes less reliance on the instructor and more intimacy with peers, developing skills to investigate (research) and learn from authentic experience and the ability to objectively evaluate one's performance.

Integrating Experiential Learning (EL) into the Classroom

As mentioned earlier, a key task for teachers is to identify a situation that challenges students through problem solving, cooperation, collaboration, self-discovery, and self-reflection. At the same time, decide what you want students to learn or gain from the learning experience. Below are some key points to remember when incorporating experiential learning into your own classroom.

The plan

Once you've decided on the EL experience, plan the experience by linking it to the course's learning objectives and determine what students will need to successfully complete the activity (resources such as reading and worksheets, research, rubrics, out-of-the-box materials and instructions). local campuses, etc.). Also determine the logistics: How much time will students have to complete the experience (a full class, a week or more)? Do students have to work outside of the classroom? How does the experience end? What forms of assessment do you use? Will you use ongoing assessments such as observation and journaling (called formative assessment), end-of-experience assessments such as written reports and projects, self-assessments and/or peer assessments, or a combination of all three?


After planning is complete, prepare materials, rubrics, and assessment tools and make sure everything is in place before the experience begins.

To facilitate

As with most teaching strategies, the trainer must start with experience. Once started, you must refrain from providing students with all content and information and complete answers to their questions. Instead, guide students through the process of finding and determining solutions on their own.


The success of an experiential learning activity can be determined during discussions, reflections and a debriefing. Debriefing as a final experience can help reinforce and extend the learning process. Also, make use of pre-planned assessment strategies.

Experiential learning opportunities in higher education

There are numerous experiential learning opportunities in higher education, found in most disciplines. The following is a list of these experiences as noted by (George Mason University, 2011; Loretto, 2011; Northern Illinois University OTC, 2011).

training experiencesOffer students the opportunity to experience a job, often with an experienced professional in the field acting as a mentor. Internships are a type of on-the-job training that can lead to certification. Many skilled workers learn their trade through aTeach.

Clinical Experiencesthey are practical experiences of fixed duration that are directly related to a field of study, such as B. Nursing students participating in hospital experience or child development students and teacher training students participating in day care centers and classrooms.

Cooperative Educational Experiencesare more extensive than internships and generally span two or more semesters. Cooperatives are paid internships and are closely linked to students' academic work. During the co-op experience, students receive ongoing counseling and the co-op is structured to meet the student's academic and/or professional goals. Cooperative experience is usually counted on the student's transcript in addition to the credit hours earned towards the degree.

Fellowship ExperiencesProvide tuition or assistance to support students' education for a specified period of time, usually between 6 months and one year. They are usually awarded by educational institutions, companies or foundations to support people who are carrying out studies or research. Graduate Scholarships support students at the postgraduate level, while Postdoctoral Scholarships provide funds for those who have already earned their PhD.

Field work experiencesAllow students to explore and apply content learned in the classroom to a specific field experience outside of the classroom. Fieldwork experiences connect educational experiences with an outside community that can range from neighborhoods and schools to anthropological dig sites and laboratory settings.

internship experiencesare work-related and offer career-changing students and professionals the opportunity to find their way in a professional field and gain valuable work experience. Internships can be credited, uncredited, paid or unpaid.

internship experiencesthey are often a mandatory part of a degree and place students in a supervised and often paid situation. Students build skills and apply previously learned theory and content, such as: B. Students working in a school media library or marketing graduates working in a market research firm. Internships also allow students to conceive and develop a project in which they apply knowledge and develop skills such as: B. a graduate student preparing the components of an online course.

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Service learning experiencesare characterized by being beneficial to both the student and the community. Service Learning is growing rapidly and is seen as part of experiential learning because of its nature of learning, doing work within the community and serious reflection on the student's part. Service Learning involves solving some social problems; such as homelessness, poverty, lack of quality education, pollution, etc. One of the goals of Service Learning is to help students become aware of these issues and develop good citizenship by learning how to use them to address some of the issues that may contribute to these issues.

Service learning experiences are characterized by being mutually beneficial for both the student and the community.

student teaching experiencesgives candidates the opportunity to put into practice the knowledge and skills they have developed in the preparatory program. Teaching students usually involves a face-to-face experience at a partner school and opportunities for candidates to reflect, both formally and informally, on their teaching experience.

The classroom portion of this on-site experience can range from ten to sixteen weeks, depending on the program.

study abroad experiencesOffer students a unique opportunity to learn in a different culture, in the safety of a host family and a host institution carefully selected to allow credit towards the student's degree program. Students who learn a foreign language improve their accent and greatly expand their vocabulary - a skill they will retain for a lifetime. Making new friends, traveling and making decisions are also important parts of studying abroad.

Volunteer ExperiencesAllow students to serve in a community primarily because they choose to do so. Many serve through a non-profit organization – sometimes called formal volunteering, but a significant number also provide less formal service, individually or as part of a group. As these informal volunteers are much harder to identify, they may not be included in volunteer surveys and statistics.

