Whilst much is debated about the importance of experiential learning in curriculum development, the concept only becomes effective if it is applied in an appropriate way. We believe that this effectiveness is directly related to a sound understanding of the theory, supporting the learning. The purpose of this article is to introduce readers to the theories underpinning experiential learning, which are then expanded further in an AMEE Guide, which considers the theoretical basis of experiential learning from a social learning, constructionist perspective and applies it to three stages of medical education: early workplace experience, clerkships and residency. This article argues for the importance and relevance of experiential learning and addresses questions that are commonly asked about it. First, we answer the questions 'what is experiential learning?' and 'how does it relate to social learning theory?' to orientate readers to the principles on which our arguments are based. Then, we consider why those ideas (theories) are relevant to educators--ranging from those with responsibilities for curriculum design to 'hands-on' teachers and workplace supervisors. The remainder of this article discusses how experiential learning theories and a socio-cultural perspective can be applied in practice. We hope that this will give readers a taste for our more detailed AMEE Guide and the further reading recommended at the end of it.