Experiential Learning in Action

These days, everywhere you look at IC, you can find students using their classroom knowledge in real-world settings. These students struggle with the uncertainties that such situations present, closely guided by faculty members who, although available for advice and suggestions, do not hold all the cards or even know what the outcomes might be. This is experiential learning in action. 

The strategic plan for the School of Humanities and Sciences includes as one of its curriculum and pedagogy goals, “Encourage and make available experiential learning to all H&S students, including fieldwork, service learning, and student-faculty collaborative research and creative work; support innovative pedagogies, especially those fostering a student-centered learning environment.” At the August 2006 faculty forum, nearly 100 H&S faculty discussed and debated the topic of experiential learning with an eye to pushing this strategic goal ahead. The brainstorming at the meeting led to the establishment of an Experiential Learning Committee to more fully explore the shape and role of experiential learning in H&S.

During the 2006–7 academic year, the committee, composed of an assistant dean and faculty drawn from different disciplines, focused its efforts on developing a working definition that recognized the rich variety of learning experiences in H&S, and on identifying key features of effective experiential learning that transcended disciplinary and pedagogical differences. Combining reviews of the literature with interviews of faculty and administrators, the committee developed a framework for experiential learning in H&S. The framework defines experiential learning as “that which allows students to discover how theoretical knowledge gained in the classroom functions within a real-world environment.” Students are motivated to engage deeply in the learning process when they encounter the pressures, problems, risks, and unpredictability inherent in this type of environment; in turn, this engagement enhances students’ comprehension and retention of knowledge and pushes them to further develop reasoning, communication, cooperative working, goal-setting, and knowledge-integration skills. 

Just getting students out of the classroom does not produce effective learning, however. For effective learning to happen, experiences must be developed with certain characteristics, including consistent and ongoing faculty mentoring, opportunities for students to engage in active reflection on what and how they are learning, and expectations for students to put themselves and their work into a public context. 

Faculty describe this last characteristic as “getting out of your comfort zone” and indicate that it is what truly marks the difference between a classroom learning context, in which students produce work to be graded by a professor, and an experiential learning context, in which students produce work that will be evaluated and used by others. Despite these shared characteristics, experiential learning opportunities in H&S are as diverse as the disciplines and pedagogies that characterize its curriculum. 

Accordingly, the framework for experiential learning identified four different models for these types of offerings in H&S: cultural immersion, professional practice, research, and service learning/civic engagement (refer to the accompanying text for more information on each model). 

An online survey conducted of faculty in April 2007 helped the committee refine the framework for experiential learning and develop a snapshot of the variety of experiential learning activities that H&S faculty are already providing students. About 22 percent of the faculty responded to the survey; nearly all H&S departments were represented, with the most respondents coming from the social sciences. Respondents described 144 different courses, some of which have been offered multiple times, that corresponded to the four models. Most courses are at the intermediate and advanced levels. This finding is consistent with the definition of experiential learning offerings as those in which students are applying theories, knowledge, and skills they have already learned in the classroom. 

During the 2007–8 academic year, the committee kicked off a pilot project designed to further promote and encourage faculty to develop experiential learning opportunities for students, establishing a website with information about the work of the committee and sponsoring a series of panel presentations at which faculty engaged their colleagues in conversations about the different models. Panelists shared their insights about the rewards and challenges of working with students in this kind of format. These presentations served as a prelude to a call for proposals for curriculum enhancement grants, to support faculty wishing to expand and/or redesign a current course offering to incorporate effective experiential learning characteristics. In April, the committee announced seven awards to faculty who will be offering their refined courses during the 2008–9 academic year. 

The committee looks forward to exploring and promoting more experiential learning in the coming years. As one anonymous survey respondent indicated, “Experiential learning helps our students to become the kind of liberally educated people that we expect; people who are comfortable with uncertainty, who have the tools to figure things out, and who are able to see the connections between ideas and practice, between knowledge and action.”