Experiential Learning Opportunities at Northern Illinois University

It isOffice for Student Engagement and Experiential Learning(OSEEL) provides “opportunities for students to engage in hands-on learning. Through OSEEL undergraduate research, service learning, topical learning communities, and other high-impact practices, NIU students will develop critical thinking, employ creativity, and employ various communication strategies while applying their skills to real-world problems. As a result of the Strategic Plan for Curriculum Innovation, OSEEL is collaborating with university departments and faculties to create sustainable, relevant, student-centered, and inquiry-based programs that use experiential learning inside and outside the classroom to advance and enhance students' learning. academic skills succeed. Each of OSEEL's programs is directly aligned with the eight Bachelor's Review student learning outcomes, as NIU seeks to enhance its students' cognitive, social, and academic skills to prepare them to be lifelong learners and citizens. responsible in our ever-changing, global society” (OSEEL, 2011, para. 1).

Since 2000 orexperiential education center(ELC) at the College of Business “brought teams of NIU students together with organizations to solve real-world business problems. From software evaluation to emerging market analysis projects, students serve as consultants, addressing cross-functional, non-mission-critical business problems. During the 16-week semester, Business ELC teams are led by a faculty instructor and supported by an organizational sponsor. For each individual project, teams apply the Business ELC project methodology and the knowledge, skills, and theories learned in the classroom” (ELC 2001).


Experiential learning experiences help complete students' preparation for their chosen careers by reinforcing course content and theory. Students learn through student-centered rather than teacher-centered experiences of doing, discovering, reflecting, and applying. Through these experiences, students develop communication skills and confidence and gain and strengthen decision-making skills by responding to and solving real-world problems and processes.


Association for Experiential Education.https://www.aee.org/

George Mason University. Center for Excellence in Teaching (2011).About Teaching: Experiential Learning. http://cte.gmu.edu/Teaching/experiental_learning.html

Haynes, C. (2007).Experiential learning: learning by doing.http://adulteducation.wikibook.us/index.php?title=Experiencial_Learning_-_Learning_by_Doing

Loreto, P. (2011).learning by experience. https://internships.about.com/od/internships101/p/TypesExperEd.htm

(Video) The Learning Experience Virtual Tour 2021 #NowEnrolling

Northern Illinois University, College of Business Center for Experimental Learning (2011) (ELC).https://www.cob.niu.edu/experiences/experiential-learning-center/index.shtml

Northern Illinois University, OSEEL Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning (2011).About the Office of Student Engagement and Experiential Learning (2011).https://www.niu.edu/teachercertification/teachercert/tcp_st.shtml

Northern Illinois University, Office of Teacher Certification OTC (2011).teach students. https://www.niu.edu/teachercertification/teachercert/tcp_st.shtml

Northern Illinois University, SAP Study Abroad Program (2011).A parent's guide to study abroad programs.https://www.niu.edu/studyabroad/audiences/parents.shtml

University of California Davis (UC Davis). (2011).Definitions of 5-Step Experiential Learning Cycles. https://www.experientiallearning.ucdavis.edu/module1/el1_40-5step-definitions.pdf

Wurdinger, S.D., & Carlson, J.A. (2010).Teaching experiential learning: five approaches that work.Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Featured Resources

International Consortium for Experiential Learninghttps://www.icel.org.uk

Experiential Education Magazine https://journals.sagepub.com/home/jee

National Society for Experiential Educationhttps://www.nsee.org

Neill, J. (2006).Experiential Education and Experiential Education: Philosophy, Theory, Practice and Resources.http://www.wilderdom.com/experiencial/

Council for Experimental and Adult Educationhttps://www.cael.org

Experiential Learning | Innovative Teaching and Learning Center | University of Northern Illinois (1)This work is licensed under aCreative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Suggested quotation

Northern Illinois University Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. (2012). Experiential Learning. at theTextbook for college professors and teaching assistants.Recovered fromhttps://www.niu.edu/citl/resources/guides/instructional-guide

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“Experiential [learning] is a philosophy and methodology in which educators purposefully engage with students in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, and clarify values” (Association for Experiential Education, para. 2).

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Our use of the Experiential Learning Cycle follows five steps Experience, Publishing, Processing, Generalizing, and Applying.

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This learning experience consists of four stages:
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  • Reflective Observation (RO): watching.
  • Abstract Conceptualization (AC): thinking.
  • Active Experimentation (AE): doing.

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The teacher's primary role in experiential learning is to create suitable learning experiences and facilitate the learning process, rather than direct instruction.

How do you use experiential learning in the classroom? ›

Experiential Learning is the process of learning by doing. By engaging students in hands-on experiences and reflection, they are better able to connect theories and knowledge learned in the classroom to real-world situations.

What is the difference between experimental learning and experiential learning? ›

As such, compared to experiential education, experiential learning is concerned with more concrete issues related to the learner and the learning context. Experimental learning is often used synonymously with practical or onsite learning.

