Getting started with experiential learning in your courses

This section provides information on student learning goals, competency models, roles of students and instructors, tips on getting started, potential challenges, and other resources. This content can spark ideas for those experienced in experiential learning and offer advice to those starting the process.


The first step is to determine what you want to achieve for your students in your experiential learning courses. As developed by the Steering Committee for Experiential Learning in the School of Humanities and Sciences, experiential learning of all kinds should present students with four goals:

  1. Integration (IT) of academic content students have learned in courses to date with experiential learning projects.
  2. Problem solving (PS) to empower students to learn how to handle and resolve challenges and pinpoint opportunities.
  3. Communication skills (CS) to enhance oral and written communication skills with a variety of audiences.
  4. Professional practice (PP) for students to conduct themselves responsibly and behave appropriately while undertaking real-world assignments.

Competency Models

The Steering Committee defined four framework competency models in experiential learning that may apply to other schools or departments. Each model applies to the learning goals stated above.

  • Community-based/service learning connects students with the community in multiple ways to apply their skills for such important causes as social justice, sustainability, or other current issues and needs facing the community.
  • Cultural immersion focuses on study abroad experiences where students become immersed in the culture and language of the new environment, thereby gaining intercultural skills and extending classroom learning to real-world engagements.
  • Professional practice, such as internships, teaching, course-based projects, or other projects, give students the opportunity to apply their coursework to real-world organizations, thereby honing their professional skills.
  • Undergraduate research allows students to apply their knowledge to research, whether collaborating with a professor, conducting research with the community, or analyzing archival data.

Roles of Professors and Students

Wurdinger & Carlson (2010) developed three roles for professors defined as follows:

  1. The teacher will act as a guide allowing students to make mistakes and learn from them along the way.
  2. Teachers will provide students with freedom to experiment in order to discover solutions to the problem they encounter.
  3. The teacher will provide students with resources and information when they get stuck so that they can continue moving forward with their learning. (p. 13)

In addition, Wurdinger & Carlson (2010) determined the following three roles for students:

  1. Students will be allowed freedom in the classroom as long as they are moving forward in the learning process.
  2. Students may need to undergo a series of trials and errors as they attempt to complete the assignment.
  3. Students should understand the problem-solving process becomes as important as the content being learned. (p. 13)

The main message is to avoid micromanagement of students; however, this does not mean a hands-off teaching approach. Nonetheless, the professors’ role still requires consistent involvement in mentoring students, staying in touch with collaborators, and keeping track of all work in progress. Students also need clear goals, directions, and a steady communication process with professors.

Tips on Getting Started

If your experiential learning projects have already been in place by other professors in your department, you will have an advantage in getting started. If not, you will need to start from scratch – and get in contact with other professors who have experience with similar experiential learning courses.

  • Plan ahead. Experiential learning requires coordination at least one semester before the course begins.
  • Determine your student leaning outcomes and how they will be measured. This process will help you develop the syllabus and course components.
  • Identify external collaborators as needed. Meet face to face, preferably, or in Zoom with stakeholders before the semester begins to answer questions and review the process. Communicate clearly with external people involved with the project. Set clear expectations, guidelines, and roles.
  • Investigate ways to make the experience meaningful beyond just a grade, but as a valued life experience. Thinks about ways that will make the students care about the learning experience for their person growth and exploration. Determine the deliverables throughout the semester, as well as for ongoing reflections or a final reflection. Consider accepting audio or video reflections instead of written submissions.
  • Determine the deadlines and approval processes throughout the semester. Ask yourself how involved you can be. For example, you could have students prepare brief weekly activity reports to keep track of their work. Work out time blocks exclusively for experiential learning course in your schedule.
  • Decide what type of feedback and sharing methods from external collaborators would be meaningful  to the students. Keep in mind that external collaborators may have limited time, so the process would need to be simple and consistent.
  • Explore any elements of risk, particularly if your experiential learning opportunity includes car or van rentals, international travel, or public venues. The Office of Risk Management & Insurance can be helpful to you.
  • Give students all resources they need to succeed with the project. In order to do so, you’ll need to find out the skills and experience level of each student. A student questionnaire right before the semester or during the first-class session can be useful to acquire this information. Some projects may require an interview process.
  • Assess the conclusion and results of experiential learning and share outcomes with students and other external collaborators. This process also will help you identify areas for change or improvement for future courses.

Potential Challenges

Here are a few potential challenges that faculty may encounter with experiential learning:

  • Time (or lack of it) can be a challenge, particularly if you are engaging in experiential learning in your classroom for the first time. The good news is that the process becomes easier after each semester. However, planning and coordinating experiential learning requires more time for faculty than putting together a regular course. New tenure-track faculty will need to examine their time seriously.
  • Financial resources also can be a challenge if you need to help cover expenses. Investigate possible grants/funding from your department, school, or collegewide for faculty and students before you offer the experiential learning course. The goal is to ensure that the funding is inclusive for all students involved. Keep in mind that the application process for funding entails additional time along with different deadlines. See the Awards and Grants section on the Faculty Hub.
  • Unexpected issues can arise. Your external collaborator for the project could leave the position, become frustrated with specific students, or dislike their collective output. Bring together the students involved in determining solutions as a part of the learning process. Deal with glitches quickly or they can become major problems.
References and Resources

As we develop our Great Ideas for Teaching and case studies, we recommend looking at the following online sources on specific topics. Also, look at our section on external resources.


Wurdinger, S. D., & Carlson, J. A. (2010). Teaching for Experiential Learning: Five Approaches That Work.      Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield Education.