What is the difference between academic learning and experiential learning? ›

They are “experiential” and “academic”. Experiential learning provides opportunities for immersive, hands-on learning through activities, work experience, projects, and problem solving. Traditional academic models use lectures and textbooks to teach course concepts and material.

Who benefits most from experiential learning? ›

What are the benefits of experiential learning?
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  • Students have the opportunity to be more creative. ...
  • Students have the opportunity to reflect. ...
  • Students' mistakes become valuable experiences. ...
  • Teachers often observe improved attitudes toward learning.

Why is Kolb's theory important? ›

Kolb's model highlights the importance of the reflection component in the learning cycle. Reflection allows the student to process what just happened during the experience. In the Reflective Observation stage students can both recount and evaluate their experience.

Why is Kolb's learning theory important? ›

Kolb's Experiential Learning Theory combines a four-stage learning cycle with four learning styles. It provides a powerful foundation for learning and development by describing the ideal processes where knowledge is created through experience.

How do you write experiential learning in a lesson plan? ›

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Disadvantages of Experiential Learning may include but are not limited to:
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  • Learning outcomes are not.

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Experiential learning is an engaged learning process whereby students “learn by doing” and by reflecting on the experience. Experiential learning activities can include, but are not limited to, hands-on laboratory experiments, practicums, field exercises, and studio performances.

What does experiential learning look like? ›

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“the strategic, active engagement of students in opportunities to learn through doing, and reflection on those activities, which empowers them to apply their theoretical knowledge to practical endeavours in a multitude of settings inside and outside of the classroom.”

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Experiential learning is the opposite of passive learning (such as rote learning).

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Even though experiential learning has shown to be a positive pedagogy there are also negative aspects that is associated to it. Bradford (2019) argued that even though the activities maybe highly structured and emergent there are ethical questions that emerges with experiential learning.

What learners can learn experiential learning? ›

Experiential learning is considered to be a progressive method of instruction that affords students an opportunity to generate a deeper understanding of lecture topics by working on course-related issues that, when resolved, benefit their local communities (Williams, 2016, p. 64).

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Here's why it is important for students to focus more on practical things than rote learning to make them future ready as per industry standards. Experiential learning classrooms help learners to grasp facts through real-life experiences and prepare them for the novel changing fields of work.

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About. John Dewey was the most famous proponent of hands-on learning or experiential education, which was discussed in his book Experience and Education (1938).

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Practical knowledge: Experiential learning offers practical knowledge instead of theoretical which helps in bridging the skill-gap that exists among the tech talent. The tech talent gets a first-hand experience of working on what is being taught and helps the talent understand and retain the concepts for long.

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The three elements of a learning design: learning tasks, resources and supports, and their interactions with each other.

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4) Unconscious Competence

You never forget how to do it.” The fourth stage of learning encompasses just that: you know it so well you don't even realize you are doing it. The skill is so embedded that the learner doesn't even need to process what they are doing.

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The stages of learning reflect how learners process and assimilate information:
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  • Stage 2: Reflective Observation (RO) processing information.
  • Stage 3: Abstract Conceptualization (AC) assimilating information.
  • Stage 4: Active Experimentation (AE)

What type of practice is best for a cognitive learner? ›

A cognitive stage learner will spend their time concentrating on closed skill activities. As they get better at the game, their coach may incorporate more open skills, increasing the difficulty and shifting their environment to a setting which includes themselves and other players or factors.

What are the 5 elements of teaching? ›

These five elements are:
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  • Attitudes.
  • Action.

What are the four critical elements of learning? ›

The Four Basic Elements of Adult Learning
  • Motivation.
  • Reinforcement.
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  • Transference.
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What are the 7 learning theories in education? ›

The major concepts and theories of learning include behaviourist theories, cognitive psychology, constructivism, social constructivism, experiential learning, multiple intelligence, and situated learning theory and community of practice.

What is Chomsky's main theory? ›

Chomsky's theory of language acquisition argues that human brain structures naturally allow for the capacity to learn and use languages. Chomsky believed that rules for language acquisition are innate (inborn) and strengthen naturally as humans grow and develop.

Which theory is best for language learning? ›

The most well-known theory about language acquisition is the nativist theory, which suggests that we are born with something in our genes that allows us to learn language.

What are the six theories of learning? ›

In this article, we describe six popular learning theories, e.g. cognitivism, connectivism, heutagogy, social learning, transformative learning theories and Vygotsky's zone of proximal development (ZPD), and their implications for online instruction.

What are the 4 behavioral categories? ›

All human behaviors can be categorized into four functions. These four functions are escape, attention, access to tangibles, and sensory. Note that these four behavior categories do not imply that these behaviors are "bad". These categories are labels for both positive and negative behavior actions.

What are 3 learned behaviors examples? ›

A learned behavior is something that you are taught or have learned to do. We do learn somethings from our parents but other things such as skateboarding we might learn by ourselves. Some examples are, playing an instrument, playing sports, style, cooking.


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6. Meet NIU Admissions Counselor Tedra Mewhirter
(Northern Illinois University)


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